Friday, October 9, 2015

Why UT should hold on to Charlie Strong.

Before I get into this, I want to give a little background information/disclaimers.

I attended UT for a few years before giving in to an ultimatum from a very hot girl to move to Dallas. 

While I don't consider myself an Orangeblood or even just a Longhorn,  I am enough of a fan to not want to see UT do poorly.

You know the old saying. "I don't have a horse in this race?"  I certainly am not a part owner of the racehorse UT --- but it is a horse I am always somewhat inclined to pull for.

But I am not a traditional fan. I don't live or die with any team winning or losing every game.  So don't pre-judge my conclusions here on those terms.

I am not some irrational fan who thinks UT is entitled to win each week.

I am a fan of anything, it is the business of athletics. 

The average game itself?  eh.  I work most Saturdays and if I am off, I would rather dig in the garden and catch the end of a game if it is competitive, or the boxscores and write-ups if it isn't ----or if it's an SEC school or some other programs I don't give a crap about.  (Now bowl games, playoffs, and march madness is another story.  Those are GAMES.)

With this in mind, a further disclaimer.  In this article there is a discussion of talent --- I am not qualified to judge that.  For this reason, I have exclusively and repeatedly sourced the views of others who are, instead of degrading this article by volunteering my own insufficient opinions there.

I am covering this because I generally like the teams in today's Big 12 and the survival of that conference is largely controlled by the whims of UT's boosters, many of which are currently enraged by a recent event.

The trigger event

UT being down 50-0 to TCU last week was awful to see on a number of levels for me.

The team got flat spanked by TCU. That was the kind of game that pisses off rich boosters, makes them want to fire the coach,  and makes them want to throw money at a situation to try to bring about the results they desire.

The trouble is the plans people come up with when they are in an emotional state are almost always irrational.  And it isn't like the super rich will cool down and realize how off they were in composing these plans.  It is human nature to rubberstamp your ideas as brilliant rather than critically re-evaluating them later.

It doesn't seem like the kind of thinking that is going to yield optimal results at Texas.

Why UT's talent level makes firing Strong a poor option.

Lets see what the experts who watch every game have to say about the talent level at UT.

Todd Hayes of the DMN who covers UT did a series ranking the talent at UT.  He introduced it by saying, " Charlie Strong has quite a job ahead of him this fall. The Texas Longhorns head coach has an inexperienced receiving corps, a defense that has lost a key starter in each unit, and a quarterback battle in an offense that was inconsistent and, at times, stagnant in 2014.
To solve those problems, Strong must pick from a roster that includes only two players that earned All-Big 12 honors last season. And they were honorable-mention selections."

He goes on to list out the better players at UT.  Here are his top 13.

1. Hassan Ridgeway, NT, Jr.
2. Duke Thomas, CB, Sr.
3. Johnathan Gray, RB, Sr.
4. Dylan Haines, SS, Jr.
5. Sedrick Flowers, OG, Sr.
6. Shiro Davis, DE, Sr.
7. D’Onta Foreman, RB, So.
8. Jacorey Warrick, WR, Jr.
9. Poona Ford, DT, So.
10. Tyrone Swoopes, QB, Jr.
11. Jerrod Heard, QB, Fr.
12. Bryce Cottrell, DE, Jr.
13. Malik Jefferson, LB, Fr.

His #3 guy was a part-time starter who flashed ability..  #6 was a guy earmarked to split time in the upcoming season. #10 was the 10th ranked QB in a 10 team league...#7,8,9,11, and 13 were all guys who Davis was optimistic "might" show something.

That was his view of the talent going into the season.

NFL teams do not think much of UT's talent.  Earlier this year an AFC GM described UT's talent as "All 'guys' and no 'dudes'. Texas barely shows up on our master list of prospects to scout this year. Vince Lombardi couldn't do anything with the guys they have on offense."

