Head coach Charlie Strong pumped his fist in the air as several players lifted him on top of their shoulders.
Texas was celebrating a shocking 24-17 victory over No. 10 Oklahoma on Oct. 10, 2015, just a week after the team fell 50-7 to No. 4 TCU in Fort Worth.
But the feel-good moments have been few and far between for Texas fans during Strong’s Longhorn tenure. Since his arrival on the 40 Acres in 2013, the team has compiled an 11-14 record with several gut-wrenching losses along the way — including a 24-0 loss at Iowa State last October.
“There is no reason for us to go 6-7 and 5-7,” Strong said at Big 12 media days on July 19. “I totally agree with [high expectations], and that’s what we’re working for. Our goal is to win every game.”
This season must be different for Strong to keep his job in Austin. The Longhorns finished their season under .500 in just three years since 1997, with Strong’s first two campaigns accounting for two of them.
Texas fans will count every win this campaign. And while a bowl appearance is expected — the Longhorns missed a bowl game for just the third time since 1993 last season — Strong will need to prove the program is heading into the right direction.
“We get into the Bowl Season [last year] and I texted a few of them … they were all upset,” Strong said. “But you should be, but now it stings a little and it should sting because if you’re a competitor, it’s going to sting.”
Strong made strides this off-season by reeling in the No. 7 recruiting class, according to 247sports. With more talent on the roster, it’s up to the coaching staff to put the pieces together and start winning games.
“I keep pressure on myself,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. “Every game, every play to me is a championship game. And you have to approach it that way.”
Texas’ players are adamant the culture is different this season. Senior safety Dylan Haines emphasized there’s been “better team building” this year and the team is closer than he’s seen before.
And senior tight end Caleb Bluiett said his teammates don’t ever think about Strong’s job security.
“I’m just so excited to play for him,” Bluiett said. “He’s already made history and I’m just excited. I know these guys are as well.”
Strong made another crucial decision this off-season in hiring offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert away from Tulsa after the Longhorns struggled to move the ball last season. Gilbert comes from a background of coaching up-tempo spread offenses — the system Strong has hoped to incorporate since his first season.
Haines said he expects the offense to finally live up to expectations in 2016.
“Everyone always says we’re going to run fast,” Haines said. “This is the first year our offense is starting to actually do that from my perspective on the defensive side of the ball.”
But saying the team will turn around this year and accomplishing it are two different things, especially after players expressed similar sentiments before last season. The program is out of excuses with a new system and a re-stocked cupboard of talent.
Now it’s time for Strong and his players to prove things are different in 2016 — it may be his last chance.
“We know what the expectations are and what the standard is and we haven’t lived up to it,” Strong said. “It’s about week in and week out as a coaching staff, we have to go out there and get our guys ready to play.”