Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Strong telling hard truths on tour of Texas
By Max Olson
SAN ANTONIO -- The revolution will be witnessed in a Tex-Mex restaurant, an NFL stadium, an Air Force hangar, a Holiday Inn and, on Monday night, a renovated train station.
These are the lengths to which Texas will go to introduce new head coach Charlie Strong to the rest of the state. After visits to Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston and Tyler, the “Comin’ On Strong” barnstorming bus tour stopped by Sunset Station in San Antonio and drew a sold-out crowd of nearly 800 fans.
Strong closed out a two-hour event -- essentially a pep rally with a cash bar -- with a boisterous, 12-minute speech explaining the progress he’s making and the process to get there.
“We know this: We’re not where we need to be,” Strong said. “We’re going to get better and we will continue to get better, but this football team is going to be exciting to watch.”
Charlie Strong is trying to being realistic in his speeches to booster groups this spring.
Texas ADs Steve Patterson and Chris Plonsky made an appearance. So too did baseball coach Augie Garrido and a handful of former Longhorns letter-winners. But the people came to see Strong.
“I think Charlie is a straight-talker, and people appreciate that,” Patterson said. “Everybody I’ve heard from at all the stops last week were impressed and saw what the rest of us saw when we hired Charlie. There’s a lot of enthusiasm out there.”
For Strong, the travel is an unusual post-spring, back-and-forth demand, but one he’s embracing. He’s beginning each day this week in Austin, holding meetings with every player on the team before hitting the road in the afternoon. Each player meeting gets 15 minutes and the truth: If you’re a starter, he’ll say so. If you aren’t, get to work.
He’s trying to be as honest with the Texas fan base, too. Last week, on the tour’s opening stop, Strong acknowledged that this Texas team probably won’t play for a national championship. Some fans were outraged. Some nodded their heads. Like it or not, it’s truthful.
“I know you all are excited, but it’s only April the 28th,” Strong told the crowd Monday from a stage in the station’s outdoor pavilion. “Let’s not get out of hand. We’ve still got a ways to go.”
Texas officials began planning this 11-stop tour immediately after Strong was hired, and eight have already sold out. Mack Brown signed up for a similar tour back in 1998. New Penn State coach James Franklin will start his own 17-stop caravan throughout the East this week.
Strong hit the big cities last week, where he was greeted by the big-pocket boosters and greats such as Vince Young and Michael Huff. The second half of the tour will take him to the corners of the state -- Corpus Christi, El Paso, Amarillo -- full of faraway fans who rarely get these opportunities. In the Rio Grande Valley, Wednesday's event sold out twice after demand required finding a larger venue.
“I think it’s beautiful,” former Texas receiver Wane McGarity said after speaking at Monday’s stop. “I think this is the type of support Coach Strong needs to see. He needs to know we’re all behind him. He knows he’s got a big task ahead of him. There’s no need for the fans to make it any more difficult.”
While Strong signed autographs for a long line of fans, McGarity had some truths of his own to share on stage. He put Texas on blast for the years Brown’s teams came up empty against Oklahoma. He says he’s tired of watching Longhorns teams quit.
That’s the only game that matters to McGarity, and the one that’ll tell him what he needs to know about Strong. But the 37-year-old Longhorns great likes what he’s seen so far.
“I wouldn’t want to play for him,” McGarity said with a smile. “He seems like a little bit hard-core, but he’s an X’s and O’s guy and he’s going to put the onus on the players. He’s going to set you up, but it’s got to be on you to go and put the product on the field.”
Hard-core, he says, is what Texas needs right now. Former wide receiver Johnny Walker can tell Strong is earning the respect of ex-players for his dedication to starting this new regime off right.
More on Texas
For full coverage of the Longhorns, check out the Texas blog, part of ESPN's College Football Nation. Blog
“That’s what the program has been needing for the past couple years. We needed someone that was going to come in and establish what it means to be a Longhorn,” Walker said. “I think he’s done a fantastic job of letting people know what his expectations are.”
Strong speaks proudly of his standards at these events. He couldn’t help but brag to this crowd about his “Breakfast Club.” He has a dozen Texas players showing up for two-hour study hall sessions at 6 a.m. and again at 8 p.m.
“The reason why they’re in the Breakfast Club? Last semester, they couldn’t find their classroom,” Strong said. “So we’re helping them find their classroom now.”
At the back of the pavilion stood Johnny Ray Campos and his nephew, Amador Villarreal. Strong sold them on Monday. After calling their wives to get permission, the San Antonio residents bought tickets for three home games.
“I hope he can bring the same intensity to Texas, because that’s what they need,” Campos said. “I think they just need new life.”
After the band played and horns were thrown and the last few fans snuck in photos, Strong took off. He had to get back on the road, where truths needed to be told to players and fans alike.