AUSTIN, Texas — The ending to this wild week in Austin is easy to imagine: Charlie Strong crowd-surfing over his Texas players one more time in a jubilant celebration of a last-minute victory over TCU.
But then what?
Welcome to the latest high-stakes moment for Texas, starring a head coach who has already heard reports he’ll be fired but still hasn’t been informed of his fate. Strong’s last stand Friday against TCU promises to be an enigmatic affair.
It’s hard to believe beating a 5-5 TCU team to clinch a bowl bid can instantly change everything. A 17-20 record at Texas probably shouldn’t be viewed much differently than 16-20 in Strong’s efforts to prove that, three years in, he has made an acceptable amount of progress.
But here we are, pondering these judgments because Texas has opened the door for second-guessing. LSU might’ve blasted that door wide open Thursday night by reportedly making progress toward a deal with Houston’s Tom Herman. Texas must move quickly if it wants Herman, yet there’s a still-employed head coach and his TCU game standing in the way.
This predicament was perfectly avoidable had Strong’s bosses taken a more direct, sensible approach to the situation last weekend.
Texas could have tried being proactive, sending out a statement on Sunday morning announcing Strong will not return in 2017 and will coach his final game against TCU. Strong could have stepped up to the podium Monday and delivered a classy farewell speech thanking his players, coaches and all those who supported him. Texas could have spent this week celebrating Strong, culminating in a TCU game in which his players play their hearts out for him once more and send him out the right way.
Sounds like a solid plan, right? Instead, Texas settled for the more interesting timeline, finally finding a way to capture the classic Thanksgiving drama and intrigue lost when Texas A&M left for the SEC.
By letting Strong spend this week in limbo, Texas leadership is giving the man a chance to sell why he must return next season. Maybe they forgot how persuasive a recruiter he can be.
Strong embraced the opportunity Monday with a news conference bolstered by most of his players attending and applauding for him. He referred admiringly to those players 25 times in 30 minutes, arguing with hope and conviction that the 2017 season will be their big breakthrough. He only uttered the word “Kansas” twice.
There was already enough pressure on Texas president Greg Fenves and athletic director Mike Perrin to pull off a respectful, graceful firing and a swift, masterful hire. Neither of the decision-makers attended the Monday presser to witness Strong effectively challenge them with his display of popularity.
Now he gets to send one final statement Friday against a TCU program that has always had Strong’s number, outscoring Texas 50-7 and 48-10 in their last two meetings. But let’s not lose sight of the big picture here: Does Strong really believe getting to 6-6 would make a difference to his bosses?
“They said we’ll be evaluated after that game,” Strong replied, “so I don’t know how they’re going to be thinking. But I’d like to say that it will, [that] winning that game will help.”
It all makes for a fascinating crossroads for the future of Texas football, especially when you consider the track record of Strong’s Texas teams in these circumstances. When backed into a corner, his players fight back.
The Oklahoma game in 2015. Notre Dame and Baylor this season. The Longhorns handle pressure much better than handle prosperity under Strong, landing their big victories when they absolutely need them.
It’s probably harder to conjure that nothing-to-lose mentality this week, though, when Texas players know exactly who they’re going to lose.
One thing these Longhorns have rarely done this season: convert turnovers into points. In losses to Oklahoma, Kansas State and West Virginia, Texas got 11 takeaways and scored a total of 10 points off them. Strong would be 8-3 today and perfectly safe had the Longhorns stepped up in those moments.
Well, here’s one more: Texas’ leadership might have fumbled with its handling of his firing. We’re about to find out whether Strong can finally capitalize.