Mack Brown’s fate was sealed in the immediate wake of BYU’s trampling of then 15th-ranked Texas on September 7. While the Longhorns would rebound to win seven of their next 11 games, the defensive malfunctions that produced 550 rushing yards in a single game would doom both Brown to playing out the stretch.
For certain, Texas AD Steve Patterson and the search committee weighed a multitude of factors when deciding on Brown’s successor. Head coaching experience, media and PR savvy, familiarity with Texas’ high school programs, and “winning the press conference” were likely all considered during this process. However, the massacre at BYU might have ultimately tipped the scales in Charlie Strong’s favor.
Strong’s rise up the coaching ranks began as a graduate assistant at SEC powerhouse Florida. Within three years, Strong acquired his first paid position as the wide receivers coach at Southern Illinois. That two-year stint with the Salukis earned him a trip back to Gainesville working with the outside linebackers. After another brief sojourn, Strong became the Gators’ assistant head coach and defensive tackle coach. That success brought Notre Dame calling with Southern Carolina offering Strong his first defensive coordinator position three years later. Strong would return to Florida one last time where he would serve as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
With his credentials filled out, the time was ripe for Strong to move into the big chair. Louisville took interest, and in 2010 Strong took over a program that had gone 9-15 the previous two years and hadn’t had a winning season since 2006. Strong turned around the Cardinals’ defense and, with a string of great recruiting classes, turned Louisville into a BCS contender. Strong’s Cardinals upset the Gators in 2013 Sugar Bowl behind the play of Teddy Bridgewater, a star recruit Strong stole from under Florida’s nose.
Strong’s recruiting acumen represents both a strength and concern for Texas. Undoubtedly, Louisville became one of the most attractive schools for players in the Southeast since Strong arrived there. That’s no small feat with elite programs like Miami, Florida State, and of course Florida pulling from the same area. By 2011, it surprised few that Strong was able to pull the aforementioned Bridgewater out of Miami Northwestern Senior High School.
But will that experience translate to Texas? While the Longhorns pull their share of players from the Southeast, the backbone of the Longhorns football team comes through the high schools of Texas. Strong hasn’t regularly recruited in any real capacity during his coaching career. The question will be how quickly Strong can form working relationships with the in state high schools at a time when Texas A&M appears to be winning over the hearts and minds of more and more elite prospects.
Of greater certainty is the makeover the Texas defense will undergo with Strong. In his time at Louisville, the Cardinals finishing in the top 20 in fewest points allowed per game in all but one season. Strong’s best defense came this past season when Louisville surrendered only 12.2 points per game, second best in the FBS. For comparison, Texas’ opponents averaged over double that amount in 2013. While the Longhorns lose Jackson Jeffcoat and several other key contributors on defense, Strong’s scheme should turn around this moribund unit.
And ultimately, it’s that defensive prowess that has brought Strong to Austin. Since the 2006 BCS National Championship, Texas has been viewed nationally as a soft program. Regardless of the validity of those claims, Strong’s Texas teams will be as hard-nosed as any in the nation. The Longhorns’ offense will turn around as soon as a stable quarterback is found, but the defense would have remained a concern until the right man was brought in to lead it. Strong is that man, and accordingly he was the right hire for Texas.