During a quiet stretch following spring drills, Texas football coach Charlie Strong sequestered himself in his office and pieced together some must-watch videos for his players.
Before leaving for the summer, each Longhorn dropped by the new coach’s office for a one-on-one session to view his personal “highlight” reel with Strong. Each tape included 10 to 25 plays from the 2013 season, none of them flattering to the player under the microscope.
“I put the tape on and said, ‘If this is who you are, I need to know right now, so it’s no shock to me when we start fall camp.’ And I just let the tape run,” Strong said. “I’d say, ‘Is that you or is that somebody wearing your number? It can’t be you.’ I wanted everyone to see they can play much better and play much harder.”
Safety Mykkele Thompson, a senior and team leader, said returnees from last year’s 8-5 squad received Strong’s message loud and clear. The personal touch, Thompson said, proved eye-opening to a roster loaded with blue-chip recruits.
“That was really brutal,” Thompson said. “It was intense. That just made me hungry personally to get better and show what kind of player I believe I am.”
The Longhorns get their first opportunity to show what kind of players they will be under Strong in Saturday’s season opener against North Texas at 7 p.m. at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
In turn, Strong gets his first opportunity to make a game-day impression on Texas fans after an off-season filled with seven player dismissals, three suspensions of projected starters and lots of talk about proper core values and improved discipline within the Longhorns’ locker room.
By now, players have learned that Strong — a quiet, focused man who begins each morning with a 4 a.m. wake-up call and a 5-mile run — is willing to push them every bit as hard as he pushes himself in efforts to jump-start a program that became stagnant under predecessor Mack Brown, posting an 18-17 record in Big 12 play (30-21 overall) the last four seasons.
“He’s played some mind games with us. But he’s got a reason for everything he does,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “That’s to bring us together to work as hard as possible so that the games seem as easy as possible.”
Fierce work ethic
Strong, 54, has leaned on 18-hour work days and a no-nonsense approach to climb the college coaching ladder for 31 seasons. He honed his work ethic early, as one of 13 children raised by his mother (Delois Ramey) and aunt (Cardia Ramey) in Batesville, Ark. (pop. 10,427). The Ramey sisters cleaned houses to make ends meet in a home with no running water and a chicken coop in the back yard.
As a youth, Strong earned money by doing yard work for neighbors and by helping at his uncle’s gas station. Most of what he received went toward putting food on the family table. Along with the part-time jobs as a teen, Strong sang in the church choir, played defensive back and was a sprinter on the track team.
As Strong prepares for his 32nd season as a college coach, co-workers cite the same cut-no-corners approach of his youth as part of his recipe for restoring the Longhorns’ brand. Texas running backs coach Tommie Robinson, whose 29-year career has included stops with TCU (1994-97), the Dallas Cowboys (1998-2000) and other college and NFL teams, pointed to the burly Strong’s willingness to make a point by joining players in the weight room or in post-practice wind sprints.
“I don’t know if there’s anybody on our team that can out-bench-press him,” Robinson said. “He’s in great shape and he gets after the guys when he’s lifting or running with them. He’ll ask, ‘Why are you letting me outwork you? That shouldn’t happen.’ The kids respect that. He brings a different flavor. And that flavor, the kids buy into it.”
Eventually, Texas bought in to the tune of $26 million over five seasons. That contract made Strong the first African-American head coach of any men’s program at Texas. He comes to Texas after four years at Louisville, where he fashioned a 23-3 record the past two seasons.
But until landing the Louisville job in 2010, Strong questioned if his unique credentials (black coach, white wife, interracial daughters, career assistant) would translate to the big office at a Division I program. He spent 27 seasons as an assistant coach, including four separate stints at Florida, before taking over the Cardinals’ program.
“At one time, I thought that I would never get a shot,” Strong said. “But what I did say to myself was, ‘I’m going to continue to do the job I’m doing because, if there’s another African-American that comes along, if I do my job, maybe he’ll get the opportunity that I didn’t get.’ So I was just driven by that.”
In January, Texas beckoned. Now, Strong works in an office with a framed quote from Nelson Mandela on his desk and a framed photo of Strong with Muhammad Ali on the wall. The boxing legend, a Louisville native, befriended Strong at his former job.
A long list of former bosses with stellar credentials vouch for Strong, who played at Central Arkansas and made stops at Texas A&M (1985), Southern Illinois (1986-87), Ole Miss (1990), Notre Dame (1995-98) and South Carolina (1999-2002) in addition to his seasons on staffs at Florida.
Strong counts Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer among his primary mentors. Holtz said Strong is a rare commodity because he can relate to the modern athlete but “would have fit in just fine” if he had worked for Ohio State’s Woody Hayes in the 1960s.
Gil Brandt, former Dallas Cowboys’ vice president of player personnel (1960-88) and an analyst for NFL.com, has known Strong for three decades. He described him as “a no-nonsense guy who knows where he wants to go and knows how to get there. But he’s pretty reserved. He’s a guy from Arkansas.”
Reminded that Jerry Jones, the Cowboys’ flamboyant owner, also is a guy from Arkansas, Brandt smiled.
“That means there’s exceptions,” Brandt said.
For much of his career, Strong — the ever-patient assistant who won two national championships as a Florida defensive coordinator (2006, 2008) — has been the exception. When high-profile jobs opened, he was the notable name who never landed the big promotion.
But as the head coach at Texas, he now oversees the football program at the school with the nation’s largest athletics budget. Earlier this week, Strong reflected on memories from his introductory news conference and acknowledged the internal buzz is building for Saturday’s debut.
“There was so much press when I walked in that door, my daughter Hailee hit me and said, ‘Oh my God, Dad, look at all these cameras,’” Strong said. “That’s what it’s all about. To finally get to this time, to run out on that field … I never thought this week would come. It is a lot of emotion and I’m really excited about the game this weekend.”