The Influence of the AD
Steve Patterson is out. It took less than two years. That's an achievement. Consider that DeLoss Dodds blundered with hires for most of his three decade tenure before finding Mack Brown and Rick Barnes, held on to both too long, fired popular coaches like Abe Lemons (though rightly), retained some shabby ones, completely blew the realignment opportunities that tied Texas into the demographically feeble Big 12 for the foreseeable future, refused to set any forward vision past 2010, let Texas athletics drift into somnolence and still managed to stick around until 2013. He was hired in 1981. Great run. Political savvy and a different intensity around college athletics enabled his survival, but Texas is a pretty forgiving place to administrators struggling on the job.
Patterson wasn't just fired for what he did. Or even any specific concrete disaster. He was fired for his manner, what he conveyed, how he conveyed it and how he treated the folks who aren't paid a salary to care about Texas. There are still messes to be cleaned up - most of which weren't created by Patterson.
His replacement, interim AD Mike Perrin, is a well-respected Longhorn alum and former football player under Darrell Royal. His charge is to take the Texas AD operations out of the headlines, re-engage with key constituents, support our coaches, and focus on day-to-day realities instead of franchising Longhorn t-shirt kiosks into Belarus.
If Perrin can also somehow manage to make game day less abusively commercial and more focused on football, the authentic college experience, genuine pageantry, pretty girls and middle class wallets, he'll have a more productive short-time administration than James K Polk.
Perrin will be on the job for six months to two years at most. His mandate will be narrow and he'll mend boats instead of rocking them, avoid hiring or firing revenue sports (short of something cataclysmic or some obvious mandate for action) and not return any calls from the Big 12 office when they want to talk about our plans past...tomorrow.
While Patterson's departure is probably a good thing for Texas Inc, it narrows Charlie Strong's results window. Perrin's permanent successor will have no investment in Strong and Charlie's performance will be no reflection on his hiring acumen. His reputation isn't tied to Charlie, so there's no need to buy time for him. The fastest way for a new AD to ingratiate themselves to a fanbase is the removal of a floundering coach. Remember - there was a genuine enthusiasm for Patterson on this point with respect to Mack Brown and, to a lesser extent, Rick Barnes.
While it's often said, it's usually wrong that an AD must have "their guy" and will work against whoever they inherit. A new AD is grateful to inherit any winning coach who isn't mired in scandal. Particularly if that new AD is tasked with trying to scheme their way out of the Big 12, build a basketball facility, re-negotiate apparel contracts and find creative ways to fund revenue draining sports mandated by Title IX.
Strong will be vulnerable within the timeline of the new AD hire. If Strong has turned things around, the new AD won't be shy about offering an extension. If Strong is struggling, a flat Year 3 probably won't turn into Year 4. Under Patterson, it might have. Strong just lost some buffer.
Keeping the Offensive Coordinator Interim
Speaking of welcomed interim replacements, while Jay Norvell has impressed in his early media opportunities and in setting a new philosophical course for the offense which was demonstrated to good effect with 650 yards in the Cal game, it's important that Charlie Strong keep the interim in front of Norvell's name for the rest of this season, even if the Texas offense shows marked improvement. The premature interim-to-permanent promotion because someone moves a disaster to mediocrity has a low success rate in sports, business and human history. Moving horrible to acceptable takes a different skill set than long-term optimization. That doesn't mean Norvell can't earn the job honestly, but the decision needs to be made outside of the pressure cooker of the season when all concerns can be properly assessed.
Strong should hold off on any decisions about the offense until January, 2016. Similarly, Shawn Watson shouldn't be retained in any role.
The questions Strong should ask himself are straightforward: given a wide universe of options, is Jay Norvell the best available offensive coordinator hire for Texas over the next three to five years? How important is continuity? Would a Co-OC be helpful or does that cloud a situation that improved with clarity? How many peer competitors were seeking to hire Norvell as OC before this interim promotion? Is my job on the line in 2016? Who is available? What unit is most likely to sabotage my retention as head coach?
Texas lacks talent and experience. Hopefully, fans have wised up to the groupthink industry of recruiting rankings and understand that on campus development and proper fit is at least as important as pure talent acquisition. Similarly, there's a reason that preseason publications value returning starters, cumulative career starts and number of upperclassmen in assessing a team's prospects. Good teams don't start a bunch of freshmen. Certainly not at QB and in the OL.
