LOTS OF LAYERS TO THIS TEXAS FOOTBALL ONION
I got a text this week from someone in the know who said there is a push being made by some powerful people connected to the university encouraging school president Greg Fenves to hire a new athletic director as soon as possible who could help evaluate football coach Charlie Strong through the rest of the season.
Oliver Luck, currently the NCAA vice president for regulatory affairs and a finalist for the Texas AD job when Steve Patterson was hired in November of 2013, as well as Houston Astros president Reid Ryan are names that have been suggested to Fenves, sources said.
But my sources say Fenves has, so far, rejected the idea of making a new AD hire during the football season.
“Not going to happen,” one connected source said Wednesday.
Sources close to Fenves have indicated current Texas AD Mike Perrin, who has an agreement with Fenves to serve through the 2017-18 school year, is doing a solid job. Those sources say the earliest a search for Perrin’s replacement would begin is sometime in 2017.
One source close to the situation said Fenves doesn’t want to bring in a new athletic director right now because Perrin and Strong have a close, working relationship, as does Perrin and Fenves - and Fenves doesn’t want to disrupt that.
Perrin met with a small group of reporters last Friday that included HornsDigest and was asked about the perception that Perrin and Fenves support Strong unequivocally and if they’d be the only two determining the fate of Strong at the end of the season?
“I support Charlie Strong,” Perrin said. “He’s my coach. He’s a friend. I respect him as a man. I really can’t answer hypothetical questions about what might be put before us later in the year. I really can’t.
“President Fenves and I speak freely. He’s incredibly accessible to me. You couldn’t ask for a guy who is more disciplined, smart and even-keeled in terms of his personality. He’s a great leader. He really is. I’m not ducking your question. Anything I discuss athletically is with him.”
Ultimately, Perrin said he expects any decision on Strong to be Perrin’s and that the comments/emails he was getting (prior to the OU game) were more in support of Strong than against the football coach.
“There are people who express their opinions to me on all sports and a lot of topics,” Perrin said. “Phone calls and emails are greatly in support of Charlie Strong.
“He is a man who has resonated with people all over the country with his strong stand on his five basic tenets - no guns, no drugs, no stealing, honesty and respect women.
“That has resonated - not only in athletics but in other areas.
“I do get some comments and email saying things not in favor of Charlie Strong, but I get more in favor of him.
“I’m not going to bow to the winds of public opinion, whatever they are. It’s a decision I take very seriously - any time something comes up - to look at what’s best for the University of Texas, what’s best for our student-athletes - and that’s the way I’ll function.”
‘THINGS CHANGED’ AFTER THE NEARLY BOTCHED HIRE OF STERLIN GILBERT
On Dec. 3, 2015, Greg Fenves took the interim tag off of Mike Perrin’s title and named him Texas’ full-time athletic director with an agreement to serve through the spring of 2018.
But just more than one week later “things changed” in terms of Perrin’s autonomy in his new role as AD, a UT source said.
The UT source told HD the nearly botched hire of offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert on Dec. 11 of last year caused Fenves “to keep a closer eye on athletics.”
One source close to the situation went so far as to say, “Fenves basically started making all the major decisions in athletics after that.”
That source said there was a “miscommunication of contract parameters” to Gilbert, which resulted in Fenves, Perrin, Strong and tight ends coach Jeff Traylor having to fly to Tulsa to finally close the deal.
The source told HD that executive senior associate AD Arthur Johnson communicated with Gilbert’s agent, Jeff Nalley, that Gilbert would be offered a three-year guaranteed deal for between $650,000 and $750,000 per year.
But when Strong met with Gilbert, the source said, Strong offered Gilbert a two-year guaranteed deal at $520,000 per year. So Gilbert declined the job.
Shortly thereafter some tweets began to surface in social media suggesting that Texas wasn’t supporting Strong financially in his attempt to hire a new offensive coordinator.
That’s when Fenves got involved, the source said.
I asked Perrin last Friday what happened that caused the president of the university, the AD as well as Strong and Traylor to have to fly to Tulsa to hire an offensive coordinator, and Perrin said:
“I can’t exactly tell you what all was behind Sterlin and his agent.
“I went to Houston that morning. I had a speech to give at 11:30 that day. I left the house, drove to Houston and talked to his agent about 11 that morning, and I thought we had a deal then.
“I came out of the speech and heard he wasn’t coming. I called his agent and said, ‘I’m going to Tulsa. Would he meet with me?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’
“I called the president’s office and said I’d like a plane to fly to Tulsa, and, over the next several hours, President Fenves decided to go and Charlie decided to go.
“We had a short meeting up there with Sterlin, his agent and (offensive line coach) Matt Mattox, and in no time at all had the contractual terms worked out. They came to Austin the next morning.
