football head coach

While there may be soaring expectations for football head coach Charlie Strong, his predecessors can attest to the challenges — both on and off the field — of being a first-year head coach in Austin.

Since 1950, six Texas coaches have made their Longhorn coaching debuts, featuring a 67.6 winning percentage in their first years. In comparison, former head coach Mack Brown went 9-3 in his first season, but stepped down in December after three seasons in which the program produced a 62-percent winning percentage.

“When you’re a top program in the country, you have to be about championships,” Strong said at a Jan. 15 press conference.

Only three of Texas’ 28 previous head coaches won a conference championship in their first season: Eugene Van Gent in 1916, Berry M. Whitaker in 1920 and Fred Akers in 1977.

Akers’ team finished 11-0 in the regular season and fell just short of a national title with a loss to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. 

But even his fruitful first campaign was preceded by challenges, namely the off-field politics of the sport. Although serving nine years on popular head coach Darrell Royal’s staff eased the transition to Austin for Akers, his hire still drew criticism from many alumni and former players who wanted long-time Royal assistant coach Mike Campbell to take over and disagreed with Akers’ elimination of the wishbone system in favor of the ‘I’ formation and single-back sets. 

“I was a young guy who didn’t fully understand some of the politics and some of the pressures that come with hailing an icon as a head football coach, Darrell Royal, and I had to learn to deal with that,” Akers said.

Strong will face a similar situation as he attempts to build upon Brown’s legacy while juggling the needed changes to the program. He has met resistance already in his first month on the job — notably, Texas billionaire patron Red McCombs calling Strong’s hire a “kick in the face” because he and a few other boosters were not involved in the selection process. McCombs later apologized to Strong for the comment.

It is a pressure-packed, push-pull atmosphere that dominates the football environment at Texas. The Longhorns had a $165.7 million operating revenue for 2012-2013, the highest in college athletics. This creates financial flexibility and donors with hefty influence. David McWilliams, former Texas coach and current UT associate athletic director, says the school features the most passionate fan base in America, but that comes with a caveat for coaches. 

“The great thing about the alumni at Texas is they know football,” McWilliams said. “And the bad thing about Texas is they know football.”

McWilliams, like Akers, was a long-time assistant coach at Texas before ascending to the head role in 1987 after one season at Texas Tech. He was accustomed to the responsibilities placed upon coaches at Texas, but says they could be a bit overwhelming at times, between recruiting, coaching and alumni demands.

“You would like for there to be more hours in the day because you can certainly use them,” McWilliams said.

Free time has proven to be fleeting for Strong in his first month with the Longhorns. He described his first nine days on the job as being “pulled in different directions,” and, between recruiting, personnel and speaking engagements, Strong has not exactly had time to meditate on the position.

Nonetheless, Strong is considerably more comfortable at Texas because of his experience at Louisville. 

“This transition was a lot easier because I have head coaching experience, and I have been around it,” Strong said at his Jan. 15 press conference. “The first time around you take the job and you get to your office and you think, ‘What do you do?’ or ‘Where do you go?’ Now you have a plan together, and just follow the plan.”

Of the top 10 revenue-producing programs in the FBS last season, six of the schools — Notre Dame, Alabama, Michigan, Florida, Ohio State and Nebraska — have hired their active coaches in the past seven seasons. A decorated group overall, the six coaches had mixed success in their first seasons, with a combined 70-percent winning percentage

This number is greatly boosted by Urban Meyer’s 12-0 campaign at Ohio State in 2012 and Brady Hoke’s 11-2 season with Michigan in 2011, but Florida’s Will Muschamp had a much more reserved 7-6 record at Florida in 2011, as did Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly when he finished 8-5 the year prior. Perhaps the most notable example comes from Nick Saban, who went a pedestrian 7-6 at Alabama in 2007 before reeling off three national championships over the next six seasons. 

Despite the mixed history of early success, championships, as Strong stated, will still be the expectation. It is a perilous environment, which McWilliams says can be navigated with patience.

“You have to be a little tough-skinned, and I think he is,” McWilliams said. “You have to be able to take criticism.”

Akers says he did not start to feel the pressure of winning at Texas until his seventh year. He credits that to being familiar with the environment in Austin, but he also admits that early wins, which helped establish a strong support system, played a significant role in his level of comfort.

“You’ve got to have support,” Akers said. “I think he’s going to step up and declare, ‘We’re going to do what Mack’s intention was — get it back on track.’ And [Strong] is the one who’s going to do it.”

Texas head coach Mack Brown sounded off on the Longhorn Network on Monday, saying “We were given a deal that we had no input in."

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

Every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, a different show airs on the Longhorn Network featuring Texas football head coach Mack Brown.

And every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, he loses time he can’t get back to prepare for his team’s next game. Not just that, but virtually every day of the week, footage from Longhorns practice is aired on LHN. Brown has to love the millions of dollars being funneled into the already lucrative athletic program his football team spearheads, but he can’t like the competitive disadvantage it can produce.

“We’re a little overexposed,” Brown said. “It changes when you’ve got a microphone at every speech on the field and in every drill. You definitely think about what [Baylor head coach] Art [Briles] is thinking when he’s sitting there watching you talk and coach your team.”

Brown has good reason to be upset. Every coach spends time fielding questions from the media. But when you have a round-the-clock LHN monster to feed, lines can be and have been crossed. No other college football program is feeding a monster that hungry, although a pair of Brown’s assistants downplayed the effects of the network.

“We’re not going to prepare any different because they’re out there,” co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said. “I sure don’t let it bother me. You know they’re there. I’m only conscious of it if they’re in a drill, if they’re in the way or a guy might get hit. If we’re going to throw an out route and the camera guy’s standing right there, I might tell him to move. Other than that, they’re on their own.”

If anyone would be qualified to offer insight on what the relationship between LHN and Texas should be, it would be defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, a former ESPN production assistant.

“I felt like they would sort of become wildflowers,” Diaz said. “There’s just cameras around. The fact that our cameras aren’t just going to the dot-com, they’re going to an ESPN broadcast partner — you can go on to anyone’s website in America and watch their practice.”

Including the drive there and back, Brown estimates that an hour and a half of his day is consumed by LHN on days he tapes shows at its studios. Practice is closed to all media outlets other than LHN, although the longtime Longhorns head coach asks them to focus on individuals, rather than groups, where schemes and game plans are discussed.

But make no mistake, Brown wants to change this arrangement. And he should.

“We were given a deal that we had no input in,” Brown said. “We’ve been trying to make it the best for both, and at the end of the year, everybody’s going to have to sit down and see what we need to change and look at what they need to change, but there needs to be some give and take both ways.”

Some have joked the $300 million deal Texas made with ESPN to create the Longhorn Network was a curse of sorts. Since the contract was signed last January, the football team went 8-5 last season, neither Longhorns basketball squad won an NCAA tournament game and the baseball team failed to play in the postseason for the first time since 1998.

As Brown said, the negative effects LHN is having on Texas’ athletic program may be more tangible than we thought.

Printed on Tuesday, October 23, 2012 as: LHN causing Texas problems

 Texas football head coach Mack Brown has been voted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.

Brown and nine others constitute the 2011 class, which includes Masters champion Fred Couples and Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith.

Rounding out the TSHOF class are Texas A&M women’s basketball head coach and national champion Gary Blair, Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware of Houston, NFL great Bubba Smith, Aggies All-American softball great Shawn Andaya, Texas Tech All-American wide receiver Dave Parks, eight-time high school state champion football head coach G.A. Moore and the late Green Bay Packers and Rice great Tobin Rote.

The inductees will be honored at a banquet in Waco in February.