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Charlie Strong Era Begins: UT’s Historical Baseline Data for Success

Charlie Strong is about to make his debut at Texas. Are there any historical footprints that can tell us what is the baseline for success for a new UT football coach?

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If you are reading this the odds are that you, like me, are a life-long fan of college football and the University of Texas.

Like most, my first memory of Longhorn football came as a youngster - specifically as a 7-year old, running around in the knot-hole section of the north end zone while Texas defeated Fran Tarkenton and the Georgia Bulldogs 13-8.

It took a few years before the score of the games began to really matter to me, but once I became invested in the outcome, the details of winning became of interest to me as well.

But when it comes to the X's and O's of the game I love, I have never been a big "nuts & bolts" guy. I'm not one to dig deep under the hood, getting my hands dirty inspecting the details of how the engine works.

I know enough of the basics to enjoy the ride and understand when the engine develops knocks and noises, but I also know what I don't know, and I need a trusted "mechanic" who not only loves to work on the X's and O's, but can explain it to me in layman's language.

We at Barking Carnival are fortunate to have several such mechanics on board who have produced 2014 Longhorn Football Prospectus: Thinking Texas Football, and if you haven't bought it, what the hell are you waiting for?

My curiosity into some aspects of the game are a bit more macro.  I am interested in how the history of Texas football will affect the perceptions of what success for Charlie Strong will look like. How was the standard of success at Texas established?

We are essentially talking about three coaches, who during the modern era of college football, put Texas among the elite programs - Darrell Royal, who set the gold standard, as well as Fred Akers and Mack Brown.

There are several common traits among the trio that can shape expectations for future coaches. All three leveraged the inherent recruiting advantages of Texas into dominance by adding a personal touch to those assets. All three experienced a six to seven year run of elite results, followed by downturns that left their position and legacy in jeopardy.

Lesson #1 from the history of UT football appears to be building an elite program is the easy part - sustaining excellence over an extended period of time is a bitch.


Darrell Royal

Darrell Royal knew that the University of Texas wouldn't be hiring a 32-year coaching nomad (6 jobs in 7 years) unless their program had hit rock bottom. He didn't realize how bad it was until getting on campus, but Royal put a positive spin on the mess for his staff.

"What if we came in here and found everything top-notch and they still had just won one game last year? What're we going to change?  You ought to be happy to find all these things, because we can change all that. It's the University of Texas, we can still recruit, and if we get the facilities up we will recruit even better."

One of the first changes that Royal made in the recruiting process at Texas reverberated throughout college football.

The University of Texas had become the first state school in the U.S. to require entrance examinations for all freshmen.  By the spring of 1957, almost 24% of the student body had been placed on academic probation -and when Royal checked the football roster the average was even higher. This was the driving force behind his desire to hire a "brain coach." Lan Hewlett was brought in to monitor the football players and make sure they were going to class and meeting their assignments. Royal also instituted the "T-Ring", given to every letterman who also graduates.

When Royal took over at Texas, the idea of colleges being a farm system for the NFL wasn't part of the recruiting pitch.  The Super Bowl was 10 years away from coming into existence. Royal instead concentrated on looking for the multi-talented high school player - athletic, with a high football IQ.  In other words, he went after recruits patterned after his collegiate persona.

It made sense since versatility and mental discipline were key components of one platoon football. It is why he valued HS quarterbacks so much. They usually were the most talented and intelligent players on their team, and could easily be shifted to other positions.

This was the era of unlimited scholarships and Texas signed between 50-60 players the first few years. But the idea that DKR was stockpiling talent on his bench so he didn't have to play against them is mostly a myth.  For most of his career at Texas, the SWC had a self-imposed 115 scholarship limit.

The recruiting advantage Royal exploited was the relaxed rules on visits with recruits. Texas had the money and resources to scout players often, even when they were playing in other sports, getting an even better glimpse into a recruits overall athletic ability. It didn't hurt to have a representative from Texas being spotted by the recruit and his family at sporting events.

Royal saw a lot of changes in the game, changes that greatly affected recruiting, and he had an ability to adapt with those changes. Two-platoon football came back to college football in the mid-60's and while Royal grumbled about it, he changed accordingly.

Of course integration was the biggest game changer. Texas - and Royal - came to the party later than some. Royal had coached black players both in the Canadian League and at the University of Washington, but he admitted he wished he had been more forceful earlier. He always approached the subject with candor, and with the help of others, changed the face of Texas football.

Finally, the idea that Royal got out because he wasn't recruiting well at the end doesn't fly. Royal's last two recruiting classes included four 1st round draft selections (Russell Erxleben, Johnnie Johnson, Johnny "Lam" Jones, Derrick Hatchett) as well as such players as Steve McMichael and Glenn Blackwood.

Royal got out because he understood the amount of work and compromise needed to recruit at an elite level and he no longer felt the hunger to keep working at such a pace.

Fred Akers

Darrell Royal didn't exactly leave the cupboard bare when he bowed out, and Fred Akers built on that foundation by taking Texas recruiting national. Akers brought with him a coaching staff that was a spectacular mix master of coaching acumen (Leon Fuller, Leon Manley, Mike Parker), and young, aggressive recruiters (Charlie Lee, Bob Warmack, John Mize, Ken Dabbs).

