Strong emerges as the anti-Mack in debut at Big 12 media days

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 23, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Texas

Coach: Charlie Strong (1st season)

2013 record: 8-5

Season opener: Aug. 30 vs. North Texas

Key issues: Strong said he brings an approach centered on mental and moral toughness. Quarterback David Ash was limited by injuries last season, playing in just three games. Running backs Malcolm Brown (936 yards) and Johnathan Gray (803 yards) return. Strong hopes he finds a playmaker at wide receiver. On defense, Strong said the line is one of the team’s strengths. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown had 12 tackles for loss and six quarterback pressures with six.

Tarrant area ties: Running back Johnathan Gray (Aledo) returns for his junior season after suffering an Achilles’ tendon injury in November.

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Along with some program-turning triumphs, former Texas football coach Mack Brown absorbed a few lopsided losses during his tenure in Austin.

But the folksy, affable Brown never “lost” a news conference at Big 12 media days.

In fact, Brown tossed out enough memorable sound bites through the years that he posted the equivalent of a 16-0 record when dealing with the media masses each July.

You would never make the case that Brown’s successor, first-year Longhorns coach Charlie Strong, “won” the room in his Tuesday debut in front of the assembled cameras and tape recorders.

Not when Strong had an oops moment while praising the high-profile coaching peers in his new league and said Kansas coach Charlie Weis was “getting going there at Kansas State.”

Although the word “State” was eliminated from the official transcripts distributed by Big 12 officials, it clearly passed through Strong’s lips.

Otherwise, the new coach on the block held his own, delivering a well-scripted message of toughness, togetherness and teamwork in a no-nonsense style that will be different for Longhorns fans this season.

Where Brown provided clever anecdotes and pithy quotes each July, Strong led with real news.

He named David Ash his starting quarterback and said running back Joe Bergeron will be “back in the mix” in fall drills after missing most of spring practice to focus on academics.

Strong also acknowledged banning at least four unnamed players from team activities at Texas’ workout facility, citing the edict as the latest example he will not tolerate players “not doing the little things” necessary to succeed in football and in life. The players are expected to return for fall drills but are doing special workouts with the team’s strength and conditioning coach.

“It’s pretty simple. Just do what you’re supposed to do,” Strong said of his expectations, which are listed as program core values inside Texas’ locker room, football offices and practice facilities. “If you’re part of a team and you can’t do what we ask of you, then you probably need to go start your own team. I tell them, ‘If you don’t want to be a part of this football team, break a core value.’ They understand.”

Where Brown often oversold his team’s talent to further his reputation as an elite recruiter, Strong showed Tuesday he will not play that game. Asked about his April comment that the Longhorns would not be national title contenders this season, Strong said he’s seen off-season improvement.

Just not enough. Yet.

“We’re not as bad as we used to be,” Strong said. “But we still have some work to do. I can’t say just how far off we are.”

Clearly, Strong has reviewed enough videotapes from last season to understand his desirable quarterback choices are limited to a healthy Ash or an uncomfortable Saturday spent praying for rapid development from an unproven Jerrod Heard or Tyrone Swoopes.

“I need Ash,” said Strong, who has counseled the oft-injured player to avoid big hits as much as possible this season.

What Strong does not need is reminders of how Brown used to do it, whether that involves working a room or averaging 10 wins per season for more than a decade.

“Mack Brown is a Hall of Famer,” Strong said. “We have two different personalities. I will do it my way, but I can also lean on him.”

Will Strong’s way work in Austin?

It will in the estimation of Gil Brandt, former Dallas Cowboys vice-president of player personnel who has known Strong since the 1980s. Brandt, now an analyst for NFL.com, recalled a past co-worker who also lacked Brown’s gift of gab.

“A lot of people didn’t think that coach [Tom] Landry was the greatest person to converse with. But he won two Super Bowls and was one of the greatest coaches of all time,” Brandt said, reflecting on the Cowboys’ coach from 1960-88. “Charlie is more reserved than Mack. He’s no-nonsense. Charlie knows where he wants to go and knows how to get there.

“I think the surprise this year will be that they win more games than people think. If you talk to a lot of people on the street, they’re probably a .500 team.”

Brandt envisions better, as long as Ash remains healthy.

Strong stressed that his primary charge for players will be daily improvement, a far cry from Brown’s annual goal to “win all the games.”

Rest assured, things will be different in Austin this season. But a couple of peers view Strong as a good long-term fit at Texas. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called Strong “a great coach and an excellent person” before cutting short the compliments.

“I have to be careful,” Stoops said. “I can’t wish him too much luck.”

Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said: “The important thing is to be who you are and care about people. Charlie cares about people. I think things will work out fine for him.”

Whatever happens, Texas’ first season of the Strong era definitely will unfold in a much different manner than it did under Mack Brown.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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