Late to the Game: Room to Grow


The last two seasons of Longhorn football, frustrating as they have been for fans, were not, in the grand scheme of things, actually that bad. Unless for some reason you expected two straight national championships in Coach Charlie Strong’s first two seasons. If that’s the case, stop reading this immediately and read this primer on college football instead. Then watch this totally zen video.

The seasons to which I refer are 1937 and 1938. If you’re out there thinking, Golly, those years can’t be worse than 2014 and 2015! Let me stop you right there: It was worse. Much worse. So bad, in fact, that Texas lost to Rice both those years plus the three preceding. Those two seasons, Dana X. Bible’s first two at Texas after a remarkable 72-19-9 record and two national championships at Texas A&M and eight years of sustained success at Nebraska, were rough.

Eleven wins in two years at Texas amounts to cataclysmic peril in 2016. Bible had three wins in 1937-38. Three! In 1938, Texas lost its first eight games—scoring double digits in only one of those, a loss to Kansas—before eking out a 7-6 win over A&M on Thanksgiving. Here’s what Jinx Tucker (great name), writing for the Waco Herald Tribune had to say during the offseason:

“Dana X. Bible, who has proven that he is one of the outstanding coaches in the land, came to Texas and proved that it was not a coach that Texas needed. He has proven that Texas needed something more than a good coach, and now Texas is ready and willing to get what it takes. Texas had a number of outstanding high school stars on its freshman team this year. It will probably have just as many next year and the year after. After which Bible will start getting results. When his long contract expires, chances are that the University of Texas will do what it can to sign him to another contract.”

Put aside, for the moment, that Tucker is predicting future success for a team that just went 1-8, and pointing out that Bible isn’t at fault for losing with the roster he inherited. He’s also proposing that Bible receive a contract extension while failing to attribute firing rumors to “anonymous sources familiar with the thinking of members of the athletics department.” What a world! I’d miss recruiting via Snapchat though.

In fact, these are the seasons to which stories of the Longhorns’ woes refer when describing the last two seasons at Texas. At one point in 2015, when Texas was 1-4 after a 50-7 exsanguination by TCU, with upcoming games against Oklahoma, Baylor, and a recharged Texas Tech team, a two or three win season looked likely. The Longhorns had a schizophrenic finish to the season, beating Oklahoma, Kansas State, Kansas, and Baylor, but losing to West Virginia, Tech, and were shut out by a mediocre Iowa State team.

That offseason, the rumor mill churned out Strong conspiracy theories. He did not have the full support of new athletics director Mike Perrin (Perrin told us on the Texas Exes podcast that he did support Strong). That he’d be fired after 2016, so no one wanted to be his offensive coordinator for one season (see Sterlin Gilbert). That he couldn’t recruit. Beat writers and bloggers walked most of that back after a historic National Signing Day, but now the questions are all about who will play quarterback. Last week, Strong said, “I don’t know if by the spring there will be a guy,” which, coupled with Jerrod Heard’s injury to his throwing shoulder has Longhorn fans feeling like this¯\_(ツ)_/¯ at best and this ಠ_ಠ at worst.

So what’s the difference between Bible and Strong’s arrival at Texas and the differences in how the two have been treated? When Bible took over for Jack Chevigny, the only coach to have an overall losing record at Texas, he was coming in as a twice-proven hero entering his third act. Bible won two National Championships at Texas A&M, in 1919 and 1927. That 1919 team was undefeated, untied, and, remarkably, unscored upon, with a cumulative score of 275-0. He could have retired an Aggie legend, but Bible left College Station for Nebraska in 1929, where he won six Big 6 Conference titles in eight seasons. That’s a big reason why—in addition to his tenure predating the formation of the Hot Take Industrial Complex and Twitter not existing for another 70 years—Bible was afforded the luxury of some hassle-free rebuilding seasons.

Before Strong set foot in the state, Red McCombs regretted the former Louisville coach’s hiring, calling it a “kick in the face,” and that “he would make a great position coach, maybe a coordinator.” When Strong was still 0-0 at Texas, he had perhaps the most important booster in Texas football reeling. When he did arrive, Strong was left with little on his roster he could work with: David Ash, who’d play in two games before another concussion forced his retirement, a decimated offensive line, and a backup quarterback in Tyrone Swoopes who’d had his redshirt needlessly burned by Mack Brown at the end of the previous season. He had 12 players who were removed from the team for not adhering to his core values. I had a fan tweet “Fire Strong” at me during Strong’s second game as head coach.

As for Bible, that propagator of the T-formation, he was allowed the years necessary to rebuild the Longhorns, and in his fifth season at Texas, the Longhorns went 8-1-1 and were named National Champions. The Aggie legend is now a Texas legend, and only because he was given room to grow. Strong needs that room too. We will see if he gets it.

Illustration by Melissa Reese.


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