You really have to focus on what is said here.  In addition to the guys who get picked each year, NFL teams scout a lot of seniors and top juniors who aren't drafted.  He starts by saying that UT has only a couple guys who even belong on the big "due diligence" list.  That's saying a lot.  The reporter goes on to say that the only "dude" on the roster is freshman LB Jefferson.

Former Longhorn and NFL pro bowl offensive lineman Dan Neil covers the Longhorns. He reviewed the OL after the Notre Dame game.  He was complementary of freshman tackle Connor Williams, noting he was already the team's best lineman. He said freshman Patrick Vahe was not as ready to go.  Then he noted that the other three starters didn't seem much improved from the limited starters they were last year.

Profootball focus,  a site that specifically grades plays, singled out Vahe and Flowers for lousy play vs. ND. Freshman tackle Connor Williams was recently ranked #5 on their list of the best freshman players in the country.   They did another UT review after the TCU game and painted a picture of UT getting killed on both lines.  They noted that UT's passblocking efficiency is 62nd out of the 65 schools in the power conferences and that their pass rush is the 10th least effective in the entire 128 member FBS ranks.  (To pour salt into the wound, they note in another article that Texas A&M has a staggering SEVEN DL players with a +1.0 rating  ---a good rating--- on their scoring system.)

Grantland wrote a fantastic article on the talent at UT (and the mentality displayed by Charlie Strong ) that seems relevant here. They quoted a couple of tweets from the TCU game.

Matt Miller@nfldraftscout
"Charlie Strong is not without some blame, but casual fans don't realize how bad the situation in Austin was post-Mack Brown."

Dane Brugler @dpbrugler
"I get the criticism of Charlie Strong, but he inherited a team void of talent. No SRs look draftable; their best players are freshmen"

Other articles are even harsher.  This recent article by Sports Illustrated's Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel interviews unnamed coaches (likely assistants at Oklahoma State and TCU) on their opinions of the talent at UT.

Left anonymous to protect their careers from any fallout from speaking their minds, these coaches did not mince words.  It is a scathing article well worth reading in it's entirety.

"...numerous coaches who have faced Texas this season and are familiar with the Longhorns aren't as diplomatic about Strong's 1–4 start entering Saturday's game against No. 10 Oklahoma in Dallas. They point the finger at Brown and his former staff for the lack of talented upperclassmen and an attitude of entitlement that's resulted in public clashes with younger players recruited by Strong.
"In two years, Charlie could not have f----- that place up, It was already f---- up before."

"Mack knew the s--- going on, he just didn't want to own up to it," another coach says. "He knows what he left."

That's why many coaches still can't believe Strong was able to will the Longhorns to a 6–7 record last season that included a loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl. "(University of Texas) kids have always been entitled," another coach says. "They've been given everything. They're usually four- and five-star recruits that don't feel like they have to work. They just thought they could show up."

"They're just not nearly as talented as they used to be," a coach says.

It's apparent the Longhorns' most talented players are mainly those Strong signed in his first two recruiting classes. Offensively, coaches rattle off freshman wide receiver John Burt, sophomore running back D'Onta Foreman as well as freshmen offensive linemen Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe as the best at their respective positions for the Longhorns. Defensively, it's freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson along with freshmen cornerbacks Kris Boyd, Davante Davis and Holton Hill.

The best quarterback on the roster is redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard, but coaches attribute his immense struggles the last two games to opponents' crowding the box defensively to restrict his dual-threat ability. With enough video of Heard finally in action, the opposition has discovered he can't complete the intermediate passes needed to exploit those defensive schemes.

"That's no secret," one of the coaches says.
Neither is the void of talent among the upperclassmen. It's so bad that the Longhorns' have become a punch line among NFL scouts, who joke they now make the trip to Austin for Sixth Street instead of The Forty Acres.
"None of the older guys are going to the NFL, so you can tell most of them really don't care," one of the coaches says.
"The upperclassmen are killing everything," one of the coaches says. "The freshmen just want to play. They're balling their a---- off."   "

It should be noted that a lot of these articles on talent deal with NFL draftable (or at least scout-worthy) talent and most came after the TCU game where a young and undermanned UT team was totally outschemed on both sides of the ball by a coach who had a vested interest in blowing out UT. 

