Charlie Strong may have had the shortest honeymoon in the history of modern relationships. On Monday, Strong was announced as the new head football coach at the University of Texas, a job that’s been portrayed as ever so slightly more important and prestigious than that of the Pope. By all accounts, it is the premier college football coaching post in the country, although several top candidates from other schools, including Alabama’s Nick Saban and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, politely declined an interview. But Strong, straight off a successful run at the helm at Louisville, took the job and its $5 million annual salary. With that, he also gets the potential headache of managing the university’s own sports network and an alumni base as rich as it is powerful. It’s by no means a cakewalk, which is why, as they say, he’ll get paid the big bucks.
But what he won’t get is time. And that’s how the honeymoon ended, when just yesterday billionaire Texas booster Red McCombs publicly berated the hire and declared that Strong should maybe be an assistant at Texas, if anything. This is from the former owner of the Minnesota Vikings, Denver Nuggets, and San Antonio Spurs and someone who has donated some $100 million to the university. Charlie Strong, welcome to Austin.
Down the road a few hours in College Station at that other university in Texas where football is kind of a big deal, things are slightly less contentious for Texas A&M head football coach Kevin Sumlin, who just completed his second season with the Aggies and lead them successfully through their transition to the premier Southeastern Athletic Conference. In fact, the Aggies have surpassed the Longhorns in the past two seasons, with A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel even winning the Heisman trophy last year. Sumlin came in with less critique, perhaps because of lower institutional expectation, even at the high stressed environs of Texas A&M. Sumlin has taken to his post nicely and with bravado, even traveling to visit recruits in an Aggie branded helicopter. Perhaps more importantly, success at A&M isn’t only measured by national championships, seemingly the only litmus at Texas.
But what’s both lost and forefront in the subsequent hire of these two football coaches, likely the two highest profile public employees in the state of Texas, up to and possibly including the governor, is that both are African American. Before the hire of Charlie Strong, Texas had never employed a black head coach. Not just in football, but in any sport. And A&M, as admitted by former head football coach RC Slocum, was often perceived, fairly or not, as a place that was predominantly white and unwelcoming. That perception has changed to some degree thanks to Sumlin’s hire and subsequent success. Now whether that translates into racial harmony in the math department and surrounding communities is up for debate. But what’s not uncertain is that the hiring committee at A&M hired a minority candidate for its most visible and treasured role. That Kevin Sumlin was eminently qualified for the post is only part of that story.
Which brings us back to the case of Charlie Strong. Texas hiring an African American head football coach is a big story, and one that speaks to the importance of minority hires in college athletics. But Red McCombs scathing critique of his hire didn’t harken the same tone. It’s a leap to consider these comments racially charged either deliberately or otherwise. But when a wealthy white booster publicly states that an African American hire would be lucky to hold an assistant post, that speaks to an uncomfortable narrative, one that top minority candidates have struggled against for some time. It’s exactly what Kevin Sumlin didn’t confront when taking his job down the road.
Now, it’s no secret that Charlie Strong wasn’t Texas’s first choice. And honestly, I’m not entirely certain he is the right fit, not because he can’t coach, but because it’s hard to know if anyone can handle the multi-task of this program. Mack Brown did it pretty well, but that came crashing down the past few seasons. So questioning Charlie Strong isn’t a mistake. But marginalizing like Red McCombs did might just be. And if he doesn’t see that in retrospect, then perhaps there is a bigger problem at hand.
Of course, all of this apprehension would be solved by the age old panacea of winning. A couple of Big 12 Titles from now, Charlie Strong and Red McCombs would be old friends. Because even though the honeymoon may be over, romance can always start anew.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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