Five hundred miles to the northwest of Austin in the great state of Texas lies, not far off the highway, the famous Cadillac Ranch.
Although it is quite a distance from the capital, the art installation could double as a telling metaphor for the state’s flagship football program. There, just outside Amarillo in the middle of a windswept plain, lie several colorful Cadillacs planted face-down in the dirt.
For nearly two decades and even long before that, the Longhorns football team has been driving a fully loaded Cadillac. Twelve straight seasons of at least nine wins, one national title and a trip to play for another, some of the winningest quarterbacks in NCAA history and the general tradition of college football’s biggest moneymaker have all contributed to this.
It is no wonder that former athletic director DeLoss Dodds famously quipped that Texas doesn’t keep up with the Joneses; the Longhorns were the Joneses.
That brash attitude turned off many who resented Texas’ success, but it was very telling as to the state of the program and those who bought into the Burnt Orange and White.
As we approach the halfway point of the 2015 season, however, the Cadillac is planted in a field of dirt, and that attitude of being the Joneses is long gone. The Longhorns are in an identity crisis and have been for some time. There has been plenty written about the team’s struggles on the field, but that is only part of this winding, twisting journey the team is on now.
Texas knows who it wants to be; it’s just not sure where it is now or how to get where it needs to go.
The roots of this issue can likely be traced back to the fifth play of the 2010 BCS National Championship Game. Even as an injured Colt McCoy slumped to the turf at the Rose Bowl, the future still appeared bright for Texas. But as we all know now, that marked the turning point in the Longhorns' fortunes.
They went 5-7 the following season to miss out on a bowl game for the first time in forever and were beaten by in-state rivals Texas A&M and (gasp) Baylor for the first time in a decade. Then-head coach Mack Brown fanned the flames of this identity crisis by letting offensive coordinator Greg Davis go (a few years too late) and bringing in Boise State wonder boy Bryan Harsin to spice up the offense.
The experiment didn’t last too long, and while Brown kept the team afloat the next two years, eventually the school moved on to what it thought was a new era. The brash Steve Patterson replaced Dodds as athletic director and then promptly replaced Brown with Charlie Strong in a move that came a few years too late.
In his introductory press conference, Strong immediately made it a point to say that he was going to correct one of the biggest ills the program had since losing that title game a few years prior.
“You have to build your program on toughness. That's where all the successful programs, that's what they do,” Strong said at the time, just 21 months ago. “It's all about toughness. Players understand that. If you are a disciplined program and you prepare them the right ways and they have the right focus, that won't be an issue.”
In the face of Texas A&M’s successful move to the SEC and the rise of Baylor in the Big 12, Strong set out to instill the one attribute that everybody from fans to NFL scouts thought the program lacked. In the face of spread offenses around the state and around college football, the Longhorns would be more like Alabama and Stanford (with top recruits) than their uptempo in-conference peers.
It worked in turning around Louisville; why wouldn’t it work with the vast resources at Texas? That toughness was going to be the team’s identity…until it wasn’t.
Strong brought in offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and a number of other staff members from his previous stop and set about trying to recreate success. Only this time, the Longhorns would no longer be allowed to drive a Cadillac but would instead be shuttled around in a pickup truck.
It was a sea change for many Longhorns, but in the era of instant gratification, it was not received quite as intended. The dispirited fanbase still has not bought in, and the football team itself is just 7-11 in the past two seasons, with little chance of reaching .500 anytime soon. Including Texas' most recent game, seven of those troubling 11 losses have been by at least three touchdowns.
Perhaps the most disconcerting part of Saturday’s 50-7 loss to TCU wasn’t that the team failed to beat the Horned Frogs but rather how it went about losing.
It was 30-0 before the first quarter was over, and it marked the second straight season the Longhorns were handed a humiliating defeat at the hands of a school Texas itself helped bring into the Big 12. Once again, the offense was unable to do much of anything outside of a few broken plays, and the defense hardly slowed down Trevone Boykin and the TCU offense.
Texas looks lost on the field and shows no signs of finding a map anytime soon.
Strong has exacerbated the identity crisis by not knowing himself what the team wants to do, especially on offense. Texas wasn’t quite built to run the ball in a pro-style offense and play tough defense in his first year. Seeing this error, Strong later chose to move to a spread offense, but without hiring any coordinators who were deeply ingrained in an offense which has become the norm across college football.
The results were predictable.
Watson was fired after just one game this year, and current play-caller Jay Norvell has not been in a similar position since 2007. That's not exactly a recipe for success, no matter how many 4- and 5-star recruits wind up in Austin.
This identity crisis has played out for other coaches before. Will Muschamp hired Charlie Weis to install a more pro-style offense in his first season at Florida. That misstep, which ended in Weis’ departure to Kansas, was never really corrected, what with a revolving door of coordinator hires and the team's inability to figure out what it wanted to be offensively.
Even Red River rival Oklahoma has been through a similar transition. Bob Stoops won a national title early in his tenure after first bringing in the Air Raid offense to Norman and later saw the team add a few Heisman Trophies to the team room. The Sooners experimented with a more pro-style attack, but last season’s 8-5 record (and fears of backsliding even further) prompted Stoops to go back to what worked.
He ended up hiring coordinator Lincoln Riley—somebody who has been ingrained in the Air Raid since he was a player—in a savvy move that has paid off, as the Sooners look like a championship-caliber team.
Can Strong pull the Cadillac out of the ditch and get it back on the road to greatness? Only time will tell, but first things first, Texas needs to figure out who it wants to be in this day and age before it calls for AAA.
With an interim athletic director focused on mending fences and heated calls already coming for Strong’s job, it appears there will be a long and difficult road for Texas to get back to being the Joneses.
Stuck face-down on the side of the road, perhaps the only saving grace for the Longhorns is that rock bottom is already here. For Strong and his team, no matter how long a leash they get, at least there’s only one direction to go from here.
You can follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.