Charlie Strong took over a Texas program that needed a rebuild. The real kind. Not a reallocation of existing talent or the injection of a few missing components that the media (and a PR savvy coach) brand as a complete re-haul when win totals double. Then fans can point to that program and ask - Why can't you just do what X did at Y?
Texas fans know the quick turnaround narrative. They've lived it. It writes itself like an Escher painting, two hands drawing each other in seeming perpetuity. A self-fulfilling prophecy creating its own momentum that signs the right letters of intent that guarantee even more wins.
That wasn't going to happen here. Not right away. Particularly as injuries mounted and another round of piss tests told the true tale of player buy-in. Strong decided to perform a complete gutting. A process that the fanbase largely accepted in concept. A funny thing about concepts. They're somewhat conceptual. Texas fans began to have second thoughts when they learned that a new kitchen meant that they'd be eating spam off of a hot plate under a dirty tarp for a while. Isn't this all a bit too drastic, they muttered into their canteens. Was the old formica really that bad?
When the new contractors reported that the ceilings had asbestos, the floorboards had termites and the entire foundation was resting on a Jenga piece, our collective appetite for creative destruction went the way of Guns & Roses after Axl Rose started wearing kilts. That's before the November rain started. And after Shawn Watson's reign ended. Now each new setback merely reinforces the idea that the project was doomed from the start and that there is no end to this money pit.
Is the project really that difficult? Or are the contractors making this all a bit too hard? They're not mutually exclusive ideas. And if both things are true, do you stay the course? Or do you make a change under the premise that one must always do now what you'll eventually have to do later?
The contractors have a say, too. The best thing anyone can do is fire their most unreasonable customers. Or just make fun of them a lot, as we do here. I write a Texas blog with lots of readers. I read the comments. I get the tantrum e-mails. When we lose, particularly badly, we're the punctilious self-entitled Yelp reviewer that everyone despises. God help the restaurant that loses our reservation and seats us by the kitchen. One star. I have never been so offended as I was today at Medieval Times. I shall never darken the portcullis of your establishment again.
More broadly, we live in a social media driven culture where the lessons of history are viewed as quaint irrelevancies and any context - or even a simple request to show the work that informs your world view - is viewed as a betrayal of the imprimatur of righteous indignation.
This isn't unique to Texas. I'm not sure a legitimate strip-it-to-the-studs four or five year rebuild is possible at any powerhouse program anymore. Once, long ago, Tammy Wynette stood by her man. Nicki Minaj is getting a new man if you let her go to the bathroom alone.
As patience wanes and perspectives narrow, rebuilding coaches better hope to inherit a formerly underachieving, injury-riddled, hard luck, one-year-away team.
Take Urban Meyer. Brilliant coach. Equally shrewd inheritor. At Utah, Meyer had five players drafted (including a first rounder) in his undefeated second season. Thanks, Ron McBride. At Florida, he took over a Ron Zook roster that provided a national title in Year Two and then filled up the NFL draft like fat Jets fans. Then Urban won another. Florida fans still appreciate him even though he quit after realizing that he'd assembled a murderer's row of...well, actual murderers. Oh, I mean resigned to be with his family. At Ohio State, he wisely succeeded Tressell's success. The man has better timing than Usain Bolt.
On the more modest side of the coaching bell curve, Houston Nutt did it at Ole Miss with Ed Orgeron's talent before giving Oxford a collective Nutt allergy. Kevin Sumlin inherited a roster that Mike Sherman stocked with five eventual 1st round draft picks over his first three years. Mack Brown did it with a Mackovic team that provided him one of the best offenses in Texas history and a young defense full of future NFL studs. Fred Akers got the same favor from DKR.
Mack Brown's real tear-it-down rebuild happened at UNC where he went 2-20 in his first two seasons. The Tarheels were 1-13 in the ACC. In Brown's second year, UNC averaged 12 points per game. Their only win was Virginia Military Institute in the opener. Then they lost 10 games in a row, capped off by a 41-0 loss to Duke. In his third year, yes, amazingly, there was a third year, Brown went 6-4-1. Imagine that happening at Texas today. Or Florida State. Or Alabama. 1989 was a different universe. Even at a basketball school. The notion that Brown's 2-20 team would have a winning record in Year 3 and that he'd eventually have the Tarheels in the Top 10 would have been laughed off of the dial up interwebz.
Oddly, young players get better over time and makes coaches look smarter. Fans forget this as the losses pile up.
In the world of contextual fanmnesia, no thing or person was ever a project. Vince Young was never benched multiple times before coming to be regarded as Mr Clutch, Colt McCoy didn't throw
17 18 interceptions as a sophomore (start John Chiles was a thing for a while, really) and Mykkele Thompson and Michael Huff were beloved from day one as heady, physical safeties with clear NFL futures.
Right now, Texas starts seven freshman. A dozen more play critical roles in the two deep. History tells us that they will probably get better at football.
In the moments after a humiliating loss to Iowa State, none of that really matters. We live in the now. That was a miserable loss that confirmed Texas is nowhere near turning the corner. Presumably, that corner wasn't evident when UNC was 1-10 and getting plowed 41-0 by Duke, either. You can only know in retrospect. In a new regime, the future is only projectable by limited data sets. We draw straight lines up or down and project to infinity when a scatter plot might be more helpful. Nor is there any axis that accounts for the larger sense of dread that we're falling behind in the macro-game - we're in a dumpy conference, have had a visionless administration, face unaccustomed headwinds in recruiting and are watching ESPN's elevation of the SEC from a college football conference to college football itself. A strong Texas is largely immune to those forces, a weak Texas is buffeted by them daily.
Strong hasn't helped himself in some key areas. Right now, faith in Strong is largely a matter of, well, faith. Faith that he'll make the right coaching hire on offense, faith that he'll close the 2016 recruiting class with the same miracles that he did in 2015, faith that his development plans are still on-line, faith that he'll jettison a few of the generational peers on his staff where most programs house their ambitious ace recruiters, faith that he'll persevere and sell us his vision on the field since he can't do it from the pulpit.
To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible - Thomas Aquinas. Who knew Aquinas was an Aggie?
Faith cuts both ways.
Does Strong have faith in us? In the Texas administration and key boosters? He was promised time for a rebuild. Do enough embarrassing losses nullify that promise? He certainly has conducted himself as if he expects to have a senior class one day. Will we see it through? If he senses the well is becoming permanently poisoned or that promises are being revisited - either fairly or unfairly by his team's performance and ensuing fan negativity, and at this point fairness barely enters into it - his obligation is to his own career.
Our results over the last four games of the season could determine outcomes that we could all barely imagine in the afterglow of a victory in Dallas.