Now absolutely high level talent is something that should be in place at UT given what UT is, but you do not have to have that to compete with most college teams. UT hung in vs. Oklahoma State and Cal, two top 25 teams.  (UT is playing one of the toughest schedules in the country this year though, so maybe that is not the strongest point in this discussion.).

Finally Paul Wadlington (Scripio Tex) at does game by game evaluations.  Here is his analysis after the TCU game.  I have included his analysis although readers unfamiliar with the domain may question the sourcing of that particular domain.  It has UT content.  

I think it is pretty good analysis deserving of inclusion on it's own and I think in that it provides context that the other reviews do not.  He notes conceptually that UT's coordinators were trying to have the DL contain Boykin's legs, something that likely hurt their pass rush.  Teams that do not have the required talent to execute their schemes will make tradeoffs, effectively picking their poison.   It appears that UT's defensive staff was simply caught doing that by TCU.

There is a consensus opinion among the above that UT's junior and senior classes are devoid of top level talent and maybe even the mid-level talent is sparse.  (As a bit of a side note, guys like CB Duke Thomas (who seems very, very competent at his job) and DL Hassan Ridgeway who was earmarked as an NFL talent at one point, are not getting much love from the scouts in those scouts' discussions of talent at UT.  It leads me to wonder if their pro potentials  are getting downgraded because their teammates are struggling to compete.  I wonder if their moments of good play is getting lost in a lot of ugly film.)

Is the TCU game the lowpoint of the Season?

Probably to almost certainly. 

You have to look at all the factors that came into play vs. TCU. 

UT is still trying to figure out its' OL.  

TCU even with injuries is a better defense than what UT will play in most of it's remaining games. Their scheme was well suited to control what UT was trying to do.

UT was playing a very limited offense with a QB who has seen very few reps, but one that had enough film out there to be a known commodity.  

UT's players entered that game thinking they would likely get beaten soundly.  

TCU's players entered the game on high alert after a close call vs. Texas Tech.   Their defense needed a redemption game and was very focused.

TCU's coaches likely entered the game thinking there was a real chance to blow out UT and TCU's head coach Gary Patterson made damned sure it occurred.

This blowout was about recruiting.  TCU's head coach is apparently seen as somewhat abrasive and appears not to be well-liked in the Big 12 coaching community.   That may extend to the high school ranks to some degree.

Where Baylor (coached by Art Bryles, a coach who came up through the Texas high school ranks)  has captured 10 blue chippers from Texas in the last 3 years (two of whom were 5 star players), TCU has captured 2 bluechippers and no 5 star players. 

Putting the foot on the gas vs. UT seems to have been all about generating a signature win to show top recruits and about getting the state's attention in general away from Texas A&M. It is good for TCU's program if TCU becomes the program in state that UT fans want to beat.

That is a tall list of factors that lead to that perfect storm.

No one else on the schedule has all or even most of these elements.

TCU wrote the book defensively that other teams are going to try to emulate vs. UT for the rest of the season.   That is a good thing.

Now that the book is out there on QB Heard and everyone sees why UT didn't just give him the starting job, you know teams are going to scheme to try to force UT into making mid-range passes. Heard is going to get plenty of work throwing the mid-range passes and the OL is going to get work blocking those plays in practice.   There will be improvement there.

Charlie Strong is a likeable guy in the coaching community.  While everyone else in the Big 12 wants to beat UT, no one else have a vested interest in blowing out UT or is eager to embarrass UT ---with the possible exception of Baylor coach Art Briles. (Baylor lacks the scheme and the horses defensively to totally shut down UT's offense like TCU did.).

