NORMAN — Texas can’t help being Texas.
Whether it’s stumbling over the exit of UT icons like Mack Brown, Rick Barnes or Augie Garrido, or bumbling through the final days of an underachiever like Charlie Strong, the Longhorns can hardly get out of their own way.
“We’re by God Texas,” they say, as though wearing burnt orange and sporting long horns somehow grants higher authority over treating dignified men and beloved coaches with the kind of grace and nobility that should be intrinsic in one of America’s strongholds of higher education and forward thinking.
How best to handle Strong’s dismissal after an unthinkable loss at Kansas?
Simple: Call the man in on Sunday morning, break news of the inevitable — that he won’t be keeping his job, but he will be allowed to finish the season — and then quote him extensively in a Sunday afternoon press release, letting him 1) express how deeply he appreciates his time at Texas, 2) advocate for the greatness of UT football, 3) endorse the administration in its search and 4) espouse a deep, abiding love for his players.
And make it clear in the press release that Strong will conduct business as usual this week — a press conference on Monday, a game on Saturday and all head-coach duties in between — before the search for a replacement begins in earnest.
Instead, freshman president Greg Fenves and rookie athletic director Mike Perrin went about stating through non-statements that said nothing was out of the ordinary, that this week indeed would be “business as usual,” according to a school spokesman quoted in the Austin American-Statesman, and that Strong would be evaluated after this week’s TCU game. And then Monday, amid multiple reports citing multiple unnamed sources, Strong — buoyed by the support of Longhorns both past and present — twisted in the wind at his own press conference.
“Next year, I want to come back,” Strong said. “I look at the job this staff has done and look at the players they’ve put in place. The wins and losses, they don’t stack up, but still, you’re looking at a young football team, a team that when you get everything back in place for the coming year has a lot of talent.”
He even said he believes these Texas players will win the national championship next season.
Despite Strong’s desire to return to The Forty Acres, he will finish the Texas portion of his coaching career with the worst winning percentage of any of the Longhorns’ 22 football coaches. This can’t be absolved or reconciled. Not at a college football citadel like Texas.
It’s widely held that with Texas’ strength comes strength for the Big 12 Conference. That certainly holds true when the College Football Playoff selection committee is trying to fill out a bracket and the teams under consideration are backed by a rich pedigree and millions of fans (aka Brand Recognition).
It’s also true at the negotiation table when the league and its television partners are mulling over their arrangement. (Don’t underestimate the appetite of the Texas fan base, which helped build college football’s biggest television audience of 2016 with 10.945 million viewers against Notre Dame — a standard set in Week 1 and still untouched through Week 12.)
Under Strong, Texas was weak — never weaker, actually. And a weak Texas weakens the whole Big 12.
Strong will walk away from his time at Texas a different person. Losing changes a man. Being fired changes a man. Being laid bare and left to wither in indignity by one’s own employer certainly changes a man. (It helps that he’ll get all the $10.7 million remaining on his contract.)
I asked Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops for his input on the situation going on with his program’s greatest rival. He declined to speculate on Strong’s job status, but expounded on Strong’s character.
“I’ve always had great respect for Charlie,” Stoops said. “I’ve known him a long time and he’s an excellent coach. Whatever happens with him, he’ll do well.”
The same might not be said for Texas.
There will come many a man who feels he can succeed at one of college football’s most demanding and most rewarding posts. But will the coach that Texas really wants — whether that’s Houston’s Tom Herman or Alabama’s Nick Saban or Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher or Penn State’s James Franklin or any one of a half dozen others — really want to come to Austin with all this dysfunction in the UT administration?
By God Texas, indeed.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.