While much of our talent problem is due to uneven recruiting and poor player development by Strong's predecessor, some of it is a function of square pegs and round holes. Some players are simply no longer useful in a new system or culture, while they'd have flourished in others. The bulk of your roster is more system dependent than most believe - a nifty 70 catch slot receiver for Mike Leach is a useless 4th stringer at Georgia Tech. A heady starting Cover 2 cornerback at Nebraska rides the pine at Michigan State. An Alabama 340 pound nose tackle is a handful against a two WR offense, but he's a useless tub of goo against the Hurry-Up No Huddle after ten snaps. Most talent - particularly at the solid starter level - is contextual. The failure to understand this fact is why the New England Patriots keep winning in a salary-capped league that shouldn't have long-term dynasties. And why hyper spread offenses keep lighting up Alabama defenses loaded with NFL talent.
In Brown's last years, we had no system or recruiting blueprint beyond basic positional requirements. Texas had been operating under a recruiting model best described as a systemless, random acquisition of talent premised on the best-available-kid-who-will-say-yes-now. Throw in multiple offensive and defensive coordinators, each with different ideas of what a useful player is, and you end up with an incoherent roster.
Some of that talent depletion is also because Charlie Strong mandated that some of the talent stop failing drug tests, buy in totally and grow up. If all FBS coaches booted their knuckleheads or drug offenders - instead of assigning them "counseling" and doing only the mandatory minimum testing - the service academies might all crack the Top 25 again.
Strong believes that his culture will win over the long run. In the long run, Keynes says all coaches get fired. Strong's culture comes with a hefty short term price tag and no room for error. We may applaud Strong's choices, but it's not going to keep his job for him if he's still a .500 coach in 2017. Wins are concrete assessments, integrity is a lofty abstraction.
Weathering The Storm Until The Talent Can Catch Up
Mack Brown didn't inherit as bad a talent situation as Strong and the revisionism on this point is amusing, particularly when it comes from Mack himself, but Brown's first 2-3 years post-Mackovic are still quite instructive. He certainly inherited worse morale.
That Brown staff did a great job coaching up existing talent, re-deploying talent correctly and reinvigorating the player's enthusiasm for the game. Brown inherited a complete Top 10 offense with an all-time great college running back and plenty of veteran leadership, but he also knew that offensive juggernaut would be short lived and he needed to make hay while the sun shined on the recruiting trail. Ride the good feelings from 1998 to buy time for the lumps he knew he'd take in 1999.
In 1999, Texas went an ugly 9-5 against a weak schedule. Watching that team was much rougher than the 9 wins suggests. The honeymoon was over and Texas fans weren't happy. However, Brown and his staff knew they were just biding time until help arrived and the first year starters from 1999 grew up. In 2000, that young talent truly arrived and some of the younger Mackovic inherited talent blossomed. Texas retrenched to consistent, high level success from 2000-2003, blew up to dominance between 2004-2009 and then retreated starting in 2010. Recruiting and player development was the key leading indicator for every rise and fall in Mack's three distinct epochs. Wins were always a lagging indicator. It will be the same for Strong.
The Realities of Non-Linear Progress
Right now many Texas fans are surprised to see a defensive decline and a still struggling football team. They shouldn't be. Talent and experience took a hit and our deficiencies are apparent. But it's clear to any reasonable observer that help is on the way. Some of that help is already starting. As that talent develops and gains experience (and is fleshed out with more depth from good recruiting classes), the lagging indicator of success and wins will follow.
Similarly, Strong cleaned up an offensive mess and his ability to right that ship, find the right QB and make the correct coordinator hire will play a large role in determining his future.
The truth is that most fans and media hold the notion that each year builds on the next (Year 2 should be better than Year 1 because...well, it's the second year) but each individual year is built on the components available. Particularly early on in a coaching tenure. We saw that in 1999 with Brown. Systemic carryover happens later on when the systems, recruiting practices, key position players (see Colt McCoy 2006-2009) and culture become entrenched. That's when teams start to operate as more than the sum of their parts.
Similarly, some positions are simply more important to outcomes than others. And depthless, incomplete teams are far more subject to the deprivations of simple bad luck. If Texas experiences a rash of injuries at key positions this year and next, Charlie Strong will probably be fired. That firing will be rationalized in various ways, but the true cause will be nothing more than bad luck.
His successor will inherit a talented tough-minded team and win a bunch of games. That's life in the big leagues.
Charlie Strong is in a race between his recruiting classes growing up, the development of his offense, the rebuilding of a defense and his early Win-Loss totals. The loss of his AD shortens his grace period and injuries are the known unknown lurking in the background.
That's the metagame I see. What about you?