This staff had deep high school connections throughout Texas, as well as solid credentials out of state. Akers believed you could control in-state recruiting while spreading the Texas "brand" and aggressively recruiting outside the boarders of Texas.

The coaching staff heard plenty of "no's" and misfired on some OOS recruits, but Akers believed in gathering quality depth from anywhere and for his first 7 years on campus it paid off.

Here is a list of some of the quality OOS recruits Texas captured during Akers career.

Steve Hall - Broken Arrow, OK (4 year letterman)

Robin Sendlein - Las Vegas, NV (4 year letterman)

A.J. Jam Jones - Youngstown OH (4 year letterman)

Rodney Tate - Beggs, OK (3 year letterman)

Mossy Cade - Eloy, AZ (4 year letterman)

Jeff Leiding - Tulsa, OK (4 year letterman)

Mike Ruether - Shawnee Mountain, KS (4 year letterman

Adam Schrieber - Huntsville, AL (4 year letterman)

Raul Allegre - Torreon, Mexico (2 year letterman)

Tony Edwards - St. Louis, MO (4 year letterman)

June James - Kansas City, MO (3 year letterman)

Mike January - Lake Charles, LA (4 year letterman)

Eric Metcalf - Arlington, VA    (4 year letterman)

Darrin Norris - El Camino, CA   (4 year letterman)

The 1983 Texas squad is a testament to this blended recruiting template. 35 players off that roster were drafted by the NFL - 30 made rosters, and 25 played a combination of 152 seasons in the NFL.

A potential national championship wasn't the only thing that slipped away at the 1984 Cotton Bowl. The seeds of destruction were already being sown, for various reasons. The most damaging of those being that as that initial coaching staff drifted away, their replacements were not of equal talent.

Mack Brown

"Putting the BB's back in the box."

That was the genius of Mack Brown - getting all the disparate parts needed to build a quality program under one tent. Alums, boosters, recruits, and most importantly high school football coaches. The program had not been truly united since Royal resigned in 1976, and Mack Brown used all his recruiting skills to put Humpty Dumpty Bevo back together again.

His first full recruiting class was ranked #1 thanks to quality like Chris Simms and Cory Redding. It was in the following years where Brown changed the recruiting playing field - building a monster talent base - while also sowing the seeds of his own demise.

It was Brown who took Junior Days - basically a February meet and greet for recruits and coaches - and turned it into a recruiting showcase, full of scholarship offers and commitments.

Suddenly Brown was getting commitments while some other schools were still going through their evaluation process. Early recruiting fever spread, with more offers going out to younger players, until you had fans obsessing over the "commitment" of 15 and 16 years olds still playing HS football.

Brown concentrated on Texas High Schools, virtually ignoring out of state recruiting, and he dominated the game for almost a decade. The 2005 National Championship team was the culmination of this recruiting run. There were 27 draftees and 2 free agents on the 2005 roster, with over 170 years of NFL service racked up, with several still in the league.

There is a downside in early recruiting - lazy evaluation, taking the quick, easy commits, and then lack of development once on campus.

We have gone ad nauseam over the carnage of the last 4 years, wreckage that was directly tied to the talent drain at the 40 Acres. It is out there for all to see.

"You Are What Your Record Says You Are."

Here are the basic numbers:

Darrell Royal -- 167-47-5 (77%)

Won or shared 11 SWC Championships, 3 national championships - nine Top 5, eleven Top 10 and fifteen Top 20 national rankings

Fred Akers - 86-31-1 (73%)

2 SWC Championships - Finished in Top 20 six out of 10 years, with three Top 5, five Top 10 rankings.

Mack Brown - 158-48 (77%)

National Championship, 2 Conference championships -- five Top 5 rankings, seven Top 10 rankings, twelve Top 20 rankings in 16 years.

Legacies aren't just built on raw numbers, they are built on seminal moments and games that become embedded in the memory banks of the fan base. That means winning marquee games

I broke down how each coach fared against ranked competition, using the yearly Top 20, since neither Royal nor Akers coached in an era with an annual Top 25, (these results are based on rankings at the time the games were played.)

Darrell Royal

Top Ten                                                                              Top 20

19-19-2 (50%)                                                                    29-26-3 (52.4%)

Royal's legacy was cemented during the 60's when Texas joined Alabama as the dominant programs of college football. During that decade Texas went 10-5 when ranked in the Top Ten and playing another Top Ten opponent.

Fred Akers

Top Ten                                                                       Top 20

17-8-1 (67.3%)                                                           26-16-2 (60.4%)

Akers played an astounding 37% of his games against Top 20 opponents, with 22% coming against the Top Ten. His problem was the annual WTF? game, the inexplicable loss that was the fly in the ointment.

Mack Brown

Top Ten                                                                             Top 20

12-23 (33%)                                                                      28-30 (49.1%)

Brown won 88% of his games against opponents outside the Top 20, but Top Ten teams? Not so much.

