Of his 100 or so men in the Texas program, which of them is it gonna be? And when is "it" gonna happen? When will the program he took over in 2014 flip the switch the way his Louisville team did in the middle of his second season with the Cardinals? Strong has too much pride, too much resolve and too much self-confidence to believe anything other than that he will inspire a resurgence of the Texas Longhorns.
A 2-4 start in 2011 prompted Strong to call a team meeting at Louisville — his first head coaching job. "Guys, I’m tired of losing," Strong told his players. "What’s the problem here?"
In the wake of that meeting, some of the Cardinals’ young players stepped up and challenged the older guys and that sparked the team to win five of its next six games and 28 of the next 33.
Truth be told, this rebuilding job for Strong — on a much bigger stage, in a much tougher league — is even more challenging. Strong knows this. If he didn’t realize it when he got the job, he sure figured it out last fall. The 54-year-old former defensive coordinator is no stats guy, but he can tell you never once in his four seasons in Louisville did one of his teams lose a game by more than 20 points. In his first season at UT, that happened five times. Strong winces at the thought of one of his teams getting dominated and just giving in.
"The frustrating thing for me is when we lose bad," he said. "I can take losing — well, I can’t take losing at all, but if you hit me on a last-second (game-winning) field goal, I can kinda get over that. But I can’t get over a 20-plus points loss in five games."
Worse still, it was the way Strong’s team finished last season, getting hammered at home by TCU and then in the Texas Bowl by Arkansas by a combined score of 79-17. "We got embarrassed," Strong said. "You’re like, ‘What’s inside of us, guys? Let’s stand up and fight because this should never happen here at the University of Texas.’"
Losing that way speaks volumes about a program, especially one that used to be a powerhouse.
"It’s almost like that big dog on the porch," Strong said. "When that big dog gets off the porch and gets bitten, he’s no longer the big dog anymore. We’re no longer the big dog. We’ve been bitten. Now everybody thinks they can bite you. Now we have to pick ourselves up and get the bite back in us. This is Mike Tyson after Buster Douglas knocked him out. Can he get back up?
"You’ve been exposed now. This is not good enough. Now you have something that you can build on. It’s about everyone getting together. We had our flaws on offense, but we also had them on defense and in the kicking game. It was a total team effort. It was just a lack of guys understanding that it’s about the team."
Shaky QB play, a mediocre, undermanned O-line and an inconsistent defense were all obvious issues that plagued UT in a 6-7 season. Strong’s assessment of the Longhorns’ biggest shortcoming: They weren’t mentally tough enough to fight through the adversity.
As Strong talks about his new program and his old one at Louisville, it becomes apparent that perhaps even more than landing four- or five-star guys, mental and physical toughness and team chemistry are the things he believes that matter most to transforming a college football program. Strong’s 2011 recruiting class provided the nucleus of what would be a top-15 program and produced a bunch of NFL talent. Strong is quick to note that only QB Teddy Bridgewater of that bunch was hyped as a blue-chip prospect. "Those guys weren’t afraid to work because nothing was ever given to them," Strong said.
At Texas, Strong inherited a program littered with former four- and five-star recruits who were given head-turning facilities, but the team had gone into a ditch of entitlement and apathy under former coach Mack Brown and produced an underwhelming 18-17 record in his last four seasons in Big 12 play.
Quandre Diggs, a kid who grew up around the Longhorns program, was one of the few UT players who displayed some of the grit and character Strong demanded. Diggs said the new coach’s biggest accomplishment in his first season was re-establishing the expectations at Texas — even if it did yield a bunch of roster casualties that included some former key players. "With coach Strong, you’re either gonna buy in or you’ll suffer and get kicked out of there," said Diggs, the younger brother of former Longhorns star Quentin Jammer.
"As a coach, you don’t want to feel like you’re here to run players off because that’s not what you want to do," Strong says. "It’s about accountability and responsibility. Guys have to be held accountable for their actions. I don’t feel like I eliminated anyone. I always say they voluntarily left on their own because they won’t do what you asking them to do."
The Longhorns don’t figure to be in the preseason top 25 with big questions again on the O-line and at quarterback, where they have only two scholarship players. The defense also likely won’t even be as talented as the 2014 unit, which sent four players to the NFL Combine. UT also loses its top wideout in John Harris, a guy who had almost double the receiving yardage of the Horns’ next best receiver. "Last year you had a good collection of individual talent but it never came together — it never jelled as a team," Strong said after conceding, kinda, that the 2015 group may not be as "talented" as the team that just went 6-7 and suffered all of those blowout losses.
"I look at it like this: I think we have enough talent. It’s all about when guys start believing and trusting one another. I’ve been on teams that were ungodly talented but we didn’t go win. It’s all about chemistry."
Strong signed a touted recruiting class this winter. Of course, it’s Texas — the recruiting class is always touted. The most glaring hole was UT coming up short on the QB it chased, especially for a program with such issues at the position (UT did sign QB Kai Locksley, although I heard from people who think he’s probably better suited for WR). Texas high school legend Kyler Murray, who flirted with UT late in the recruiting process, opted to sign with arch-rival Texas A&M, which means last year’s starter Tyrone Swoopes or redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard must blossom if UT has hopes of cracking the top 10 within the next two years.
"It’s thin," Strong said of his QB depth chart. "Sometimes I look at it and say it’s not really fair to Tyrone because the offense line wasn’t very good. You only had one receiver because John Harris made all the plays for you. We never were able to open up the running game. But to look at that overall offense — I don’t care if you had Teddy Bridgewater standing back there last year, people wouldn’t have thought he was very good either."
Strong would love it if one of his QBs can not only win the job but also emerge as a leader. That’s what he’s been hoping to find since the offseason started.
"I’m still looking," he said. "It’ll be interesting when we [go through] spring practice and see how it comes together and see if we do have someone who can step up and lead and inspire guys to come together. That was the issue last year. We just never had that. We had (linebacker Jordan) Hicks, but he wasn’t enough. We had Quandre, but he wasn’t enough. We needed all of them to get on board.
"It goes back to you just have to have that core group of guys. You have to have them on offense, defense and special teams. There’s a group that steps up and they bring guys along. We didn’t have that core. So when things get bad, there was nobody to look to and say, ‘I know he’s going to step out and go to work.’ We didn’t have that. We might have had one or two guys, but it takes more than just one or two when you’re playing really good teams."