In Defense of Charlie Strong
Charlie Strong doesn’t deserve to be fired. Yet.
Has there ever been more cognitive dissonance surrounding the Texas Longhorns football program than there is right now? UT’s upset over the undefeated, eighth-ranked Baylor on Saturday put that split mind on open display. In some circles of the burnt orange internet, the victory was greeted with as much rage and dismay as jubilation. Some Longhorns fans weren’t satisfied with the win, and proceeded to make the case for why both Baylor was overrated and UT was still underperforming. The pessimistic line of thinking boils down to this: If Charlie Strong keeps winning big games he might get to keep coaching, but he has already demonstrated that he is not up to the job.
Even more surreal has been the Strong-haters’ reaction to the month-long sleepwalk of University of Houston coach Tom Herman, who has been their designated coach-in-waiting since late last season. Despite two upset losses sandwiched around squeakers against Tulsa and Central Florida, some still believe the man can do no wrong.
There’s no small amount of mental gymnastics involved in this. After the loss to Navy (and their second-string quarterback) it looked something like this: Triple-option teams are really tough to defend. Greg Ward Jr. was dinged up. UH had injuries on defense. It rained. And this actually good for us: since UH won’t be in the playoff, UT can hire him sooner!
After getting rolled by SMU?: Well, after that Navy loss, his team realized they wouldn’t be going to the playoff, so they had nothing to play for. Plus, they were snubbed by the Big 12, and they all know their coach is headed to UT, but only if we get him before USC or LSU does! Fire Charlie now before he gets away! And this is actually good for us! Now we won’t have to pay him as much!
At this rate, the Hermanites would love it if both the Longhorns and the Cougars failed to make bowls, all so Strong could be fired and Herman be installed in his place in December instead of January. That’s how certain a significant and vocal number of Longhorn fans are that Herman is the guy and Strong is not. To those of this mind, the Horns only win because of superior talent and in spite of their coaching, while the plucky Coogs take down Goliaths like Oklahoma and Florida State solely because of the Mensa mind tricks of Tom Herman.
In this way of thinking, Strong and Herman both inherited equal 8-5 programs. Strong drove the Longhorns into a ditch, while Herman had the Cougars in national title talk at the beginning of this season, therefore Herman is obviously the better coach. And no, Herman’s horrible month has done nothing to tamp down those rumors.
But let’s step back some and examine this whole thing with a little more objectivity. Early in October, before UT’s upset of Baylor and UH’s loss to SMU, Pete Fiutak laid Strong’s pre-Texas resume alongside Herman’s then-current one:
– Won 14 of his last 15 games with a powerhouse of a team that he spent four years building up himself.
– The one loss came to a team led by an NFL franchise-building block quarterback that finished the year 12-1 with a BCS-level bowl win.
– During the stretch, the two-time conference coach of the year’s team won a BCS-level bowl game over a tremendous team from Florida that came really, really close to playing for the national title, and it won another big bowl game against another good team from Florida. Both bowl wins were by double digits.
– Along the way were three wins over Power 5 conference teams. In his final season, his team was No. 1 in the nation in total defense, No. 1 in rushing defense, No. 3 in passing efficiency, and No. 2 in turnover margin.
– Won 18 of his first 19 games as a head coach with, mostly, someone else’s players.
– The one loss came to a mediocre team that finished with a losing record.
– During the stretch, Coach B’s bowl win came against a team from Florida that was very good, but not quite the killer it was supposed to be. However, this year it came up with a dominant performance over a preseason top five team.
– Along the way there were four wins over Power 5 conference teams. In his breakthrough year, his team finished 53rd in the nation in total defense, 115th in pass defense, and 29th in the nation in total offense.
So, really, based on resume, why is Coach B Tom Herman seen as a slam-dunk, superstar genius, next-level head coach, while Coach A Charlie Strong didn’t get the same love when he was brought on?
Really, when it comes to getting one of the biggest and best jobs like Texas, what has Herman really done to deserve this level of hype?
If Texas felt it had no option but to fire Strong, Fiutak went on, replacing him with Herman was setting the bar way too low. Only the likes of slam-dunk hires like Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh, Urban Meyer, Chris Petersen, or Bobby Petrino would do. The first four of those guys are quite happy where they are, and Texas would sooner sell the Tower to real estate developers before it would hire the ethically challenged Petrino. (For the same reason, don’t expect any overtures to Chip Kelly or Art Briles, whose name turns up surprisingly often on the wish lists of aggrieved Longhorn fans.)
