Head coach Tom Herman held his first meeting with the Longhorns in December, and asked how many players on the team had experienced a winning season in their time with the burnt orange. Just three raised their hands.
The Charlie Strong era in Austin lasted three years and yielded zero winning seasons. There were a litany of woes on each side of the ball, from the failed quarterback combo of Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard in 2015 to the demotion of defensive coordinator Vance Bedford in 2016. The string of disappointments came to a head with an overtime loss to Kansas in November of last year, leading to Strong’s dismissal a few weeks later.
Now, Herman is looking to revitalize the program from the top down. He hired a new social media team to rebrand the Longhorns’ image, and began a renovation of the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Complex within weeks of his hiring.
Those cosmetic changes should help the Longhorns’ standing on the recruiting trail, though Herman knows they will have little impact without success on Saturdays. A culture of losing has set in at Texas over the past half decade, and Herman must take steps to turn the tide.
“I think losing has to be awful, and you can never get used to losing,” Herman said. “That is one of the biggest maybe downfalls of a lot of teams is you get used to losing. No, losing is awful. It's awful. It's not just, ‘oh, well, we'll get them next week.’ No, this is like the sky-is-falling-type stuff.”
For a team coming off three consecutive losing seasons, the cupboards aren’t exactly bare heading into 2017. Five Longhorns were named to the Preseason All-Big 12 team. Three were named to the Maxwell Award watch list, which honors the top player in college football each year. And while losing leading rusher D’Onta Foreman from last year’s squad will deal a blow to the burnt orange ground game, Texas returns its top two receivers and top three tacklers from last year.
And that’s not to mention the return of sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele. The Arlington native shined as freshman, bringing much-needed stability to a position that has featured a carousel of failed signal callers over the past five seasons. Buechele ended the 2016 season with 21 TD’s and nearly 3000 yards passing. That’s the most for a Longhorn QB since Colt McCoy threw for 3521 yards in 2009.
However, it wasn’t Buechele’s passing prowess that most impressed Herman during offseason workouts. Rather, it was the sophomore’s increased leadership, and his ability to rally the team from under center.
“Shane has done a marvelous job of coming in this summer and really trying to be more of a leader,” Herman said. “We’ve explained that for (Buechele) to take the next step in his growth, one of those things is going to have to be to continue to lead the culture of the team.”
A combined 16–21 record during Strong’s tenure marked the Longhorns’ worst three-year stretch since the late 1950’s. Texas has fallen from a consistent contender for the national title to a middling player in the Big 12, searching for its first bowl win since 2012. But despite the team’s recent struggles, Herman believes this year’s group will be the one to reverse the course of the program, and open a new chapter of Texas football.
“I feel good that these guys are willing to do whatever we ask them to coming off the three-year stretch that this program has had,” Herman said. “They don't want that to be their legacy. They want to be remembered as the team and the group that turned this thing around. I think we're well on our way.”