“I was then and remain very impressed with Sterlin and Matt and what they’ve brought to the table. I think the proof has been in the pudding with the performance of our offense this year.”
Gilbert ended up with a three-year, guaranteed deal at $850,000 per year (after making less than $200,000 last season at Tulsa). Matt Mattox got a three-year, guaranteed deal at $550,000, and Strong had to agree in front of all those gathered that practices would be altered to accommodate Gilbert's high-tempo offense, sources said. That didn't sit well with defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, sources said, although Bedford has denied that publicly.
A message left for Nalley by HD wasn't immediately returned.
Multiple sources told HD it was after this that Fenves basically had to be consulted on any significant moves involving the athletic department.
Almost a year later, there is a sense within the athletic department that while Perrin, a successful Houston attorney before taking over as AD, is beloved as a man who cares passionately about his alma mater, where he played defensive end for Darrell Royal, the department lacks strong leadership.
Sources say several issues in the department need to be addressed, such as finding a new director of academic support for athletics to replace Randa Ryan, who has basically been on paid leave since September of 2015.
Sources told HD that Strong has a strained relationship with senior executive associate AD Arthur Johnson - Perrin’s top deputy in the department. And that Strong needs an assertive AD like he had in Tom Jurich at Louisville to help him manage things like hirings on his staff.
“At Louisville, Jurich looked out for Charlie in every way,” one source told HD. “If Charlie needed to hire an assistant, Jurich helped him conduct the search and really got into the pros and cons of who he was going to hire.
“It’s all in the past now, but Charlie didn’t get any of that kind of support from Steve Patterson when he was first hired at Texas. If anything, Patterson was telling him no and put him in an awkward position having to hire Joe Wickline as his offensive coordinator to avoid a contract dispute with Oklahoma State, when everyone knew Wickline wasn’t going to call plays.
“You think Texas and Strong got the best out of Wickline with him being sued for more (nearly $600,000) than he was making at Texas ($575,000)? No way. And then that suit finally gets settled after Wickline leaves? There’s no way that would’ve happened if DeLoss Dodds was still the AD at Texas. Dodds would’ve settled that dispute with Oklahoma State in five minutes.
“It set a really bad precedent from the beginning. Charlie needs strong leadership around him - especially at a place like Texas. Perrin and Fenves have supported him, but not in the way a strong AD like Jurich or Dodds would have. That’s just a fact.”
THE TOM HERMAN EFFECT
Two sources close to the situation told HD there were several influential donors tied in at the highest level of UT who blamed Strong and Strong alone for mishandling the job offer to Sterlin Gilbert.
To the point where those donors began pressing for UT regents to gather a quorum and fire Strong on the spot and go hire Tom Herman, who was 12-1 at Houston and preparing for a Peach Bowl game against Florida State, sources said.
It was at that point, Fenves stepped in “and cleaned up Charlie’s mess and settled everything down,” one key source said.
The source said that was the first time UT donors disgruntled with Strong began feeling out if Herman would be interested in coaching at Texas.
“Herman has basically been kept warm (by those UT donors) ever since,” the source said. “But Tom Herman’s going to have a lot of options, and Fenves is determined to give Strong the season to turn things around.”
I’ve reported previously there’s an “uneasy truce” that’s been relayed from “the Tower” (where Fenves’ office is located) to the UT donors who want to move on from Strong that going 8-4 saves Strong’s job.
When asked what criteria Perrin will be using to determine if Strong is still the right man to lead the program at the end of the season, Perrin said:
“I don’t have a magic number of wins, of yardage. I want to see an improved program. I think we’ve seen that on the offensive side of things.
“There are still a lot of games to be played, though. It’s possible someone will see some things on film that shows a weakness in our offense or somebody gets injured. I don’t know.
“But I don’t have a magic number of wins, yardage, honors. I want to see an improved program from top to bottom.”
When asked if he’d consider eight wins this season to be an improved program, Perrin said:
“Eight wins would be - from a math major standpoint - three more wins than last year.”
What if one side of the ball or the team looks bad overall in getting eight wins?
“Time will tell,” Perrin said.
Is it possible Texas could go the route of LSU and make a decision during the season?
“That’s something I’ve never considered,” Perrin said.
Several sources tied into the influential donors ready to move on from Strong told HD Wednesday that they believe Herman would pick Texas over any other job opening - if Texas was to come open.
They said Herman would come even if Perrin was still the AD - knowing that a new athletic director would probably be picked in less than a year. And they said they didn’t think UT administrators’ reluctance to having former Texas QB/assistant coach and current UH offensive coordinator Major Applewhite come back (because he’s a key figure in the Bev Kearney lawsuit) would be an issue, either.
“Major is probably going to have a chance to become a head coach after this season, possibly at Houston or UTEP or somewhere else,” the source said.
