Less than 1/3rd of the state's top 2015 prospects made it in for either Texas junior day.
That doesn't mean Signing Day 2015 is already fait accompli, but it's clear that Strong and company are combating the reality of a Texas brand in retreat - the mutually reinforcing effects of a stagnant program in a marginal conference, with a fan base and administration left uneasy by the contentious dismissal of a charismatic head coach who had lost touch with his actual job requirements.
Add in the fact that Strong's staff knows Florida better than Texas and we're playing catch up on a number of fronts.
Before addressing what Strong can do to stem the tide, let's consider the perceptions he's contending with.
Do we really know the actual Top 30 prospects in Texas right now? Not perceived. Actual.
Several of them. But the pressure to rank players earlier and earlier means that the camp circuit/established programs echo chamber, early developers and savvy recruits who market themselves effectively will always be overrated early in the process. While some of these players will see their stock fade over time, early adoption psychology makes it difficult to discount them properly as new information comes to light. See Tray Allen's recruiting rankings vs. his all-star game appearances. Despite a wide performance disconnect, invested opinion meant that his high rankings stuck.
We tend to look for justification rather than recalibration when our opinions are challenged by new evidence.
Other elite prospects will emerge (injured juniors, transfers, late growth spurts, weight room discoverers, the basketball power forward finally committing to tight end) and shoot up the rankings, but we're six to nine months from those corrections.
This not an argument about the value of star rankings. In fact, the macro aggregate data on rankings is irrefutable. However, those data come from end of the year rankings. And a single recruiting class - or recruit - is not aggregate data. They are truths told based on large numbers on a final list released a week before signing day. Every year, I note a number of late risers (or players who weren't even in the discussion for most of the recruiting cycle) suddenly appearing on lists weeks before signing day. It will happen again in 2015.
Bottom line: early rankings are helpful, but they're not written in stone. Over the course of a year, a recruit's program perceptions are as malleable as his development trajectory. Keep your panic reasonable.
Splash Hires & Quick Fixes
Long term recruiting success will always rest on fundamental strengths, but short term recruiting perception is largely about the ability to create and harness hype. Charlie Strong may be a good hire, but he is not a splash hire. He's also an unfamiliar hire. He's also not particularly interested in creating hype.
Social media has trained us to devour hype and media stimulus. Particularly when we're seeking affirmation and good news in times of anxiety. So we feel adrift with a coach indifferent to its false creation. Similarly, there's no other major program event to be harnessed (a conference move, an improved television presence, a new stadium, new weight room). If anything, there's a palpable dissatisfaction with some Longhorn fans as they realize the bad deals brokered by outgoing administration.
Strong will have to build his recruiting classes the old-fashioned way: with time on the road, relationship-building and on-field results.
I think he should travel around the state in a F-16 and tell a College Station radio station that collies are chick dogs, but Charlie won't acknowledge my LinkedIn invite.
Fan & Recruit Perception
I've mentioned before that one of Mack Brown's greatest gifts was to shackle his critics in his mode of thinking even in their criticism. That second year sophomore offensive tackle isn't playing well? Maybe a recruit can fix that problem! The Alabama MNC "hangover" caused our decline? We should be mentally tougher!
I'm seeing similar strains of this in the recruiting discussion. Brown trained Texas fans that good recruiting means snatching up your class early, grabbing the Texas kid who always dreamed of playing here in preference to the out-of-state mercenary interloper, having a good hit ratio, creating a sense of momentum (and scarcity) with orchestrated commitment announcements, and to harbor suspicion for any recruit who wants to weigh his options. Brown valued certainty, even its destructive varieties.
Strong is exhibiting much greater patience for the long game, could care less if thirty national prospects say no if four good ones say yes, is only committing (or retaining) players the staff covets, isn't swept up with Junior Day Let's-Offer-Some-Kids! enthusiasms, and has more out of state offers extended to high level prospects in the last three months than Brown over the last five years combined. Strong is more comfortable with uncertainty - even if it means short-term setbacks.
As for recruit perceptions...
Recruits are 16 and 17 year olds. When Texas was last nationally relevant, they were 6th graders. Four short years to you and me is one quarter of their life ago for them. Appeals to tradition are overrated or meaningless unless that tradition is constant and immediately accessible.
How does Strong fix it?
Win. A strong Texas determines its environment. A weak Texas is subject to its whims.
The 2014 Longhorn season will be a lengthy recruiting infomercial for the new culture.
The 2015 class will be earned on the field as much as in the living room.