Peaks & Valleys

By 1959 Darrell Royal had a strong sophomore class in place led by Jack Collins, James Saxton and Mike Cotton as Texas was poised to go on a 6-year run of unprecedented success. From 1959-1964 the Horns went 56-8-2 (85%) with four SWC titles, a national championship and a 7-3-1 record against Top 10 opponents.

From 1961-64 Texas went 40-3-1 and was just 10 points away from four national titles in a row. In 1961 #1 Texas was upset by TCU 6-0 in November costing them the championship.

In 1962 a 14-14 tie against Rice cost Texas an (undeserved) national championship - the Horns lost to #7 LSU in the Cotton Bowl that season. After winning the title in 1963, Texas went down to #8 Arkansas 14-13 on a failed 2-point conversion. The Horns finished the season with a 21-17 Orange Bowl win over Joe Namath and #1 Alabama.

The fall from the top was swift in 1965 and it lasted three years. From 1965-67 Texas was 19-12 and the wolves were howling at Royal's door. One of the main factors in the decline was the recruiting class after the 1963 championship season. Texas went for the carpet bombing approach, signing over 60 players basically on a "First Come, First Serve" basis.

Not a single member of that class made consensus All-SWC.

Royal later admitted that he and the staff just picked a lot of "low hanging fruit." Royal also said he spent too much time on the banquet circuit, building up the Texas brand, and not enough time evaluating recruits. Texas paid for it over a three year period while hitting the recruiting trails with renewed vigor.

From his first day on the job, Fred Akers believed in the power of the Texas name and he preached daily about embracing the challenges of taking on other top teams. It was a powerful recruiting asset (Texas would play an outstanding array of non-conference teams during his tenure) and a motivational tool when preparing for opponents.

From 1977-83, Texas was 66-17-1 (79%) with two SWC titles, a 14-6 record against Top 10 opponents and of course two near miss national championship opportunities.

That was Akers Achilles Heel.

In 1978, #9 Texas lost at unranked Baylor 38-14 to get knocked out of the Cotton Bowl.  In 1979, the Horns are slated for the Sugar Bowl when unranked A&M defeats them 13-7 on a busted halfback pass attempt when Curtis Dickey pulls the ball down and races in for the touchdown.

The 1983 Cotton Bowl.  Need I say more?

When the losses began to accumulate in 1984, Akers had little good will stored in the bank for a variety of reasons, and so he began his walk down the Longhorn "Green Mile."

For Mack Brown, the accumulation of his recruiting prowess resulted in the Young/McCoy era. From 2004-09 Those two transcendent personalities led a collection of future NFL talent to a 69-9 mark, four Top 5 finishes, five Top 10, and the first National Championship in 35 years. The Horns were 6-5 against Top 10 opponents during that 6-year stretch, with a 16-5 mark against Top 20 opponents.

We have spent the last four years dissecting the demise of the program, so there is no need to go into great detail, except to reiterate what we already know.

There is no clear template to study and then say, "This is what must be done to restore Texas to elite status." Time changes the "mechanics" of what produces an elite program.

I do believe that are some basic tenants that increase the odds of a successful program at Texas.  I also believe that Charlie Strong has already taken steps that indicate he is fully capable of rebuilding the Texas program.

The first task Darrell Royal undertook was to change the culture of the program from top to bottom. It included academics, facilities, practice procedures, as well as setting a tone of accountability that was clear to everyone - fans included.

I go back to one of Royal's first public statements at Texas:

"We'll find us some guys around here who want to dance every dance, and we'll turn that thing up in Dallas into a bloodletting again."

Strong has his own blueprint for change, and he is already at work putting it in place.

Fred Akers introduced the concept of selectively, but aggressively recruiting out of state. Charlie Strong is following suit - some would say out of necessity to begin with. Texas has commits for 2015 from California, Louisiana, New Mexico and Florida. There is no reason to ignore the possibility that quality recruits outside the state of Texas might actually want to come here.

"In the end, all kings depose themselves, whether by neglect or by choice."

Another tenant won't come into play until down the line when hard times hit (as they inevitably will) the Strong regime.

Both Fred Akers and Mack Brown were not able to overcome the inevitable slide that visits every coach.

Only Darrell Royal survived the valley of mediocrity when it first hit, in part because Royal was capable of making an extensive, even brutal self-scouting of his program. When the losses began to mount, Royal examined every part of his program, changing recruiting philosophy, practice methods, even schemes.

After going 19-12, Royal looked at what others were having success with (veer offense) studied his own talent base, and decided to completely overhaul his offense to fit the talent he had on campus. It was a bold move, done entirely after spring training. But Royal believed in his staff and in his ability to adapt and "scratch where it itches."

The willingness to acknowledge mistakes and make dramatic changes allowed Royal to enjoy a renaissance that created an offense (the Wishbone) that changed the game, while also cementing his and Texas' standing among the college football elite.

Everything I have seen in Charlie Strong at this early date tells me he has that self-awareness quality as well. Hopefully that test is far down the road.

I know this. I am anticipating the upcoming season with a level of enthusiasm more in line with that 7 year of decades ago than I have in a long time. I am ready for some football.


The 2014 Longhorn Football Prospectus: Thinking Texas Football

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