Print and Go Back ESPN.com: College Football [Print without images]

Sunday, January 5, 2014
Updated: January 6, 5:10 PM ET
Is Strong ready for Texas' demands?

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

Charlie Strong is a bright coach, a proven winner and an obvious choice to take over one of the marquee programs in college football. Texas zeroed in on him and lured him away from Louisville, the university that gave Strong a chance to be a head coach when other schools had passed him by.

Strong is 53 years old, old enough to have his coaching career impeded by the reluctance of universities to hire African-Americans. He served as a defensive coordinator in the SEC for 11 seasons, including on two national championship teams at Florida, before he got a job offer from Louisville four years ago. Strong went 37-15 (.712) with the Cardinals, including that epic Allstate Sugar Bowl upset of the Gators a year ago.

On the day before that game, Strong explained why he had weeks earlier turned down Tennessee to stay at Louisville.

"I think about the University of Louisville and [athletic director] Tom Jurich and our president, Dr. [James R.] Ramsey, they gave me the first opportunity, and it's all about loyalty," Strong said.

"And a lot of times when you have a little success, everybody starts saying, 'Hey, let's go try to go hire this guy away.' But because of them giving me my first opportunity, it's hard to say and walk away, and then for the players that I recruited there, you know, talked to them about trust, talk to them about commitment.

Charlie Strong
One of Charlie Strong's crowning achievements at Louisville was a win over Florida in last year's Sugar Bowl.

"And a lot of times I tell those players that a lot of people have walked out of their life. Now all of a sudden here I am the head football coach, I'm going to walk away from them, who will they ever trust? I couldn't do it to that university. I couldn't do it to that group of players."

It would be easy to pin those words on Strong on Sunday. But this isn't a political campaign. Playing "gotcha" ignores reality. By word and action, Strong explained how he felt about Louisville. Texas is Texas, the biggest, richest athletic department on God's green earth. Louisville is an oasis of excellence in the college athletics desert. But it's not Austin, Texas.

Whether the metric is football or the coaching ladder, the hire of Strong is a strong hire, and I apologize for the obvious pun. But there's something else obvious about the Texas job, something that gives me pause about Strong moving into Mack Brown's expansive office.

No other position in American sports is expected to be the public face of an institution as often as the college football head coach. It speaks to the grip that college sports have on their fans, to the emotional investment that fans make in their school's teams. The pluses in this system are measured by the coaches' status as public figures, by the commas in their salaries.

The minus is that a coach can be tripped up by job demands that have nothing to do with football and everything to do with being a football coach.

Every head-coaching job has different demands. The bigger the job, the more the demands stray from the whiteboard. USC, the marquee football program in the entertainment capital of the world, expects its coach to cater to the media, to be that public face. Ask Lane Kiffin what happens to a coach who botches the task.

It is certainly possible to bend the demands of the job to the coach's personality. Nick Saban remade Alabama football and dared anyone to challenge his decisions. By sheer force of personality -- and with a lot of winning -- Saban backed down any grumblers. But there aren't a whole lot of Nick Sabans out there.

Don't ask me to define the booster politics in which a coach must engage in a state with a constitutional amendment banning limits on ego. All I know is that the two coaches who won national championships at Texas, Darrell Royal and Mack Brown, possessed the backslapping, shoulder-rubbing personalities that kept a lot of rich, powerful people at bay. Royal and Brown didn't have to fake it. That's who they were.

That's not who Charlie Strong is. He has a quieter public persona. How he handles the public and private demands that he just agreed to take on will define his tenure in Austin. It is not as important as winning. If Brown's predecessor, John Mackovic, had won enough games, he might still be coaching the Longhorns. But when Mackovic faltered, his cool reticence had pushed aside support that might have helped him.

In four years, Strong has risen from a guy who thought his race had held him back to one of the most visible jobs in the game. He got there on merit. His new job expects merit and something more. How Strong handles the something more will call on skills that he hasn't shown in a long, distinguished coaching career. Here's hoping he has them.