Warren McCarty didn't mince words: "It's a cliquish and secretive brotherhood."
That's how McCarty, a former high school football player from Amarillo, Texas, described the fraternity of the state's high school football coaches. "It's an old-school mentality," says McCarty, who now runs a recruiting service in Colorado called "My Passion is Football"."Everyone knows someone who knows someone."
And that is what first-year Texas coach Charlie Strong is trying to break through. Get to the coaches. Get to the recruits.
At more than 20,000 members, the Texas High School Coaches Association's connections within it run deep. Many coaches move from one job to another within the state. Some get promoted to the college level.
Baylor coach Art Briles famously got his start in the Texas high school ranks, as did Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Both served terms at Stephenville High School among other places.
Many of Texas' high school coaches stay in contact with one another or check in with scores from around the state after the Friday night lights have been turned off.
"Everything is cliquish," said Todd Moebes, the head coach at Abilene Cooper High School. "You have your loyalties, the people you trust." But he also defended the fraternity. "That's not any different than coaching anywhere else," he added.
The network is a close circle where word travels fast, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on the impression a college coach makes.
In March, William Wilkerson of HornsDigest.com published the opinions of four "prestigious"—albeit anonymous—high school coaches and their take on the direction of the program. The results were understandably mixed, but this response from "Coach D" about relationships with high school coaches stood out:
It's going to be the key. Mack was the best I'd ever seen. Mack welcomed them with open arms. And he remembered names. You don't think Mack knows your name? He'd walk up to you and have a conversation with you like there was no tomorrow. He's very friendly. It was unbelievable. I'll give Charlie the benefit of the doubt because I want those guys to be successful. I have kids down there. But if you don't get the relationship with the high school coaches, especially the right ones, recruiting is going to be hard at UT. A&M and Baylor are killing the state.
Suffice to say, relationship-building is paramount, a point Strong has driven home from his first press conference.
"You can be at the world's greatest school," said Tom Nolen, the head coach at Lamar High School in Houston, "but you have to have good relationships with high school coaches."
For Strong, that began with proving he was a man of action.
The Strong Impression
On Thursday, July 24, the clock hit zero.
In the span of two days, Strong suspended or dismissed six players. Wide receivers Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander were arrested in connection to a sexual-assault allegation, but four other players—defensive backs Chevoski Collins and Josh Turner and running backs Jalen Overstreet and Joe Bergeron—were reportedly released for various undisclosed reasons.
According to ESPN.com's Max Olson, "as many as five more Texas players could be facing dismissals due to violations of team rules." Chip Brown of HornsDigest.com advanced the story Monday, reporting that three more players—receiver Daje Johnson, senior offensive tackle Desmond Harrison and junior offensive tackle Kennedy Estelle—were risking suspension.
It had been roughly six months since Strong took over the program. That was more than enough time for the Texas roster to adjust to Strong's core values—honesty, treating women with respect, no drugs, no stealing and no weapons—and expectations. Anyone who still wasn't on board was shown the door.
Strong was blunt at Big 12's media days. "Do what I ask," he said. "It's not hard."
The cuts resonated not only with the media and fans but with those who know the Texas high school system. "The high school coaches I've spoken with say they want to send players to a place where there is sound discipline," said Daron Roberts, a former West Virginia assistant and Texas graduate who is preparing to teach at his alma mater. "Everyone knows that Strong means what he says."
Moebes agreed. "We're in the development business," he said. "We want to make our players better citizens in society, but you also have to look at how that affects the program. I admire him."
The results show. Instead of scaring away prospects, Strong received two verbal commitments in 48 hours: 4-star wide receiver John Burt, who has family ties to Austin, and 3-star defensive tackle Du'Vonta Lampkin.
The moves even registered in California with La Mirada coach Mike Moschetti.
"He'll ease off in a few years," Moschetti said," but right now, he has to change the culture."
The Recruiting Question
The dismissals sent a message. Will the players and coaches in Texas' high schools get it? That's what Strong is banking on.
Over the past two recruiting cycles (2013, '14), the Longhorns have been losing to Texas A&M, and Baylor has been gaining ground. The 2015 classes are shaping up similarly. And while there's still talent on Texas' roster, the previous staff did a poor job in their final years of developing it. Nothing proved that as much as the Horns being shut out of the 2014 NFL draft.
