Let’s get one thing straight.
The decision by the University of Texas to hire Charlie Strong was not about making history.
It was about winning football games, first, foremost and solely.
That is what big-time college football is about.
If it was about running a clean program, family and teaching kids to be men, Texas would have never forced Mack Brown out.
Brown led the Longhorns to the 2005 BCS national championship and had nine 10-win seasons in 16 years — all absent of scandal and controversy.
But he didn’t win enough over the last four years, going 30-21 after 2009, including an 18-17 mark in the Big 12, and was forced out, setting the stage for the groundbreaking hiring of Strong as the first black football head coach in school history.
Strong, who went 23-3 in the past two years at Louisville, was brought in to win — not make a statement about social change. And that’s how he will ultimately be judged.
But this is still America where race remains an issue.
And this is still Texas, which is still infamously known as the last school to field an all-white national championship team, in 1969.
And even when the Longhorns did start recruiting blacks, it was a slow and deliberate process — not unlike the Brooklyn Dodgers’ selection of Jackie Robinson to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier.
The first blacks to play at Texas, led by Julius Whittier in 1970, were from either integrated city schools or small towns.
The Longhorns didn’t recruit their first player from an all-black inner city school until Larry Ford showed up from Dallas South Oak Cliff in 1979.
Thus, the feelings in the black community of not really being wanted at Texas lasted for decades, likely up until quarterback Vince Young, a product of Houston Madison, hoisted the national championship trophy after the 2005 season.
And there are some old-school folk who will probably never let it go.
So the significance of Strong’s hire in a historical context can’t be ignored.
It certainly wasn’t lost on in Ivey Suber, who came to Texas in 1973 as a running back from Fort Worth Wyatt, which was then a majority white school but also an integrated school.
Suber was part of the first recruiting class at Texas that featured more than one black player. The class had a whopping four.
“When the word came out, I was shocked and excited,” Suber said of the Strong hiring. “My phone started ringing. This is huge. We needed something to change the culture and the whole perceptions of how black people see the University of Texas. There are still reservations in the community about UT. That move says a lot. I’m excited.”
Suber was not alone. Linebacker Lionell Johnson and former Fort Worth Trimble Tech star and future first-round draft pick Raymond Clayborn, who were both part of Suber’s class in 1973, were equally pumped. Yes, Trimble Tech was a majority white school then.
“It was one of elation,” Clayborn said of his initial thoughts of Strong’s hiring. “I never thought this would happen. I always wished we would have tried to be more diversified. It’s a different time. It’s the first time. He is a proven winner. I think he will have success. The sky is the limit.”
“I’m pleased and excited,” Johnson said. “Being the first black out-of-state football signee [from Winfield, La.], this is very special to me.”
Leon O’Neal was the first black player to receive a football scholarship to Texas in 1968. He stayed for one year before transferring to then Southwest Texas State in San Marcos but has remained an interested observer of Texas football.
“It really surprises me,” O’Neal said. “This is a milestone. I pray that Strong and UT have much success. It’s very timely. Things are changing for the better.”
To his credit, Strong has downplayed the social significance of his hire, though he is well aware of what it means to the community by putting it in context with Barack Obama’s being the first black U.S. president.
“When you think about it, yes, this is a historical day,” Strong said upon his hiring. “It was a historical day when [Obama] was named the president of the United States also. There’s always going to be a first somewhere, so this had to be the first. But I don’t ever want to look at it as the first. I just want to look at it as I’m a coach, and that’s the way I want to be treated.”
Strong will get the chance to win, to be treated as a coach and to change perceptions about Texas because of men such as Whittier, Clayborn, Johnson, Suber and O’Neal who came before him.
Now he just needs to win.
That’s the only reason he was hired in the first place.