What follows is a sort of appendix to a piece we ran last Thursday that theorized that UT football coach Charlie Strong is being targeted for an ouster by big money donors. We compared Mack Brown’s handoff to Strong with another passing of the buck—Darrell Royal and Fred Akers, which eventually ended with Akers being fired when he couldn’t measure up to the legendary coach.
The biggest difference between Akers and Strong, however, is that Akers was left with an arsenal at his disposal. Strong, meanwhile, had the football equivalent of the island of misfit toys. To further illustrate our point, here’s an analysis of the last six coaching changes and the talent each coach left the next, and what those coaches were able to accomplish in their first few years.
The tl;dr version? Mack Brown was left with as much talent as any coach since Fred Akers, while he left behind less than any coach over that same time. And with that in mind, it’s hard to blame Strong for a rocky start.
When Fred Akers took over from Darrell Royal, the Longhorn larder was generously stocked with Royal’s recruits:
- The offense included a Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Famer in Earl Campbell, indisputably one of the five greatest Longhorns of all time.
- An Outland Trophy winner in Brad Shearer.
- A two-time All-American and future NFL All-pro safety Johnnie Johnson.
- A two-time All-American and future NFL number two overall draft pick wide receiver in lightning-fast Johnny “Lam” Jones, complemented by Alfred Jackson, who would catch passes in the NFL for seven seasons.
- Three-time All-American punter and kicker Russell Erxleben, co-owner of the NCAA record for longest field goal at 67 yards.
- A two-time All-American, two-time Pro Bowler and eventual Super Bowl champion in defensive tackle Steve “Bam Bam” McMichael, also a possible starter on an all-time Longhorn team.
- Defensive back Ricky Churchman, who would win a Super Bowl ring with the San Francisco 49ers.
- And Glenn Blackwood, who alongside his brother Lyle would go on to anchor the back of the Miami Dolphins “Killer B’s” defense. (The “Bruise Brothers.” Remember?)
So. Small wonder that Akers was competing for a National Championship in his first year, or that his teams went 29-7 in his first three, and that the momentum from that could propel him to contend again in 1983.
In taking over from Akers in 1987, David McWilliams had a tougher row to hoe. Akers left him only:
- All-American and future nine-year pro safety Stanley Richard.
- Linebacker Britt Hager, UT’s all-time leading tackler and a future nine-year pro and a guy in the debate for the middle linebacking spot on the all-time team (as one of Tommy Nobis’s back-up, of course.)
- A future NFL first-round draft pick in offensive tackle Stan Thomas.
- Mighty-mite return man and wide receiver Tony Jones, who despite standing 5’7 and weighing 137 pounds survived five NFL seasons.
- Three-year NFL safety John Hagy, equally as intimidating as Hager.
- And, oh yeah, Eric Metcalf, one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in UT history, Texas’s own answer to Reggie Bush (albeit one stranded on bad teams with worse quarterbacks), and all-time TD leader among NFL punt returners.
Not exactly the juggernaut Royal bequeathed, but not a clapped-out jalopy, either. McWilliams went 11-12 in his first two seasons in Austin, and somehow managed to keep his job after going 5-6 in his third. Those three dismal campaigns included regular pastings by UH (by scores like 60-40, 47-9, and 66-15), a 47-6 loss to BYU, and a 44-9 whooping at the hands of Oklahoma. In the last two games of his third year, McWilliams’s Horns lost 21-10 to A&M and 50-7 Baylor, a historic blow-out on multiple levels: the Bears’ first win in Austin since 1951, and the most points they scored and the greatest margin of victory in the series which began in 1901.
His teams went 3-6 against the Horns trio of hated rivals in that span (you young ‘uns might not remember Arkansas once ranked up there with OU and A&M), and yet McWilliams was survived for a fourth, somewhat glorious year. That “Shock the Nation” season did not end well—a merciless 46-3 drubbing at the hands of Miami in a Cotton Bowl as cold as coach Dennis Erickson’s heart. And that was it: A second five-win season followed that beatdown, leading to McWilliams falling on his sword.
And so ended the Great Restoration of the Royal Regime, not with the bang of Smokey the Cannon but with the whimper of yet another in a long line of pulverizings by Jackie Sherrill’s Aggies, and that was all she wrote for David McWilliams.
As is so often the case with desperate sports programs, the Horns athletic department sought good ol’ boy McWilliams’s polar opposite and found it in dour John Mackovic, a former NFL coach and offensive mastermind who would bring Texas football out of the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust old days once and for all.
Let’s see what weapons McWilliams left for that wine-sipping Yankee John Mackovic to array:
- Blake Brockermeyer, an All-American tackle who went on to a solid journeyman NFL career.
- Peter Gardere, a great college QB.
- Lance Gunn and Van Malone, two DBs who went on to marginal NFL careers.
