Thursday night, reports came in that two of the Texas Longhorn's starting offensive lineman would be suspended and unavailable for Saturday’s game against BYU, a situation that decimates an already thin offensive unit that will be without starting quarterback David Ash and first-string center Dominic Espinosa.
It appears the Longhorns are still a work in progress, not only as a football team on the field but in regard to new head coach Charlie Strong making his point about team discipline and sticking to his core values.
As the fall semester approached something strange was happening on the 40 acres: football players, including likely first-stringers, were getting kicked off the team for breaking the rules.
There are all kinds of theories as to why a beloved person, if not a beloved coach of late, was unable to turn the Longhorns around in his latter years. Many have said Mack Brown was too easy on the kids. Others pointed to the whole culture of Texas football. One thing has always been certain: there is no reason the Texas Longhorns, with the biggest budget and usually the easiest recruiting job in the nation (until posting a losing record of late), shouldn’t be competing for a national championship nearly every season.
And for a time, certainly after nearly winning two of them, the talent level continued to be formidable. As Andy Staples noted in Sports Illustrated:
"From 2009-12, when the bulk of the players contributing now were signed, Rivals.com ranked all of Texas' classes among the top five nationally. Recruiting rankings are specifically unpredictable, but generally they are decent indicators of future success. Did Texas coaches choose less brilliant athletes than before, or have they lost their ability to develop them?
[The] offense had become so reliant on a special quarterback -- either [Colt] McCoy or Vince Young -- that it had forgotten how to do the basics. Texas had the great fortune of back-to-back dynamo quarterbacks. Young and McCoy could take over games. Defenses had to devote so much energy to stopping them that everyone else had it easy. Any recruiting or developmental deficiencies were masked by this advantage. As soon as the elite quarterbacks went away, the flaws became apparent."
Staples is hardly the only writer who has pointed out that despite top-tier recruiting classes nearly every year, it hasn't translated to success on the field.
And while many focus on the offense, Texas formerly elite defense hit the skids as well. Many believe this to be the result of Will Muschamp’s departure and while that may be factor, there’s no reason Texas shouldn’t have been able to find a suitable replacement and avoid a dramatic decline. The year after Muschamp left, Texas still managed to rank an admirable 11th in the nation in total defense yet with 7 starters back the following year they sank to a dismal 68th in the 2012 rankings.
During the same period, other Texas sports have maintained elite status. The baseball and volleyball programs compete for national titles nearly every year and there are numerous others, including swimming and tennis that continually shine. Rick Barnes’ basketball team is a perennial NCAA tournament participant and although the team dipped in 2012-2013, the returned to form 2014. Regardless, football always has been the priority at Texas, has the most moving parts and is also the most dependent on coaching and structure.
There was never much question about what kind of man Mack Brown is but the results on the field are ultimately the bottom line.
The rumors circulating for some time have hinted that Brown wasn’t tough enough on the kids. Ironically, what often makes the best coaches is the ability to get players to take personal responsibility for their actions. As a motivator and insofar as holding kids accountable, one has to assume that Mack Brown had lost his edge, if he ever had one to begin with.
But in turning around Louisville’s program, Charlie Strong made it clear who should take responsibility for the decline before he arrived. Rather than go with the community and the media’s take, one of his first statements to the players was "You guys had a great coaching staff here. You had good coaches who cared about you who knew what they were doing and put you in position to succeed. And you didn't do it. All the blame is on you guys."
Strong was adamant that blaming the coaches for the 4-8 record in the 2009 season, a poor team GPA and what he perceived as general lack of respect for authority wasn't acceptable and wouldn’t be tolerated. He went on to say "All the change that happens here is going to be on you guys, too.
And the results over 4 years seem the results of a pattern that became absent at Texas: a guy who draws very distinct boundaries, being your best friend off the field but a disciplinarian on it. His photo of the 5 Core Values of Louisville Football went viral on the internet and were an important stand against problems in our culture and that young men, particularly elite athletes, need to be mentored. Ironically, Strong's statements ring both true and false: yes, the level of play on the field is in the hands of the players themselves but it is ultimately the actions of the coach that convince them to make that realization.
The Stronghorns are off to a winning start with a solid victory over North Texas but will face a much tougher test against BYU on Saturday, a rematch of the game last year that ultimately led to big changes at Texas.
With a weakened offense playing against what has so far been a stingy BYU defense, we don’t have to put too much into the final outcome of the game but it is indeed a defining moment and a great opportunity to see if Strong’s get-tough policies have already had any impact on building character this early in his tenure. The rest, as most fans well understand, will likely just have to wait.
Update: On Friday, September 5 it was also reported that redshirt freshman linebacker Deoundrei Davis will no longer be a member of the team. If initial reports of dismissal are correct, he will be the 8th player kicked off the team since Charlie Strong's arrival.