Overreaction to Charlie Strong and Texas Recruiting

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The college football landscape is such now that coaches are fired after just two seasons, and others are on the hot seat after just one. Thus, it was inevitable a head coach would come under scrutiny before ever leading his team into a game.

Texas head coach Charlie Strong is that head coach. Blame it on the need to fill offseason airtime and headlines. Blame it on the sky-high expectations set on the first-year Longhorns leader. Blame it heavily on the success Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin had in his first two seasons, and the early success he’s enjoying on the 2015 recruiting trail.

There are no shortage of explanations as to why Strong has became a favored punching bag, but each one is only incrementally less asinine than the previous. Judging a coach’s tenure before he’s even coached a game takes the unrealistic demands set at the highest level of college football to absurd new heights–particularly given Strong’s track record.

His first recruiting class before he coached a game at Louisville ranked No. 49 nationally. After a year establishing his philosophy and score an unexpected bowl victory, Strong saw an immediate response in recruiting.

The Cardinals’ 2011 class was ranked No. 29 in the nation, with high 4-star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater headlining. Bridgewater’s importance to Louisville football cannot be overstated; after stepping into the starting role midway through his freshman campaign, he led the Cardinals to 28 wins, 23 of which came in 2012 and 2013. He was selected in the first round of last month’s NFL draft and will compete for the Minnesota Vikings starting job.

Strong’s 2011 class also featured another first-round NFL draft pick in safety Calvin Pryor, the star of defense that ranked among the stingiest each of the last three seasons.

Bridgewater and Pryor were two key pieces in an era-defining class for the program. The duo, plus two other 4-star prospects in that cycle, all committed late in the process.

That the 2015 signing class isn’t bursting with stars on the last day of June means little at the moment, beyond giving rabid college football fans, writers and talk show hosts red meat to gnaw on with two months to go before actual games. Strong can still secure an impressive recruiting class, and probably will if the Longhorns have a successful season.

And knowing Strong, they probably will.

Texas slipped from the college football mountaintop it once inhabited under Mack Brown, that much is certain. Brown’s seemingly endless shuffling of assistant coaches and quarterbacks, coupled with perplexing defensive woes relegated the Longhorns to also-ran status. His tenure left supporters restless, and Charlie Strong is dealing with the residual anxiety.

Brown’s failings further impact Strong because the recruiting misfires are well-documented, too. Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel were famously recruited to play defensive back, and Jameis Winston told reporters after his Florida State debut he grew up wanted to be a Longhorn. That’s three straight Heisman winners Brown missed on in succession, a most dubious achievement indeed.

But all-in-all, Brown’s recruiting was just fine. His 2011 class ranked No. 4; his 2012 class, No. 2. That’s a high bar for Strong to meet on National Signing Day, but also provides him the tools to exceed expectations on fall Saturdays.

Texas is hardly in the dire straits Strong inherited at Louisville. The Cardinals had just bottomed out from a four-year slide that began when Bobby Petrino bolted unexpectedly, leaving the ill-prepared Steve Kragthorpe to fumble through three disastrous seasons that relegated the Cardinals to the basement of the Big East.

Texas, on the other hand, is a top-20 potential team in 2014 and dark horse contender for the Big 12 championship. Strong’s hard-nosed defensive philosophy should unlock some of the Longhorns’ potential on that side of the ball, where it’s been desperately needed in recent campaigns.

And when the wins come, the recruiting success should, too.

That might not be enough to placate the more anxious fingernail-biters in the Texas fan base. Strong is expected to keep up with the Joneses–though in Texas, it’s more like the Hatfields keeping up with the McCoys.

As for Sumlin and Texas A&M, the early commitments are rolling in. Eighteen future Aggies are pledged, giving Texas A&M a class currently ranked second behind only Alabama.

Some with a vested interest in exaggerating SEC greatness might attribute the Aggies’ success to changing conferences. The SEC plays a part–to an extent. Certainly the marquee matchups against Alabama broadcast on CBS helped sell the Aggies to high school prospects tuned in around the nation.

But those three sacred-cow letters didn’t magically transform a team that the season prior was known only for late-game failures to an 11-game winner. Sumlin and his staff, and a host of Big 12 recruits, were responsible for the program’s turnaround, which happened to occur in the SEC.

Jake Matthews, Mike Evans, Damontre Moore, Luke Joeckel and yes, Johnny Manziel, all signed to a Big 12 program. All were also signees of Sumlin’s predecessor Mike Sherman.

That in no way diminishes Sumlin’s accomplishments. His high-flying offensive style immediately transformed a football team that barely managed a .500 record under Sherman into a program with 20 wins in two seasons. Texas A&M was capable not only of going blow-for-blow with national championship-caliber opposition, but defeating said teams.

And those Aggie recruiting classes responsible for laying the foundation routinely finished ranked below the Texas classes mired in the program’s malaise of unfulfilled expectations the last few seasons.

So give those fingernails a rest, anxious Longhorns backers. Save the eulogies, overzealous columnists. Texas won’t kick-off for another two months, and National Signing Day 2015 isn’t for another seven. The Charlie Strong era is far from defined.