Texas Hires Charlie Strong, Opens Up Florida Recruiting and Terrifies Big 12

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterJanuary 5, 2014

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 02:  Head coach Charlie Strong of the Louisville Cardinals celebrates after they defeated the Florida Gators 33 to 23 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 2, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

If Texas wanted the anti-Mack Brown to lead its football program in a new direction, they certainly got it. 

Following a scattered coaching search that, at one point or another, reportedly included names ranging from Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers to Vanderbilt's James Franklin, the Longhorns found their guy. It just took a little bit of waiting. 

It wasn't for Nick Saban, either. Or Jimbo Fisher. Or Art Briles. 

Texas announced on Sunday that Charlie Strong, formerly of Louisville, would succeed Mack Brown, who stepped down last month after 16 seasons with the 'Horns. 

"I'm excited and my family is excited to have the chance to lead one of the premier football programs in the country," Strong said in a statement. "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. It's special because it has such great history, pride, tradition and passion for football."

Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated writes that Strong's deal is for five years and worth roughly $5 million annually. Strong's previous deal with Louisville, which was updated a year ago, paid the coach an annual base salary of $3.7 million plus incentives. 

Dec 28, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; Louisville Cardinals head coach Charlie Strong is presented with the Russell Athletic Bowl trophy after defeating the Miami Hurricanes at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports
Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

The initial impression is that Texas made a sound hire, regardless of whether Strong was the "first" choice. He is one of the hottest coaches in the country. He has led the Cardinals to a 37-15 record in four years, 23-3 in the last two, and his starting quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, should be among the first players selected in the 2014 NFL draft. 

Strong has developed a reputation as a great recruiter who connects well with young people. That will be important as he familiarizes himself with the Texas high school scene. His no-nonsense attitude that stems from his history as a defensive coach will be equally as important in Austin as the Longhorns have lacked a championship attitude lately. 

The edge of a Strong team was fully on display in Louisville's last two postseason victories against Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl and Miami in the 2013 Russell Athletic Bowl. The Cardinals Floridian laden lineup (roughly one-third of the Cardinals' roster hails from Florida) outscored Florida and Miami by a combined 69-32 in a pair of dominating performances. 

Yet, the amount of respect Florida players showed Strong following the Sugar Bowl was a reflection of his deep ties to the program and the area. He's served four different stints with the Gators as an assistant (1983-84, 1988-89, 1991-94, 2003-09), so he knows many those players as well as those on his own roster. 

Despite the qualities that make Strong such an attractive candidate, he's an outsider to the region. Other than a brief stint at Texas A&M in 1985 as a grad assistant, Strong doesn't have ties to the state of Texas. That doesn't mean he can't entrench himself in one of the most talent-rich states in the country—Brown wasn't rooted in Texas when he came from North Carolina in 1998—but it does bring about an interesting recruiting angle. Pro tip: look for Strong to try and bring Louisville defensive coordinator and former Texas DB, Vance Bedford with him help him make quick in roads in Texas high schools. 

Once he gets to Austin, will Strong continue to heavily mine Florida for players, or will he build his own brand in Texas? Understandably, Brown and his staff recruited the in-state talent almost exclusively. Most likely Strong will utilize a combination of the two.   

As Max Olsen of ESPN tweets, it would behoove Strong to keep Director of Player Personnel Patrick Suddes to help in that department. 

Imagining the 'Horns getting the cream of the Texas and Florida recruiting crops could be nightmare fuel for other Big 12 programs. Though Texas had fallen back into the middle of the Big 12 pack, the terrifying reality is that it is one competent coach away from swiftly ascending back to the top of college football. 

There's no denying Strong embodies that excellence as a coach and recruiter, but he will be out of his comfort zone in Texas. Beyond being transplanted to the southwest, Strong isn't known for being the media-savvy face of the program like Brown was. While the obligations of the Longhorn Network, an ESPN-Texas television partnership, aren't the most important aspect of the job, they are nevertheless a unique add-on to the gig.  

It's not that Strong can't handle those duties, it's just that he's never had to before. Add in the excessive politics and glad-handing of Texas athletics and the surrounding media circus, and Strong has far more to deal with than he ever would at Louisville. How he handles this part of the job will have a huge impact on the Horns' success. 

Of course, Texas and its fanbase want results, something they haven't had to their satisfaction since Brown took the Longhorns to the BCS National Championship during the 2009-10 season. If Strong wins and wins often, the frivolous media and political obligations will, to an extent, take care of themselves. 

And Strong can win at Texas. As Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports opined last month, it's the "kind of job that almost can't be screwed up.

"You can slip about 25 different guys in there, and if they are supported, work hard and don't self-destruct under the pressure, the victories will come," Wetzel wrote. 

No great coach can do it alone, though, and Strong will need a solid group of assistants around him—starting with an offensive coordinator. 

That may or may not be Shawn Watson, who has been with Strong since 2011. Under Watson, Bridgewater has developed into the best pure passer in college football. Louisville's receivers have quietly become an excellent group filled with future pros like DeVante Parker. This past season, the Cardinals averaged 35 points per game. 

However, Thamel tweeted Friday night that two NFL teams have inquired about hiring Watson. 

If Watson were to take another job, Strong will likely face his most important hire right away. Defenses have been stout under Strong, but the ability to score a lot of points, something Texas hasn't been able to do consistently since the departure of quarterback Colt McCoy four years ago, will be paramount in the Big 12. 

The name being floated around in the event Watson does not join Strong is Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Unlike Strong, Morris has extensive ties to Texas recruiting thanks to 15 years of coaching at the high school level in the state. Morris' potent offenses have made him the highest-paid assistant in major college football at $1.3 million annually, according to USA Today

If there's room in the coaching budget, and there's little reason to think there wouldn't be, it's possible Texas could lure Morris away from the Tigers. The thought of Strong and Morris working together, even if it's in passing, is almost unfair. 

Texas could potentially spend a lot of money on coaches in the hopes that it rediscovers the success it once had, and it appears the program is willing to do that. However, the mixture of money and expectations leaves marginal room for error for Strong, especially as a coach who didn't initially register on many media radars. 

"Splash hires" can be overrated, though. If Strong wins, no one will care how many coaches were offered the job before him or how many turned it down. Brown wasn't Texas' first choice when he was hired in 1998; the university originally wanted then-Northwestern coach Gary Barnett. Yet, Brown went on to claim a BCS National Championship in 2006 over USC and won at least 10 games every year from 2001-09. 

Still, Texas needed a new direction. For all the concerns about Strong and how he "fits" in Austin, the fact remains that he's replacing a coach who fit perfectly—but who couldn't get it done on the field at the end of his tenure. It's only natural for Patterson to want to try something new.  

Strong may be the opposite of Brown, but there's no reason to think yet that he can't have the success Brown once did. 


Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenKercheval


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