When Charlie Strong was hired as the new head coach of the Texas Longhorns, he promised to bring changes to Austin. The University of Texas had lost its luster in the waning years of the Mack Brown era and was no longer the preeminent program in their own state, surpassed by the rival Texas A&M Aggies in the SEC and even the defending Big 12 champion Baylor Bears. Strong was hired to rejuvenate the culture and restore UT to their place of prominence in college football. While it may be early, the culture change is already paying dividends.
While Brown will go down as one of the more successful coaches in the history of Longhorn football, winning a national championship in 2005, his legacy will undoubtedly be tarnished by the four straight sub-par years to close out his tenure. The team fell into the middle of the pack in the Big 12 after getting accustomed to ruling the conference with an iron fist. High-profile recruits were still coming in but they failed to develop into difference-makers on the field, leading to the school being shut out in the 2014 NFL Draft with zero Texas players selected for the first time since 1937. For all his experience and accolades, Brown’s message had become stale and players were going through the motions with what their new head coach deemed a “sense of entitlement.”
And that was the kind of thing that would not fly under Strong. After building a successful and hard-nosed program with the Louisville Cardinals, Strong came to Texas with a pledge to get rid of the entitlement and put together a tougher, more rugged team that would impose their will on opponents and take back their status as THE team in the state of Texas. Strong wasted no time cleaning house, getting rid of players that were not up to the standards of the program. In all, Strong tossed six players off the team and reinstated one after initially dismissing safety Josh Turner. Difference-makers like Joe Bergeron, Jalen Overstreet, Chevoski Collins, Daje Johnson, and Desmond Harrison were shown the door when they proved unwilling to conform to the “core values” that Strong was instilling in the program.
On top of trimming the roster of guys who were not going to help turn things around, Strong made other sweeping changes to the way this Texas team operates. He took the decals off helmets to start fall camp until players earned the Longhorn decal. Upperclassmen were moved back onto campus to corral some of the shenanigans that can take place in off-campus housing. Instead of taking a bus to practice, the team walked. And on game day, players showed up in jackets and ties, looking ready to handle their business.
The result was a roster that looked a bit thin in key spots but was filled out by players who were willing to buy in to Strong’s philosophy. That meant the players who were just happy to be at Texas were swept away and the players who were dedicated to making their time on the Forty Acres mean something stepped up into leadership roles for 2014. As senior cornerback Quandre Diggs told reporters at Big 12 Media Days: “…we had guys that just didn’t love football the way they should,” and there just isn’t room for those types of players in what Diggs coined “New Texas.”
As everyone saw in Week 1, the results were immediately tangible. After giving up an average of 407.2 yards per game in 2013, the Texas defense showed up and shut down the North Texas Mean Green in their 38-7 win. They allowed just 94 yards of total offense, including 15 yards on 3-of-17 combined passing from North Texas quarterbacks Josh Greer and Andrew McNulty, with four interceptions. The defensive line dominated a veteran Mean Green offensive line, allowing just 1.8 yards per rush and generating four sacks. They were also able to keep the North Texas offense off the scoreboard with the Mean Green’s lone touchdown coming on a fumble recovery in the endzone in the fourth quarter.
Offensively, Texas employed a smash-mouth style that asked the offensive line to dominate in the trenches and lead the way for running backs Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown to grind the game away. The backfield duo combined for 147 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 29 carries as Texas finished the game with 354 yards of total offense and over 32 minutes of possession. The running game also helped open up some big plays through the air with John Harris finishing the game with seven receptions for 110 yards and a touchdown. In short, they physically dominated in every phase of the game and imposed their will like the best team in Texas should.
But for those who remain skeptical because of the opponent, don’t get this win confused with last season’s 56-7 season-opening blowout of the New Mexico State Aggies (which was followed up by disappointing losses to the BYU Cougars and Ole Miss Rebels). New Mexico State was a dreadful 2-10 team in 2013 who got blown out by just about everyone. North Texas, on the other hand, was a nine-win team last season, including a Heart of Dallas Bowl win over the UNLV Rebels, who scored 21 points or more in all but one game last season. The Mean Green, a program on the rise in college football which expected to compete for the Conference USA title this fall, ran into a focused Texas team that took care of business like a vintage Longhorns’ roster.
That has been the goal of Strong since the day he was hired; “putting the ‘T’ back in Texas,” as he puts it.
From Day 1, Strong has made no apologies for his no-nonsense approach to shaping this team for 2014 and the program beyond that. He wasted no time in shaking his players from the comfort zones which led to their complacency in recent seasons and will continue to push them to do things the right way moving forward.
While this weekend’s revenge game against BYU will be a better test of where this Texas team is, there is no question that Strong’s culture shift on the Forty Acres is already paying dividends.