Beyond any skepticism over how Strong would handle the politics of Texas, both internally and with the media, was the recruiting question. Strong has longstanding ties to the state of Florida dating back to 1983, when he began his career as a graduate assistant with the Gators. He would coach three more stretches as an assistant in Gainesville over the next 27 years.
Those connections helped Texas when Strong was desperately trying to keep the Horns' 2014 class together. In February, Strong signed two last-minute defensive-tackle prospects—Poona Ford from South Carolina and Chris Nelson from Florida—after a string of decommitments.
Strong's connections to Florida are a great supplement and could be viewed as an advantage. As Gerry Hamilton of ESPN tweets, former Texas coach Mack Brown never recruited a kid out of Florida during his 16 years in Austin.
There's no need to abandon those recruiting lifelines altogether—Moschetti believes there's no reason Texas can't recruit nationally—but in-state recruiting is a battle Strong and his staff have to win.
"Our coaches have broken down, and each one of them have a part of this state," Strong said during media days. "They know just how critical it is, how critical it is to go recruit the top players and get them into our program."
The recruiting plan started once the wheels were down in Austin.
"As soon as the new coaching staff landed in Texas, they reached out and made the high school coaches aware that they wanted to bring the top in-state talent to Austin," Roberts said.
That could take time—it's no secret Strong and his staff haven't started hot on the recruiting trail—which goes against a culture bred on instant gratification. Texas' 2015 class is first in the Big 12 and 16th nationally, but it's difficult to asses the overall success or failure of a class in July when it's nowhere near complete.
It's an interesting challenge for Strong. At Louisville, Strong molded mostly 3-star recruits with chips on their shoulders into a hardened football team that took Florida and Miami behind the woodshed in the Sugar Bowl (33-23) and Russell Athletic Bowl (36-9), respectively.
It's a different story at Texas, which got its pick of the top in-state talent for years. As recently as 2012, the Horns had the No. 2 recruiting class in the country.
"A fascination with the star ratings can get you in trouble," Roberts said. "Strong evaluates players and projects how they'll develop as football players."
The other facet is the culture change. Strong was able to implement his brand of toughness at Florida as a defensive coordinator from 2003-09. Can he do it at Texas?
"It's a different sales pitch for Strong," said McCarty. "Football is all about being fundamentally sound, not making mistakes and playing with fire.
"Do those three things and you're going to have a lot of success."
Strong may not win a conference title right away, but the general consensus among the coaches interviewed was that Strong is the right man for the job long-term.
"I think he's going to do fine," Nolen said. "Anyone who has that job has the respect of the coaches in this state."
Debating which part of recruiting is more important—relationship-building or having a pre-existing level of respect—will find no clear-cut answer. However, it would appear Strong is using the latter to develop the former. It's unconventional, so only time will tell if it works.
The 2014 football season is officially less than a month away. Strong knows he has to impress with "the product"—how Texas looks as a football team on Saturdays. That, according to Strong, is his best recruiting pitch.
It's not a wins-and-losses pitch, however. At least not entirely. According to Jerry Palm of CBS Sports, the Horns have the 15th-toughest schedule in the country. Early non-conference games against BYU and UCLA act as appetizers for back-to-back games against Baylor and Oklahoma in early October. Road games against Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State on the back end of the season are rarely easy.
It's not far-fetched to think Texas could go 8-4, the exact same record that resulted in Mack Brown's "resignation" last December. Or it could be better if Strong is as good a coach as his high school counterparts say he is. It could also be worse—much worse—if players don't buy in. Truth is, it's hard to get a gauge on the Longhorns, who have a new coach but also a talented roster that has underachieved.
Whatever the win total, there are a few questions that need to be answered: Will quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson finally get the most out of starter David Ash? Can the offensive line come together and provide a solid foundation for the offense? Can the defense live up to its potential?
Improvements on those fronts may lessen the sting of another so-so regular-season record and provide hope for the future.
It could also show recruits that Texas is finally back on the upswing. Despite underwhelming results, players still know Texas is, well, Texas.
"Texas is never a team to take lightly," Iowa State senior defensive end Cory Morrissey told David Ubben of Fox Sports Southwest. "It's like waiting for the dragon to wake up and come out of its lair."
There's no doubt Strong has the fire to succeed. It's starting to show with Texas' high school coaches. In time, that may rub off on the state's top recruits. Perhaps, then, the Longhorns could be considered "back."
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com.