OU has a quality team, but this is a rivalry game.  It is almost always a competitive game for at least 2 quarters. UT's players are embarrassed and focused.   UT's players are not likely to win this game, but there is a good chance they will be in it.

Strong came to UT with a reputation of a guy who's teams come to play every week.  I think that has been masked a bit this year by the fact his team is mostly lead by underclassmen.  

In general, following a debacle, teams normally rally. 

There may have been some deferring to upperclassmen in the first few weeks of the season, but I suspect the TCU loss has put an end to that.  I think there is a very, very good chance that this week the freshmen will take over leadership of this team and own it for the rest of the season  and with that you will see a return of the consistent competitiveness that has typified Strong's career as a coach.

I would not be surprised to see Donta Foreman emerge this week as the offense's go-to guy and Heard playing off him having a strong bounceback game. Defensively Malik Jefferson has been very good all year and is due a breakout, big stage game.

If the power booster's get their way and fire Charlie Strong...

Charlie Strong was not the preferred choice of the UT power boosters in replacing Mack Brown. As Steven A Smith accurately points out, there is a segment of UT's power boosters (and some racist fans) who do not fully support Strong because he was not their guy.  (Unlike Smith, I don't think this is a terminal issue for Strong.)

There is every reason to believe the reports are true that Alabama Coach Nick Saban was approached and was listening intently to a UT offer in the last days of Mack Brown.   Brown purposefully skunked that deal on his way out to prevent Saban taking the shine off Brown's achievements.

Patterson was then steered to talk to Baylor's Art Briles.  Apparently Patterson pushed to meet with him before Baylor's bowl game, something Briles did not appreciate.  Baylor lost that game taking a lot of the shine off Briles.  It seems like Patterson and Briles did not get along.

Patterson then appears to have decided it was getting too late in the process and went off on his own and hired Charlie Strong. Strong was a good candidate in general and specifically for what UT needed, but one no booster had at the top of their list.  

This action by Patterson generated the infamous quote by UT booster Red McCombs calling Strong a coordinator, not a head coach---something rightfully pointed at as a ill-informed at best and more likely a poorly veiled racist statement.   Strong had gone 11-2 twice at Louisville --- defensive coordinators over their heads as a head coaches do not accomplish that.

Today and the next few years

Strong wasn't hired as some silly affirmative action move as the racist element at UT would have you believe.  He was hired because Patterson accurately evaluated the competition for UT's 5 star talent.  Texas A&M has been leading the recruiting of Texas's 5 star talent for the last 4 years.   They have also landed more blue chip players than Texas in that time frame.

Texas's 5 star recruits landing points
2015 1 0 0 2 0 0 1
2014 0 0 1 1 1 0 1
2013 1 1 1 1 0 0 0
2012 2 0 0 2 0 1 0
Totals 4 1 2 6 1 1 2

  Rank University C.Rank Commits 5* 4* 3* Ave Total Pts % 3,4,or 5*
2015 9 UT 1 30 1 13 14 88.81 272.52 93%
2014 20 UT 2 23 0 10 13 88.22 244.18 100%
2013 20 UT 2 15 0 10 5 91.00 233.76 100%
2012 2 UT 1 31 2 20 5 89.39 291.75 87%
4 YR AVE 12.75   TOT 99 3 53 37 89.36 260.55 94%
        4 YR TOT BC=   56        

  Rank University C.Rank Commits 5* 4* 3* Ave Total Pts % 3,4,or 5*
2015 11 TAMU 6 26 3 11 11 89.16 270.51 96%
2014 6 TAMU 4 22 3 9 9 90.68 285.43 95%
2013 9 TAMU 6 33 1 17 14 89.18 273.28 97%
2012 13 TAMU 5 19 1 12 5 90.47 254.57 95%
4 YR AVE 9.75   TOT 100 8 49 39 89.87 270.95 96%
        4 YR TOT BC=   57        

It is not inaccurate to say that A&M is out-recruiting UT, that A&M owns the state's recruiting today, or that A&M get's first choice of the state's talent.

