Texas has ‘let go’ coach Charlie Strong after 3 seasons

Texas head coach Charlie Strong walks on the field before an NCAA college football game against TCU, Friday, Nov. 25, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Texas head coach Charlie Strong walks on the field before an NCAA college football game against TCU, Friday, Nov. 25, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Charlie Strong is done at Texas.

The first black coach in the history of the proud program was “let go” on Saturday with a 16-21 record in three seasons. Strong had two years left on a guaranteed contract that pays more than $5 million per year, but was the first coach in Texas history with three consecutive losing seasons.

Reports that he would be fired swirled after a late-season loss to lowly Kansas, and school officials made it official after Friday’s 31-9 loss to TCU meant Texas would finish 5-7 without a bowl game for the second straight year.

“Charlie Strong is an outstanding leader and role model who worked hard with great integrity to move Longhorn football in the right direction,” university President Greg Fenves said in a statement on Saturday. “In the end, the results over three seasons were not there. It was not clear the future was going to be at the levels expected of Longhorn football.”

Strong’s tenure was notable at first for his disciplinarian style and “core values” code of conduct. But the losses quickly mounted and Texas struggled just to qualify for bowl games despite recruiting classes hailed as some of the nation’s best. Texas had hoped for a turnaround this season after a 2-0 start, but a three-game losing streak and a 0-2 start in the Big 12 quickly followed.

Strong was a landmark hire for Texas in 2014, an up-and-comer who had earned his shot at one of the nation’s top programs after a four-year record of 37-15 at Louisville.

His arrival on campus wasn’t just about football, but also confronting the university’s long history of segregation and racism. Until 2010, a campus dorm was named after a past leader of the Ku Klux Klan. And a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis stood in the shadow of the central campus clock tower from 1930 until student protests forced its removal in 2015.

Strong’s hiring was a social leap forward, but his short tenure was marked by turmoil, losing football and a divided fan base.

That he lasted three years showed remarkable restraint for a school that forced out Mack Brown in 2013, eight years after he won a national title, once the Longhorns came up just short of sharing the Big 12 championship.

“When I took this job three years ago, I came here to win the national championship, and I came here to change lives,” Strong said after the loss to TCU. “”I was told when I came in three years ago to build a program. The wins and losses don’t add up, but it’s more than that … (It’s) taking the program in the right direction.”

The question for Texas now is finding a new coach for a program that believes it belongs among the nation’s elite, despite a long track record of mediocrity. Multiple reports have noted Houston’s Tom Herman as a top target.

Texas has five seasons of five losses or more since 2010. Since 1986, Texas has lost at least five games 16 times, a rate of 52 percent. Only Brown’s 10-year run of 10-win seasons from 2000-2009, two Big 12 championships and that national title in 2005 went against that tide of lackluster results.

Strong grabbed national attention when he arrived and immediately announced his “core values” of team rules: honesty, treating women with respect, no guns and no drugs. Within a year, 10 players were dismissed after arrests or rules violations.

But he didn’t win enough games at a school that sits in the middle of college football’s most fertile recruiting grounds and boasts one of the wealthiest athletic programs in the country with its own ESPN-partnered television network. While some blamed Brown for leaving the program in shambles, Strong’s lineups were still peppered with future NFL talent.

Strong also made a promise he couldn’t keep. In November 2014, the Longhorns were 6-5 and already qualified for a bowl when he promised a five-loss season will “never happen again.” Two more immediately followed, and the rest of his tenure was marked by blowout losses, blown leads and excruciating finishes.

From the start, Strong struggled to win over some influential donors who liked his style but demanded more wins. Shortly after he was hired, Red McCombs, the billionaire businessman who is one of the program’s most influential donors, complained that he shouldn’t have the job.

There was administrative turmoil, too. The school president and athletic director who hired Strong were both forced out in 2015. Their successors, Fenves and Mike Perrin, rallied to offer public support. Both men made the unusual move of flying with Strong to hire offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert from Tulsa in December 2015.

Puzzling staff decisions and being slow to correct problems proved to be among his biggest shortcomings. A dubious partnership between co-offensive coordinators Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline led to a lawsuit that exposed a confusing and clunky approach to play-calling in Strong’s first season.

By 2015, Strong demoted Watson after a first-game blowout loss at Notre Dame. In 2016, Strong again shook up his staff midseason when he demoted defensive play-caller Vance Bedford after five games.

The high points included four straight wins over teams ranked No. 12 or higher in the Top 25. But that success only compounded the frustration over his losses that were too many to overcome.