Petrino is winning at Louisville at least in part with Charlie Strong’s players—look at all these seniors and redshirt juniors surrounding Petrino’s all-world quarterback recruit Lamar Jackson on the Cardinal depth chart. Which brings up a point: elite quarterback play is everything. Herman has had it at UH with Greg Ward Jr. The only blemish on his team’s record last year—that loss at UConn—came when Ward was unable to play, so Herman is 0-1 without his star QB.
Strong had to do without David Ash for all but one meaningless game of two entire seasons. Does anybody really think that Strong would be sitting on a sub-.500 record if he had an all-Big 12 level guy distributing the ball instead of Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard? Does Texas lose those one-score games to OU and UCLA in 2014, or Cal, Oklahoma State, and Tech last year, or get shut out by Kansas State and Iowa State with Ash? And what would Herman’s record look like if he had to trot Swoopes and Heard out there, even against the weaker competition of the AAC? Three of Houston’s wine last season came by a field goal or less. Does he win all of those without Ward?
You can go on and on with this quarterback angle. Cam Newton made a genius of Gene Chizik. Jimbo Fisher has been pedestrian without Jameis Winston. And how much sooner would the Mack Brown era have ended without Vince Young and Colt McCoy?
Now that Shane Buechele is under center for the Longhorns, the offense is ticking over nicely. Meanwhile, the defense has regressed horribly. Tackling has been poor. Guys have blown assignments. But here’s the thing: the defense is young, with as many as eight sophomores starting, and those are exactly the kinds of mistakes young players make. I can recall times when Michael Huff, Michael Griffin, Cedric Griffin, and Aaron Ross (pretty much every stud defensive back in the Mack Brown era not named Earl Thomas) were beaten deep, picked on by opposing quarterbacks, and regarded as busts when they were underclassmen. A bunch of those guys all matured at the same time, and UT had the defense it needed to complement Young.
Think back to 2014, when the upperclassmen talent was there. Led by defensive tackle Malcom Brown, linebacker Jordan Hicks and defensive backs Quandre Diggs and Mykkele Thompson, the 2014 Longhorns defense was at or near the top of the conference in most metrics. Since then, the upperclassmen talent just hasn’t been there.
All of that is why a common anti-Strong comparison to Michigan’s coach Jim Harbaugh is unfair. Let’s compare Michigan’s depth chart to UT’s. The Wolverine’s offense starts five fifth-year seniors, four true seniors, one true freshman, and a junior quarterback. All three of the maize and blue’s defensive linemen are redshirt seniors, and every other starter on defense is a senior except for one redshirt junior. So not one starter on the Michigan defense has anything less than four years in the program.
The Texas offense rolls out three seniors (none of them redshirts), two redshirt juniors, two juniors, three sophomores and a true freshman quarterback. The Texas defense has a grand total of five seniors (redshirt or otherwise) on its two-deep. Only one of them, and two more juniors, are starters. The other eight are sophomores.
Clearly, Brady Hoke left Michigan in much better shape than Mack Brown left Texas. And it’s obvious that this defense will only get better as more of them approach drinking age. Strong recently said that next year’s Longhorns will win ten games next year no matter who is on the sideline, and he’s probably right.
If the Longhorns win seven with such a young squad and Strong got canned anyway, what coach would want to try to take his place? Candidates would see Austin as a viper’s nest of unrealistic expectations. Coaches know what an almost unprecedentedly dismal smoking crater of a program Brown left behind, and how long it takes to rebuild. Coaches also undoubtedly understand what a great eye for talent, gift for recruiting, and ability to develop NFL players Strong has demonstrated.
Yes, those candidates would be inheriting a better program than the one Strong had to cope with, but who is to say that anyone else (aside from Saban and Meyer) would be a near-certain bet to exceed Strong’s ability to steer that ship? Is Texas really going to eat Strong’s $10 million buy-out to take an eight-figure flyer on the thin and ever-diminishing resume Tom Herman brings from Houston, just to see if he can win with yet another coach’s star QB and other recruits? Not likely if Strong wins three of the last four. About 50-50 if he wins half plus the bowl game. And no chance at all if the Horns win out.