AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Charlie Strong has been prepping to lead the Texas Longhorns for 30 years. The evidence is tucked away in his office, stuffed into file cabinets one page, one lesson, one line at a time.
Inside the drawers are daily notes, quotes, practice reports, meeting agendas and conversations that span a career from his first job as a graduate assistant at Florida in 1983 to stops at Texas A&M, Mississippi, South Carolina, Notre Dame and back to Florida before his first head coaching job at Louisville.
Some are typed on pages still crisp. Others are handwritten on floppy and withered paper. They have followed Strong to every job he’s ever had, including Texas.
“His attention to detail was unmatched,” said Gary Darnell, who coached with Strong at Florida in 1988-89. “He loves gathering information. He was either going to be a college professor or a coach.”
And it likely explains why Strong comes off as so confident to face the mission in front of him: returning Texas to the top of the Big 12.
“It isn’t a monster,” Strong said of Texas, despite the fact that his office view of the stadium is partly blocked by a video board so big its nickname is Godzillatron. “It’s a program with all the resources you need.”
Strong will need every bit of that confidence – and those resources – as he begins his tenure. Strong, the first black head coach of a men’s sport at Texas, was hired to replace Mack Brown, who in 2005 delivered the Longhorns’ first national championship in 36 years and led them to another national title game after the 2009 season. But the run ended there. Since 2010, Texas hasn’t won more than nine games in a season.
Texas offensive coordinator Joe Wickline, who was with Strong as a graduate assistant at Florida, describes him as “insanely organized.”
“He’s always been like that,” Wickline said. “He made notes of drops, missed assignments. Charted everything.”
But it was more than routine stuff. By documenting the details, Strong was soaking up years of valuable teaching from national championship-winning coaches like Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.
Spurrier taught him how to build team confidence, not just for a game, but a swashbuckling program-wide swagger.
“(Spurrier) built a confidence in a team where you knew you weren’t going to lose a game. It didn’t matter who we played, he made that team feel it’s time to go put on a show,'” Strong said. “They came here to watch US play … No matter where we went, Alabama or Auburn, it didn’t matter. That’s the confidence you have to build in a program.”
Holtz taught him about attention to detail. Not just within a game or practice or playbook, but within his players. Holtz demanded that his assistant coaches know their players better than he did. And it was challenge because Holtz seemed to know everything about every player on the roster, from their personal lives to their weekly academic status.
Strong gives each of his players a biography form to fill out. It asks personal questions, such as naming three people they would like to have dinner with, the last time they cried, and the happiest days of their lives.
That’s particularly important when inheriting a roster of players he didn’t recruit and only first met a few months ago.
“We want to understand our players,” Strong said. “I don’t ever want our coaches to ask a player `How’s your mom?’ when really he lost her when he was 2 years old.”
The players also have to understand him. And play by his rules.
He had laid down core values of “no drugs, no guns, no stealing, be honest and treat women with respect” in his first meeting with the team back in January. Then he created a stir with a series of dismissals or suspensions at the start of training camp.
Wide receivers Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander were kicked off after felony sexual assault charges and Strong says they won’t be allowed back even if the charges are later dropped or they are acquitted. Three other players were dismissed and three more potential starters were suspended for at least one game for unspecified rules violations.
“If you want to be a part of this team, you are going to have to follow the rules, you are going to have to be committed and do things right. If you don’t want to do that, you can’t be a part of this team,” quarterback David Ash said.
“I say it all of the time, if a young man doesn’t want to be a part of this program, just break a core value and you are telling me exactly where you want to stand,” Strong said.
There have been other minor adjustments for his team.
Strong removed the iconic Longhorn logo stickers from player helmets in training camp, telling them they had to earn them back. He eliminated the half-mile air-conditioned bus ride from the locker room to the practice field. Players now walk to practice in their pads. In the heat.
Strong has been up front with fans about the team’s prospects, and practices the honesty he preaches. Back in April on the first stop of his statewide “Comin’ on Strong” tour to meet Texas fans, he warned them the Longhorns “will not be in the national championship game.”
Will they ever be?
Those piles of notes may have the answer.