Meanwhile, Perrin is showing up at Strong’s press conferences on Monday as a show of support and is in constant communication with Strong as the Longhorns’ head coach tries turn things around.
“We talk frequently,” Perrin said. “Charlie is very accessible to me and I to him.
“We meet in person. We talk on the phone. He’s easy to find. He’s at the office early and stays late. We talk a lot.”
Fenves sent out a tweet before the OU game expressing support for Strong publicly - while obviously trying to corral the school’s big-money donors privately.
Everyone has an opinion on Strong’s situation - from former Northwestern and Colorado coach Gary Barnett, who is close to Strong’s former offensive play caller Shawn Watson, and ripped Strong on a Kanas City radio station, saying Strong was in over his head and deserved to be fired. To ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, who blasted Texas’ big-money donor influence around the football program as a “cesspool.”
But Strong knows his fate rests in his ability to turn around a defense that ranks second-to-last (127th of 128 FBS teams) in pass efficiency defense and has given up 52 plays of 10 yards or more during a three-game losing streak.
“I don’t hear half the conversations,” Strong said of the opinions flying around about his situation.
“My whole focus is this football team. If we take care of business, everything else will take care of itself. We’ve got seven games left, and we need to get that done.
“The support is there. We’ve just got to do our part.”
FIRST STEP IN FIXING THE DEFENSE, JUMP-STARTING DAVANTE DAVIS AND HOLTON HILL
One of the biggest surprises to the 2016 season has been the poor/inconsistent play of cornerbacks Davante Davis and Holton Hill, who were preseason awards candidates but have clearly regressed as Texas' pass defense has plummeted after giving up one big pass play after another.
Davis was benched in the Oklahoma game after OU's Dede Westbrook got behind him for a 71-yard TD pass just before halftime that gave the Sooners a 14-13 lead. In the second half, Hill bit on a double move that allowed Westbrook to get free for another TD reception as Westbrook finished with 10 catches for 232 yards and 3 TDs.
Asked specifically about Davis' struggles this season, Charlie Strong said, "It starts with practice and working to get better."
But it's not just Davis and Hill. Sheroid Evans has struggled - and after starting the season in place of Hill - Evans was nowhere to be found at CB vs OU.
Through five games, UT's cornerbacks and safeties have repeatedly looked confused and out of position as teams continue to attack the Longhorns through the air.
Davis only has seven tackles this season through five games – and he started four of those games. To put that into perspective, Davis averaged nearly five tackles per start during his true freshman season.
Meanwhile, UT officials have said Hill has been “banged up” as the reason why he was absent in games against UTEP and Oklahoma State. His numbers in games played are decent. But when he has played, he's been inconsistent. Both Davis and Hill have lacked the confident fire they played with last year as freshmen.
Regardless of the reason, the poor play in the secondary has to be addressed or Texas' defense will continue to be debilitated by big plays.
Senior safety Dylan Haines, who recorded UT's first two interceptions of the season against OU (and dropped another one), believes guys simply need to move on from negative plays.
“Playing corner is definitely the hardest position to play in football, in my opinion,” said Haines, who lost his starting job to Kevin Vaccaro in the Oklahoma State game.
“You have to have such a short memory at corner because if you mess up at D-tackle or linebacker, it’s 5, 10 yards - maybe.
“If you mess up playing (corner), it’s 80 yards, a touchdown and the band starts playing.
“I told those guys that you’ve got to forget about that, because if you keep that in your head, you’re never going to play good. That’s something the coaches have been stressing.
“It’s a position where you always have to be thinking, you always have to be on your toes.”
Some believe first-year defensive backs coach Clay Jennings is partly to blame for the regression of the secondary.
However, Haines would not pin the blame on Jennings, who replaced popular DB coach Chris Vaughn, who played a key role in recruiting Davis and Hill. Haines said it all comes down to the players.
“That’s just college. When you play college football, you have to know that you will have to adjust to new coaches," Haines said. "There are coaching changes, people getting fired and people getting hired. There are so many things that can happen and you have to be able to adjust.
“You have to know that whoever is going to be brought in here, they’re going to want to help you and it’s their job to help you. I wouldn’t put any of the mishaps that have happened, especially with the DBs this year, on the coaching change.
“I think Coach Vaughn did a good job while he was here. And Coach Jennings has done a great job trying to get everyone on the same page and pick up where we left off last season.
“It just hasn’t gotten done, and I think that’s just the result of the players. That’s all on us. It’s really not the coaches, it’s really on us.”
Whether you agree with it or not, the players take full accountability for the issues the defense has shown. But the stats don’t lie, and those show the Longhorns have regressed in Year 3 of the Charlie Strong era.
What is unknown is if it is too late to fix the issues that have derailed this once promising Texas team.