For the second time in a three-year stretch, Texas officials spent the morning of college football’s national championship game unveiling a plan to reshape its program in efforts to return to the contest as a participant.
As the buzz built for Monday’s BCS title game in Pasadena, Calif., new coach Charlie Strong sat behind a dais on the ninth floor of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and explained how he planned to lead the Longhorns back to relevance on the national landscape.
Texas fans can only hope Strong’s plan has more staying power than the one laid out in 2011 by predecessor Mack Brown, who spent the morning before that championship game introducing what he billed as a pair of program-turning play-callers: Bryan Harsin and Manny Diaz.
Because neither coordinator lived up to Brown’s 2011 billing, Strong officially began work Monday as Brown’s successor following a four-year stint at Louisville that included a 37-15 record, capped by two Big East conference championships (2011, 2012) and a 23-3 mark over the past two seasons.
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Strong, 53, becomes the first African-American coach to oversee a men’s sports program at Texas. He said his first order of business is to build a program based on “physical and mental toughness” with minimal focus on recruiting services’ rankings of prospects.
“Let’s not get caught up in the five-stars. Let’s not get caught up in the four-stars. Let’s get caught up in the football players,” said Strong, whose predecessor earned the nickname “Coach February” for his heralded recruiting hauls but who struggled in recent years to translate that to on-field success.
Texas finished 30-21 in Brown’s last four seasons and did not win as much as a Big 12 title in that stretch after claiming a BCS national title in 2005 and competing for another in 2009.
Strong, a part of two national championship teams while serving as an assistant at Florida (2003-09), made it clear he is not bothered by perceptions he was not Texas’ first choice after months of speculation surfaced about boosters’ attempts to woo Alabama coach Nick Saban, among others.
“I could have been the 15th choice,” Strong said. “I’m just so glad to be the new coach. Whatever choice I was, I’m the head football coach.”
Strong agreed to a five-year contract, Texas athletic director Steve Patterson confirmed. Patterson said Strong’s salary “will be in the range” of $5 million annually, pending final approval from the school’s board of regents.
Although Strong downplayed the significance of becoming UT’s first black football coach, stressing that “I’m just a football coach,” university President Bill Powers called Strong’s hire a “very important moment” for the school.
“We’ve got the right football coach. All the things we were looking for are embodied in Charlie Strong,” Powers said. “It is important that we be a diverse university. We’re educating our students to be living in a diverse world. And in all aspects of what we do … it’s important that we reflect the diversity of our state and our country. So I think this is a very important moment for our university.”
Strong said he met Sunday with Brown and gave his predecessor a blanket invitation to be a regular at Texas practices. But Strong made it clear he will seek to eliminate the “soft” label that has been attached to the program based on Brown’s ability to win only two Big 12 titles in 16 seasons at the school despite highly ranked recruiting classes and some of the nation’s best facilities and highest-paid staffs.
“If you build toughness, you’ll get it right. The mentality is always going to be about physical and mental toughness,” Strong said. “The bricks are there. I just need to put another brick on top of it. Texas … it’s the top of the line. When you have an opportunity to go to the best, you have to put your name on it.”
Strong said he hopes to have his staff in place by Jan. 15, when coaches can resume face-to-face contact with prospects. He did not mention candidates but called it essential to have “some Texas ties” among staffers for recruiting purposes. He also vowed to run an up-tempo offense but with an emphasis on the ground game.
Strong paid homage to past Texas coaching legends, saying “chills ran through my body” when he met Royal and praising Brown for running a program with “class and integrity” that remains in good shape based on 19 returning starters from an 8-5 team.
In a statement released by school officials, Brown said he has known Strong for a long time and that Texas “not only hired a tremendous football coach but also a great man. Charlie’s a man of integrity and character. I wish him the best. He’s had success everywhere he’s been, and he will do a great job at Texas.”
Strong’s 40-minute introductory news conference, filled with references to physical and mental toughness, suggested the new coach has taken those words to heart.
Pressed about the historical significance of his hire, Strong acknowledged the college coaching landscape has “changed dramatically” for minority candidates in recent seasons.
“Everybody’s welcoming change. And they should,” Strong said. “A lot of times, people look at you being a minority. I’m just a football coach. I want to change young people’s lives, and that’s all I’m looking to do.”