Friday, March 14, 2014
Strong dedicated to fresh starts in first year
By Max Olson
AUSTIN, Texas -- Five miles on Monday. Six miles on Tuesday. Then five, six and five to finish out the week.
This is the routine, the ritual, by which Charlie Strong abides: The daily morning jog. He wakes up around 4:30 a.m., laces up his sneakers and hits the pavement.
“I’ve got my route here,” he said. “There’s some really good routes around here.”
Charlie Strong is getting a fresh start at Texas, but his routine hasn't changed.
Strong likes starting his day with some sweat, and a tradition that holds more importance than simple exercise. This is his little way of managing the hectic demands of being the head coach. This is his escape.
“That’s just a way to get my time for myself. I think you need to have time for yourself,” Strong said. “I don’t like to run with anyone. I’m not gonna run with anyone. I don’t want to talk. I just want to run and just let your mind kind of wander, let it go.”
On the chaotic mornings and the calm ones, the new leader of the Longhorns gets away from it all. He’d been doing this for years, embracing the calm before the new day’s storm.
“It’s just a sense of relief, you know, because you’re able to do your thinking and put your day together as you go on,” he said. “And not only do you think about that, you think about everything else, too.”
And that’s how he’ll continue to start his day as Strong continues to work toward giving Texas football the fresh start it desperately needed.
To appreciate the challenges Strong will face in his first year in burnt orange, understand that the first few honeymoon months haven’t exactly been a cakewalk.
Strong had 10 days to assemble his coaching staff. One day after his assistants were all on board, they hit the road to save and salvage the 2014 recruiting class they’d inherited.
“We just tried to keep the class together,” he said. “I know a couple might’ve slipped away from us, but just getting around to the different high schools for two weeks, I went non-stop.”
Strong hit Dallas, Abilene, East Texas, Houston, Beaumont, New Orleans and everything in between, racing to meet as many commits as possible and sway a few more to join him in Austin. There was no break after that class signed. Texas had to piece together its plans for the next batch of recruits and host two junior-day events in the weeks that followed.
One month after agreeing to leave Louisville for the bright lights and big opportunities of Texas, Strong was still living out of an on-campus hotel room and spending many of his days in rental cars and planes.
When he was in town, he joked that he’d spend most of his time in a staff conference room. No time to decorate the new office.
This week provided one of his few chances to exhale. Texas begins spring practices on March 18, and the grind to get there hasn’t let up. This is a day-by-day process, so you can see why he cares about starting those days off right.
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Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford witnessed another daily routine during his years of coaching with Strong at Louisville.
“Charlie, every morning at 7 a.m., would call his two daughters and make sure they were up and ready to go to school,” Bedford said. “To me, that’s saying a whole lot about who he was as a man. He treats the players the same way. I can’t say that about a lot of guys I’ve worked for. He has that same attitude on the football field -- he’s going to coach them hard, but he cares about them as young men first.”
Getting Longhorns players prepared for their fresh start is just the first of Strong’s many challenges in 2014. The transformation is already underway, led by new strength coach Pat Moorer -- another Louisville import -- whose offseason training program is said to be infamously painful.
Meanwhile, Strong’s staff has spent weeks putting together their playbook. Plenty still needs to be sorted out in spring ball, most notably the decision on whether a 3-4 or a 4-3 base defense best suits the Texas talent they’ve inherited.
And there are holes to fill in the lineup, of course, with three longtime starters on the offensive line, a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-America kicker/punter all gone.
At quarterback, David Ash missed 10 games with concussion issues and won’t take any hits in spring practice. He’ll need to learn the new scheme and get back to playing his best football quickly, or else landing USC transfer Max Wittek this spring is a must.
But that’s the easy stuff, the in-house issues that Strong has 15 spring practices and a long summer to address. What should consume just as much of his time is figuring out how to slow down Texas A&M in recruiting and Baylor, Oklahoma and the rest of the Big 12 on the field.
Again, this is just half the job. Strong has to find his comfort zone when it comes to the public demands of his new gig. Mack Brown played the politician better than anyone. That’s not exactly the game Strong wants to play.
He says a misconception exists that he doesn’t like dealing with media. Truth is, he doesn’t mind it. Strong’s first few news conferences have exceeded expectations. Still, managing expectations in Year 1 -- with fans, boosters and anyone else bleeding orange -- will get challenging as the year goes on. He’s well aware of that.
“I always say this: We’re like a political office,” Strong said. “You’re open to public scrutiny. Everybody’s got an answer about your job. Everybody can coach. I’m good with it. I’ll give ‘em a lesson if they need it, come on over here.”
Stack up all those demands, and it’s easy to see the pressure, though Strong said last month he isn’t sensing it yet. After all, he did sign up for all of this.
“I don’t think about it. If you prepare the right way, and preparation is the key, then it relieves all pressure,” he said. “That’s the key. You have to be prepared. You can’t just bounce out there with no agenda, no vision, not knowing what you want to go do.
“Why change? Keep doing what you’re doing. Just be yourself and keep doing what you were doing.”
Times like these require staying grounded. That’s where the daily routines help most. The job isn’t easy, but Strong is ready to build Texas back up one day -- and one run -- at a time.