How is this happening when A&M is...well...A&M?  (A location that appeals only to a certain breed of person.)

The reason for this is pretty simple.  A&M plays in what is perceived as a superior football conference with "bigger games" and their coach is a successful black coach who is a plus recruiter.

(I take the newer facilities at A&M vs. living in Austin instead of College Station as a wash.)

Strong is a good coach who is also black and also a plus recruiter.  He erases a lot of edge that A&M has in recruiting the best in talent in Texas.

If Strong is fired at the end of the year, it will be taken as he was not given a fair shot by white boosters at UT.  That will damage the recruiting efforts of any coach coming in.  It would likely lead to a couple of UT black freshmen players transferring out.

Are you ready to see Malik Jefferson transfer out to A&M?  Players usually do not transfer out when they are doing well at a school.  The exception to that is when they feel anger with the school.  In this scenario only, I think that might be a real possibility.  I could see some of the freshmen giving UT's boosters the finger. 

That just compounds the talent problem for UT's next coach.  Who is going to take a job with high expectations where the talent base is small and is likely to bleed transfers?

You can swear up and down that Chip Kelly is the cure all, but he will need several years to build up the talent here and if you look carefully, he is not a high level recruiter.  In the interim, your actions will have created a window of opportunity for Baylor, TCU, OU, and Texas A&M to become more established at competing for top level talent.

UT's boosters do not appear to have an understanding of managing a talent depleted roster. 

The best course of action in situations like these is to retain any coach who is still recruiting well "a year too long".    The reason for this is that, 1) he could turn it around and start winning ---always the optimal return ---and 2) because you want to build up a good core of 3 years-worth of talent for the next coach.

If Strong car turn it around, he can deliver a brand worthy of Texas with a team of players who are tough and disciplined.

Charlie Strong may have to gut his staff after this season to turn the corner. He may or may not see that.  It is almost irrelevant.

What is clearly a positive of Charlie Strong is that he can identify talent  and close the deal at a UT acceptable rate.  His first full recruiting class (this year's class) was ranked in the top 10 and more to the point Connor Williams and Malik Jefferson would be freshmen starters at almost any school in the country.  (When was the last time you said that about any Mack Brown recruit?)

Giving Strong another year is only going to improve the talent base here and make it more likely key guys like Jefferson and Foreman do not transfer out.  No one is going to fault UT if Strong cannot deliver anything after 3 years.

Additionally, Strong's no-nonsense, "be tough" approach is generating the kind of culture that wins big down the road.  It doesn't matter if it is for Strong or another coach.  That culture change was desperately needed at UT.

There is every reason to believe Strong can generate another top 10 class with quality using Texas's brand in Texas and Strong's Florida recruiting ties.

Why not let him?

Pushing the issue to fire him this year is just being impatient, petulant, self-defeating, and frankly...silly.

Post Script:  I found a couple of really good articles on the subject.  This one includes a plea from the son of Darrel Royal.

"Mack Royal, son of Longhorn legend Darrell K. Royal, recently wrote in a social media post: “When you run an honest program, it takes time to attract the good kids with great talent. Strong has a strategy and it will take some time for it to work. I understand this; I’ve seen it up close and personal. TCU happens to be awesome at times. DKR lost the Southwest Conference championship to TCU his first year of coaching UT.”
Royal further noted, “When parents understand that they are sending their children to be coached by a decent man running an honest program, it will slowly make a difference in recruiting. Give the man a chance, please. These kids are sent to school to get a degree, build character, and play football or some other sport. It’s a complicated picture and replacing the head coach is not the answer after one and a half seasons. It took DKR awhile to get rolling ... don’t forget that.” "

and this second one talks about how Texas High School coaches really want Charlie Strong to succeed.

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