But he knew it would take time.
Strong always planned to keep a recruiting presence in Florida and the southeast until the high school players and coaches in Texas could see how Strong conducted business.
Things got a little rough, PR-wise when Travis Haney of ESPN.com used anonymous quotes to take Strong apart for underwhelming a gathering of Texas high school coaches in San Angelo this summer.
And then, when 5-star WR DaMarkus Lodge committed to Texas A&M, his HS coach at Cedar Hill said, on the record, Strong had an in-state recruiting problem.
Suddenly, Strong was seen by critics as the overmatched outsider whose recruiting ways would never work. Strong didn’t understand how college coaches have to bend over backwards for the state’s HS coaches, the critics said.
He didn’t have enough assistants with experience recruiting in Texas, the critics said. And the one assistant he kept from Mack Brown’s staff (Bruce Chambers) is widely perceived as one of the weakest recruiters at any high-profile program.
So even when Texas committed a recruit at the most important position to Strong’s job security – QB – when it turned out to be 4-star Zach Gentry from Albuquerque, New Mexico, some fans weren’t happy.
Their QB wasn’t from Texas. He was from NEW MEXICO. It sent a poor message, they criticized.
“When are we going to get some top-flight Texas kids?” they fretted.
And because Strong is a football coach who doesn’t worry about PR, but rather spends all of his time growing his talent and looking for more, he didn’t sweat the panic. He just kept grinding.
Strong and his assistants flew all over the state in the spring, visiting more than 1,000 Texas high schools to meet with coaches and players.
But their approach is decidedly different from any other big-time program in the state. They don’t sell flashy facilities or ever-changing helmets and uniforms. They sell toughness.
Toughness on the field and toughness to make the right decisions off the field.
When Strong brought in top 2015, 2016 and 2017 prospects for UT’s “Under The Lights” camp this summer, the prospects did up-downs if they didn’t follow direction or give max effort.
“If these kids are spending their parents’ hard-earned money to come here to be coached, we’re going to coach ‘em the way we coach ours,” Strong said smiling. “Otherwise, we’re not doing our jobs.”
While some recruits walked away shaking their heads, Strong was fine with that.
He uses his camps to see who can take hard coaching. If they can’t, he doesn’t want ‘em anyway – no matter how many stars they have in their recruiting ranking.
One of the deciding factors in the recruitment of 5-star OLB Malik Jefferson was that his mother and father heard Strong’s message loud and clear.
Strong promises three things to recruits and their parents:
#1 … A great education and a completed degree.
#2 … The chance to compete for titles.
#3 … Helping make a student-athlete grow from a boy into a man – all while subscribing to Five Core Values – 1) Honesty 2) Treat women with respect 3) No drugs 4) No guns 5) No stealing.
That’s what Jefferson’s mother wanted her son to be around.
When Kevin Sumlin’s promises about a new defensive coordinator being a part of Jefferson’s in-home visit started to fall apart, Jefferson began questioning if Sumlin was a man of his word.
When Sumlin couldn’t or wouldn’t answer Jefferson’s questions about a new DC, Jefferson felt more comfortable with Strong’s straight-forward approach.
Sure, it helped that DeAndre McNeal figured that out before Jefferson and knew he wanted to go to Texas before Jefferson did. McNeal helped reassure Jefferson they were doing the right thing. And Jefferson ultimately felt at peace with his decision.
Now, we’ll see if the announcements of McNeal and Jefferson begin a seismic recruiting shift in Strong/Texas’ favor.
Fair or not, the 2015 recruiting class could very well make or break Strong as the head coach at Texas. (Especially the quarterback position.)
Is that fair? Probably not. But that’s the reality.
Strong said this fall there will never be another season with five losses in it again while he’s the coach at Texas.
That was probably reassuring to Texas fans wondering if Strong could possibly think it would be OK if he had another 6-loss (or even 7-loss) season in 2015?
If that happened, Strong would be coaching for his job in 2016.
UT fans are strung out, exhausted, flattened – insert depleted adjective here - by five straight years of deep-fried, mediocre finishes. They can’t take it anymore.
But what happened Friday - with the commitments of Jefferson and McNeal - could end up being the same catalyst Mack Brown experienced back in 1999.
Then, they committed to Texas.
Suddenly, the fish were jumping in the boat. That 1999 class ended up with DT Marcus Tubbs, TE Bo Scaife, OG Derrick Dockery and CB Rod Babers.
It transformed UT's recruiting image in the state and set the foundation for more mega-talented recruiting hauls:
Then came perhaps the greatest recruiting class in Texas history – 2002 … (VY, Justin Blalock, Aaron Ross, Brian Robison, Lyle Sendlein, Kasey Studdard, David Thomas, Rod Wright, Selvin Young, Aaron Harris).
In 2003, UT landed the last Texas OL drafted into the NFL (Tony Hills).
In 2004, the class included Brian Orakpo, Jordan Shipley and Ramonce Taylor.
And 2005 brought Colt McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Quan Cosby, Jermichael Finley, Roy Miller, Henry Melton and Rod Muckelroy.
Those classes formed the foundation of UT’s 69-9 run from 2004-09 that included a national title, playing for another one, and two BCS bowl victories.
It all started with that 1999 class for Brown – at the exact same point in his time at Texas that Strong is now in putting together the 2015 class.
Strong knows how critical this 2015 class is, because he built his success at Louisville with his first, full recruiting class in 2011.
That class was ranked No. 33 nationally by Scout and produced the backbone of the UL teams that went 11-2 in 2012 (blasting Florida in the Sugar Bowl) and 12-1 in 2013 (blasting Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl).
Of the 21 in the class, 12 became starters, including leading WR DeVante Parker. Five others have contributed.
Those signed in 2011, included NFL first-round draft picks QB Teddy Bridgewater and S Calvin Pryor as well as this year’s Thorpe Award winning safety Gerod Holliman, who has an NCAA record-tying 14 interceptions heading into UL’s game vs Georgia in the Belk Bowl Dec. 30.
For some, it’s not been easy to trust a coach who just went 6-6 to find and develop the talent that will take Texas back to living in the Top 10. But no one has more invested in that mission than Strong and his staff.
And on Friday of last week, at Mesquite Poteet’s auditorium, Longhorns’ fans saw that Strong’s recruiting approach might just work after all.
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