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Opinion: Strong's Early-Season Success Unsustained

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USA TODAY

 

As we consider the end of Charlie Strong's star-crossed tenure at Texas, flash back to a moment when the possibilities seemed wide open. Way back on Sept. 4, Texas edged Notre Dame in what seemed at the time to be an important pivot point for the program.

The Longhorns beat the Irish in double overtime, in prime time, a Sunday window all to themselves to showcase a freshman quarterback running a potent new offense, a program finally headed back toward relevance. Afterward, Strong crowd-surfed atop his celebrating players. When he finally left the field, he stopped for a quick chat and a hug from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

"They've been hungry for this," Abbott told USA TODAY Sports moments later, adding, "It feels like a championship."

Fast-forward to Saturday, when Texas played uninspired football in Lawrence, Kan., lost an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter and then lost a whole lot more in overtime. The Jayhawks celebrated wildly -- their first Big 12 victory in 20 tries, their first win against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since 2014. The Longhorns -- well, they dropped to 5-6. Strong fell to 16-20 in three seasons.

It did not feel like a championship. It felt like the end.

While there had been signs in recent weeks that Strong might make it to next season -- it's clear the Texas administration wanted him to succeed -- losing to Kansas was too much. It was no longer if, but when Strong would be let go.

Though multiple reports Sunday said a decision had been made, Texas athletics director Mike Perrin said in a statement, "I've said all along, we will evaluate the body of work after the regular season. We have a game to get ready for against TCU on Friday, and I hope our fans will come out and support our team. We'll discuss where things stand after that."

After Saturday's loss, Strong said, "It was there for us."

He was referring to a win that slipped away, but it works in the bigger picture, as well. Like against Kansas, the Longhorns under Strong were unable to seize opportunity. For whatever reasons, they never capitalized.

We could talk about how it took far too long for Strong to commit to an offensive philosophy (and whether he should have just stuck with his preference, anyway, recruited to fit his system and played a style that would have been a changeup in the fastball Big 12). We could debate all sorts of disastrous decisions and point to plenty of critical moments when the ball just bounced funny, frankly, or else things might have gone differently.

Instead, reflect on that win against Notre Dame. We've known for a while that, as it turned out, beating the Irish wasn't a huge deal. This season, just about everyone has done it. Winning that night might have felt like a championship, but like several other flashes over the last three seasons (beating Oklahoma in 2015, as another example), it didn't signal much of anything.

But it's not wrong to suggest this much: It was there for Strong and the Longhorns that night. They couldn't do anything with the moment.

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November 21, 2016
 
 
 

 

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