Late to the Game: Strong, Hot Takes

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With Texas football sitting at 1-4 heading into OU weekend, the alarms are sounding. Warning shots are being fired into the air with the BFG-9000 from Doom. The takes are so hot that America’s youth is eating them as dares and posting the results to Vine. As Texas heads to the Cotton Bowl this weekend for a showdown with No. 10-ranked Oklahoma, the Longhorns are on the verge of their worst start in almost 80 years.

The sheen from near-wins against Cal and Oklahoma State wore thinner with each TCU touchdown last week, and now the social-media overreaction is full-on. A member of the Texas Rangers’ social media team had seen enough, tweeting “Fire Strong #bye.” In an ironic twist, the person who sent that Tweet was looking for a new job just a couple hours later.

Here’s the deal, overreactors: Strong is not getting fired midseason, for a few reasons. We’ll start with money. Even the highest-revenue-generating athletics program in the country won’t eat Strong’s contract this early. Texas paid Strong’s Louisville buyout—a not-insignificant sum of $4.375 million—just last year, and he’s owed $5 million in base salary for each of the next three seasons. Can Texas justify inflated ticket prices while paying two head coaches simultaneously and selling another rebuild to fans who are itching for relevance? Better gas up the planes and start printing banners if that happens.

Strong also has the full support of interim AD Mike Perrin, who has the full support of UT president Greg Fenves. But perhaps most importantly, he’s also not about to be the first victim of a midseason head coach firing in Texas football history.

Coaches have floundered at Texas over the course of the last 120 years. Jack Chevigny, head coach from 1934-36, the man who literally won one for the Gipper, is the only Texas coach to finish his career with a losing record. He inherited a good team from vaunted coach Clyde Littlefield and still managed to alienate fans and Texas high school coaches, which spoiled his recruiting. He asked to not be reappointed for 1937, but wasn’t technically fired.

Ed Price, who led the Longhorns to the worst record in Texas history in 1956, was allowed to resign after a 1-9 season. At least that’s what history says. I’ll have to check the microfiche to see if the Statesman‘s beat writers thought he was canned. Heck, even Mack Brown lost five straight OU games in the early aughts. He didn’t have his BCS National Championship parachute yet. Think he felt some pressure?

Considered among the best head coaching positions in the country, the Texas job comes with a certain type of pressure from fans and boosters alike, even for men with lofty accomplishments. Blair Cherry, Price’s predecessor, resigned after a 9-2 season in 1950, and a cumulative 32-10-1 record in four seasons in Austin. He apparently suffered from ulcers and insomnia, stemming from late-night phone calls he’d receive after losses. “Mrs. Cherry handled some of these calls so I could get a little sleep,” he wrote, in an article titled “Why I Quit Coaching” in the Saturday Evening Post. “But they continued right along for days and for nights. It was murder.”

Murder. And this was 20-plus years before any of the guys who invented Twitter were even born! W.E. Metzenthin, a German-born professor whom athletics implored to take over the football team in 1907 because of his stalwart instruction with the 1906 team, quit after a 5-4 season in 1908 because he was sick of the criticism. He coached again at Texas, sure, but only in men’s basketball.

But honestly, when you’re coaching on this level, where are you safe from scrutiny? Leading the Longhorns is a high-stress job, but the same can be said of, say, the Gators, Seminoles, and Hurricanes, the three major programs in Florida, a state in which Strong has a strong recruiting presence.

I’d ask former coach Dave Allerdice, but he died in 1941, and my favorite séance leader is on vacation. Midway through the 1915 season, Allerdice told the Athletic Council he’d be leaving after that season because of the “super critical nature of the Texas fans.” He finished 33-7 at Texas, good for an .825 winning percentage and, in a sane world, some breathing room and a big, fat paycheck. Berry M. Whittaker went 22-3-1 from 1920-22 and resigned because, according to him, he was “too thin-skinned” and “coming down with ulcers.” Tough crowd.

Other head coaches, of varying success, left in more, shall I say, creative ways. After leading the Longhorns to a 5-0 record in 1895 and not giving up a single point along the way, football coach Frank Crawford left the team in San Antonio, fresh off a 38-0 walloping on Thanksgiving, and headed straight to Mexico to watch bullfights. Texas still had a game left, a postseason matchup with a team in Galveston, but Crawford was still getting his Hemingway on south of the border. The Longhorns pitched another shutout, but Crawford never coached another game at Texas. The next year, his final year of collegiate coaching, he led the Nebraska Wesleyan Prairie Wolves to a 3-2 record. Seems like a logical follow-up: Lead UT to an undefeated, unheard of defensive season and then head to the prairie to coach a made-up sounding team. The 1800s were wild.

W.S. Wasmund looked to be a longtime Longhorn football coach. His team went 6-2 in 1910, in a year when college football underwent immense change, both in style of play and in game length. A popular fellow despite those sole losses coming at the hands of Oklahoma and Texas A&M, Wasmund wouldn’t get a second crack at the Sooners and Aggies. Six days before the 1911 opener, Wasmund was found unconscious outside his Austin apartment. A known sleepwalker, he allegedly fell out of his second-story building and died days later. There was no foul play suspected, but again, I’ll fire up the microfiche to confirm.

This is all to say that despite winning or losing, popularity or unpopularity, it’s not the Texas way to fire a head football coach midseason. Those calling for Strong’s head are the minority, the squeaky wheels screaming into the void, one Shiner-fueled subtweet at a time. Even if Texas drops to 1-5 after a loss to Oklahoma this weekend, which hasn’t happened since 1938, Strong has history on his side.

If you’re wondering who coached that 1938 team, a team that ended up 1-8 on the season after finishing 2-6-1 in 1937, that would be Dana X. Bible. Texas won the national championship three years later and Bible was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.

Illustration by Melissa Reese

 

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