The state, the name, the university — they’re all shaped by football. The sport is so ingrained into the fabric of life for many Texans that it’s completely realistic to expect the flagship university in the state to be consistently excellent, or at least very good, in the province of pigskin.
Texas — the program of Dana Bible and Earl Campbell. Texas — guided to the heights by Darrell Royal and fueled by Tommy Nobis and James Street and so many others over the course of a two-decade period highlighted by the ascendant 1960s. Texas — revived by Mack Brown and given one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all time in Vince Young. The Longhorns are a member of college football royalty. Cows are sacred for Hindus, and Bevo is celebrated in Austin. Competing at or very close to the top of the sport on a relatively consistent basis is not asking too much for the bearers of the burnt orange.
If you’re going to say that a fan base is unrealistic for demanding world-class results all the time, Texas would certainly not be one of them.
Therefore, when you consider what’s happening inside the 40 Acres these days — and in South Bend, Indiana, on Saturday night — it might seem that Texas coach Charlie Strong, though only at the start of his second season, should be on the hot seat.
There is no way to sugar-coat Texas’s opener against Notre Dame, or the season which awaits the Longhorns and all their manifest deficiencies.
Texas ran 52 plays on Saturday night against the Fighting Irish. The Longhorns gained 48 yards on one of them… and 115 yards on the other 51, for an average of just over two yards per snap. Moreover, the 48-yard play was not turned into a touchdown. Impotent, ineffective, inconsistent — the three Is of ignominy followed Texas for 60 minutes…
and that was just on the offensive side of the ball. Everyone knew Texas’s offense would struggle. The much bigger concern coming out of South Bend is that the Longhorns’ defense couldn’t really hold up, either.
Last year, Texas’s defense was legitimately competent, more of a help than a hindrance, more of a solution than a problem. It is true that without much help from the offense, the defense did wear down at times, failing to be as airtight as humanly possible, but no one could have realistically asked the Longhorns’ defensive unit to do more than it did. Texas didn’t need a spectacular offense to be richly successful in Strong’s first season; a merely above-average one would have lifted Bevo to the top tier of the Big 12, very probably to third place behind the TCU-Baylor axis of power.
Yet, that offense never arrived, and so while a 7-of-22 passing performance from quarterback Tyrone Swoopes is extremely discouraging, it’s hardly a surprise. For that reason, no one in Austin should be emotionally ambushed by what the Longhorns served up against Notre Dame.
The defense collapsing, however? That’s another story.
Let’s be realistic: Texas’s defense could have played a much better game, and this still would have been a comfortable Irish win because of the utter lack of firepower on the Longhorns’ offense. Yet, in game one as opposed to game five or especially a mid-November contest, the defense had fewer excuses for wearing down to the extent that it did, and for allowing Notre Dame to thrive on offense. The Irish piled up more than 520 yards behind quarterback Malik Zaire’s dazzling 19-of-22 performance as a passer.
It could be that this game is just as much a commentary on how good Notre Dame might become as it is a reflection on how bad Texas will remain. However, the utter lack of resistance offered by Texas suggests that Saturday’s blowout is much more a verdict on the loser, not the winner. One could look at this and say that there’s no way Texas is going to figure everything out in two seasons, let alone one. If 2015 is going to be this much of a struggle, 2016 does not seem like an “everything’s going to fall in place” kind of season, one in which Texas will be competing for titles again.
Charlie Strong might need three years of building before he can work some magic in year four.
Since Texas is not supposed to require extended rebuilding periods, it could be argued that the Longhorns are failing beyond any reasonable level. Strong, it could be said, has to work a lot more quickly to repair what’s been broken in Austin.
Yet, the reality of a situation sometimes outstrips the ability of any one person to offer a relatively quick fix. CEOs, university presidents, general managers of professional organizations, you name it — some work environments or institutional structures are so dysfunctional that quick fixes just can’t be applied, no matter how historically achievable they once were or how desirable they are in the present tense.
It’s not a happy thing to acknowledge, but Texas sure seems to be that kind of place right now, one Strong just can’t turn around with a snap of his fingers.
DeLoss Dodds is no longer the athletic director. His successor, Steve Patterson, seems to be running the ship of Texas athletics in the wrong direction. He pushed a highly respected football sports information director, John Bianco, out the door. Stories such as this one paint the worst possible picture about the state of the whole athletic department, not just the football program.
Meanwhile, Strong — a coach who does a better job than most of living up to notions of principle and integrity — has had to continuously kick players off the team for not being decent citizens or living up to the standards Strong puts forth for his program. It’s just the sort of thing college coaches overlook so that they can win games more quickly. Strong has moved in a different direction at Texas, and as a result, attrition has remained a factor in his second season in Austin. Should a coach be made to pay a steep price for trying to clean up what he inherited?
Yes, Texas is rebuilding. Yes, that’s historically not where the Longhorns should be. Yes, if viewed in isolation, it’s unacceptable. However, situations generally need to be seen contextually, and not on an island. If the big picture is being taken into account, not many coaches would be in a better position than Strong right now… unless they cut corners and refused to boot players off the team for not behaving in a reasonable way.
It’s inconvenient, it’s frustrating, and it has to be genuinely deflating for Texas fans to admit this. Yet, they have to know it deep down inside: Charlie Strong needs to be given time in Austin. He needs to be shown patience.
That cardinal virtue doesn’t come easily, especially not at a blueblood program. Yet, in this case, with this Texas football program, in the year 2015, the Longhorns have to accept the fact that their attempted restoration under Charlie Strong will be an extended process, not a brief one. The sooner that realization is made, the sooner the Longhorns can go through the coming season without the suffocating pressure of unrealistic expectations.