AUSTIN, Texas – Charlie Strong left a Louisville program that needed to punch its way into the national spotlight for the Texas Longhorns, who live smack in the middle with their enormous wealth, swagger, political intrigue and championship expectations.
And that’s just the off-the-field stuff.
On the field, he inherits a team mired in mediocrity with a 30-21 record over the last four years, but still talented enough to come within 30 minutes of winning a share of the 2013 Big 12 title.
Strong will be introduced as the Texas football coach today. In a statement released by the school Sunday, Strong said he was excited to be taking over one of the “premier programs” in the country.
“Texas is one of those places that is always on your radar and a program anyone would dream of being a part of because you have a chance to compete on a national level every year,” Strong said. “It’s special because it has such great history, pride, tradition and passion for football.”
In the 53-year-old Strong – the first black head coach of a men’s program at Texas – new athletic director Steve Patterson landed a coach whose teams went 23-3 the last two years, including a BCS bowl win over Florida and a blowout of Miami to end the 2013 season in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who has the No. 1 Seminoles in Monday night’s national title game, praised the hire. Fisher was previously considered a possible target for Texas and would have faced Strong in the ACC when Louisville moves to that league next season.
“I think he’s done a tremendous job at Louisville, turning those guys around,” Fisher said Sunday. “I think Charlie’s an excellent coach.”
Strong succeeded at a school that had to fight its way onto the national radar even in the good years. At Texas, the bad years draw just as much attention as the good ones, and college football will be watching to see how well he can unite a powerhouse program with a discontented fan base aching to return to the national elite.
And how quickly he can win a lot of games.
Strong’s predecessor did that. Over 16 years, Mack Brown had 158 victories, and in 2005 he won Texas’ first undisputed national title in 36 years. From 2000-09, Texas averaged more than 10 wins a season and played in four BCS bowls, winning three.
That success helped spur unprecedented financial growth. Texas ranks as the wealthiest athletic program in the country. A partnership with ESPN created the Longhorn Network, a 20-year deal worth at least $300 million to the university.
But for all its wealth, Texas has struggled to deliver a championship legacy that lives up its sense of grandeur.
Brown won just two Big 12 titles, while his archrival across his northern border, Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, won eight. Texas’ lone national championship in 44 years pales in comparison to Alabama’s three from 2009-12.
And the recent drop-off that started with a 5-7 record in 2010 got ugly by the end. When Texas started last season 1-2, some Texas fans even booed a public service announcement from Brown encouraging donations to charities.
The turmoil also exposed on a national level the political fighting that embroiled the university and attempts by some school officials and prominent supporters to push Brown out a year ago.
For more than two years, university regents have been fighting over whether to fire school President Bill Powers, who had been a key ally of Brown. Some of the same regents also were involved in talks with Alabama coach Nick Saban’s agent in January 2013 in efforts to coax Saban into coming to Austin.
That Strong will be the first African-American head coach of a men’s program at Texas is significant at a school that resisted integration in the 1950s and ’60s and had college football’s last all-white national champion in 1969.
“This is a historic day for The University of Texas and a historic hire for our football team,” Powers said.
Until 2010, Texas had a residence hall named after former law school professor William Stewart Simkins, a Confederate colonel who also was an early organizer of the Ku Klux Klan in Florida after the Civil War.
Texas is still fighting legal battles over race. Only now the school wants to keep an affirmative action admissions policy that allows the school to consider race for some applicants.
But former Texas women’s track coach Bev Kearney, who was pressured to resign in 2013 after revelations of a relationship with one of her athletes, has filed a discrimination lawsuit against Texas, arguing race was a factor in her case. Kearney is black.
In 2009, just before he was hired at Louisville, Strong complained that he’d been passed over for another job in part because his wife is white. Strong said it was difficult to leave Louisville, the school that was willing to give him his first head coaching job.
“They have been great to me and my family, and it was very hard to say goodbye,” Strong said. “But they know this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”