- Huge linebacker Winfred Tubbs, who played seven years in the NFL and made a Pro Bowl once.
Given that scarcity of talent, it’s hardly surprising that Mackovic’s first two seasons look a lot like those of McWilliams and Strong. McWilliams went 11-11, Mackovic went 11-11, and Strong has gone 11-14.
On the other hand, here is what Mackovic left Mack Brown (you’ve heard of him, right?):
- The Heisman Trophy winner in Ricky Williams, another top five or ten Longhorn of all time, and one who got to run behind three first- or second-team All Big 12 linemen.
- A pair of NFL defensive tackles in Shaun Rogers and Casey Hampton, the latter a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, five-time Pro Bowler, and anchor to a Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steeler defense. Hampton is in the debate as the greatest nose tackle in Longhorn history,
- Major Applewhite, an elite college QB, one trailing only Colt McCoy, Vince Young and Bobby Layne in Longhorn annals.
- Two future All Big 12 receivers in Kwame Cavil, the future all-time leading Longhorn single-season pass-catcher, and Wane McGarity, another record-setter.
- Mammoth Leonard Davis, a future first-round draft pick and All-American offensive tackle who played 12 seasons in the NFL, including three as a Pro Bowler.
- Quentin Jammer, a future first-round draft pick and All-American cornerback, and member of the San Diego Chargers All 50th Anniversary team.
- D.D. Lewis, a decent NFL linebacker and one of the best LBs Texas has had since the early 1980s. (To his credit, Brown moved him there from running back.)
- Hodges Mitchell, still one of UT’s top ten leading rushers.
That looks more like the trove Royal left Akers than the meager fare Akers left McWilliams, or that McWilliams left Mackovic, so again, it’s hardly shocking that he was able to go 18-8 in his first two seasons, especially since he supplemented that inheritance with top-notch recruits. In fact, you might have expected him to have done more with all that in the years that followed, especially had he not rushed Chris Simms into the starting line-up ahead of Major Applewhite.
Yes, Mack deserves a lot of credit for turning the program around after the catastrophe that was Mackovic’s last season, but he had a ton of help from Mackovic’s guys, and that was a huge break he did not reciprocate when Bevo’s lead rope was pried from his hands and handed over to Charlie Strong:
Here are the precious few assets Mack left behind:
- All-American defensive tackle Malcom Brown and injury-prone linebacker Jordan Hicks, the leaders of last year’s Longhorn defense and two guys who look like solid-to-great pros. Although both are very good players, neither was an all-time Texas great.
- Mykkele Thompson and Quandre Diggs, two defensive backs who look marginal-to-solid in the NFL.
- And, uh, Geoff Swaim, a tight end who caught one pass for 0 yards for the Cowboys.
- Defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, who will likely get drafted when he makes himself available this year or next.
- And that’s pretty much it, aside from a few guys who might get invited to try out for NFL teams, like Duke Thomas, Daje Johnson, and Peter Jinkens.
And now, the things Mack got to enjoy that he did not leave behind for Charlie.
- A Heisman winner, and Outland winner, or contenders for the mythical all-time Texas team.
- A capable and/or experienced back-up to concussion-cursed quarterback David Ash, whose service Strong barely got to employ. (See Simms / Applewhite Controversy Aversion Plan alluded to above.)
- A team reasonably free of entitled head cases. Strong booted from the team nine of Mack’s guys who could not adhere to Strong’s fairly basic “core values.” Some fault Strong for that, but none of those detractors have been able to point out a single one of these players who is now excelling elsewhere. Today, all are either out of football or buried on depth charts, and it seems unlikely than any would have made a difference in helping Texas win more games, this year or last.
- Any semblance of a decent offensive line. Mackovic left a stable of college-level studs behind. Mack left almost nothing. After center Dom Espinosa went down for the season last year, and Strong purged a few other linemen, the Longhorns had precious little to work with. This year two true freshmen (Patrick Vahe and Connor Williams) were pressed into emergency service and by virtually all accounts were the squad’s best linemen. (Under Mack’s watch, no Longhorn offensive lineman has been drafted since George W. Bush was president, and that won’t change until Strong recruits Vahe and Williams go pro.)
- Talent in general. Mack’s last half-dozen or so recruiting classes have been disasters. For the first time since 1938, no Longhorn was selected in the 2014 NFL draft. Over the last four years, Texas has seen only 11 of its players selected, while Strong’s old Louisville team saw ten picked in 2015 alone. And after last year’s five Longhorn selections (all but Hicks and Brown middle-to-low range), the prospect ahead looks grim, at least until Strong’s recruits become eligible in a couple of years.
And yet some expect Charlie Strong to have won and won big this year and last. And if he can’t do it, so this line of thinking goes, some other coach can.