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, a Houston attorney and former defensive end at UT under Darrell Royal 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.”
IN CONCLUSION - TEXAS ATHLETICS SEARCHING FOR IDENTITY
Herbstreit talked last week about how Texas' meddling, big-money donor (BMD) culture is a "cesspool." But BMD influence and involvement at Texas is nothing new. It has been a way of life for decades for football coaches at Texas - even Darrell Royal.
The BMDs basically kept Royal, who won three national titles, from being able to name his successor when he stepped down in 1976, when Royal was also athletic director. Royal wanted to name Mike Campbell, his defensive coordinator, as his successor.
But Frank Erwin and former Texas Gov. Allen Shivers, members of the UT regents board at the time, stepped in and basically cut off Royal, hiring Fred Akers instead.
The Texas family was divided after that - really until Mack Brown was hired in 1998.
Those loyal to Royal never fully accepted Akers, even though Akers basically played for national titles in 1977 and 1983 and won more than 73 percent of his games in 10 years as head coach. He was fired after his first losing season in 1986 and replaced by David McWilliams, who played for Royal.
McWilliams had two winning seasons in five years before being fired. The criticisms of McWilliams, who is a beloved Texas figure, were that he was disorganized and brought in a staff that wasn't equipped to win at Texas.
One big-money donor said to me that Charlie Strong reminds him of McWilliams: Beloved but disorganized and didn't bring in a staff equipped to win at Texas.
Fenves and Perrin want Strong to succeed, but they also need to be able to make the case for him. They need Strong to fix the defense and make sure the special teams are error-free like they were against Oklahoma.
The UT family is definitely not pulling in the same direction right now. And it's understandable.
Texas fans can handle, well-coached, hard-fought losses. They can't handle embarrassment. Meaning no more losses of 18 points or more (10 of them in 30 games), no more TDs given up on plays of 20 yards or more (12 so far in five games), no more special teams blunders, etc.
No more two steps forward and two steps back (cue the Paula Abdul soundtrack ... ).
In the end, the hire of Steve Patterson as athletic director proved to be devastating. Even though Patterson hired Strong and basketball coach Shaka Smart, he didn't support them and was fired by Fenves 22 months into a six-year contract.
Fenves has basically been putting out fires since he took over as school president in June of 2015 - from dealing with a regents board that wanted the former vice chancellor at Oxford as president (but that guy took the president's job at NYU instead), to a controversy over a statue of Jefferson Davis (since moved), to a controversial, new law allowing concealed carry on campus, to freshman dance major Haruka Weiser's murder, to Steve Patterson, to the Big 12 expansion/non-expansion drama to Charlie Strong - and probably a bunch of other stuff I'm missing.
Maybe that's every day life for a university president, but I doubt it. Guy's had a lot on his plate and handled things well, in my opinion.
Fenves brought in Perrin as athletic director to help bring the Longhorn family back together in the wake of Patterson, who has two degrees from Texas but came off as the ultimate anti-Longhorn.
Perrin helped bring a heart back to the athletic director's office and is beloved in the athletic department as a man who cares deeply about the 40 Acres. But the emergency air mission to rescue the Sterlin Gilbert hire probably wasn't overseen by Perrin the way it should have been, now, looking back.
The search to replace baseball coach Augie Garrido, the way it dragged out, was another example of how not to conduct a coaching search and seemed to expose Perrin's inexperience as an AD - even though new baseball coach David Pierce probably ends up being a success.
Texas overall - and UT athletics, in particular - needs strong, decisive leadership.
Fenves inherited a ton of baggage from former Texas president Bill Powers, a brash leader who liked to do things on his own terms and who allowed the school's new medical school to be built basically on top of UT's athletic real estate.
The Longhorns' tennis facility, basketball arena and much of the parking used for football tailgating are or have been displaced. That just doesn't happen at athletic powers like Texas. (The medical school could've just as easily been built at the Jake Pickle research center at Burnet and Braker less than 10 miles away.)
And the medical school overtaking UT's athletics complex is emblematic of Texas losing its identity as an athletic power.
When the new tennis facility - already at least six months behind schedule - and the new hoops arena are built, the south end of DKR is redone and new football and hoops practice facilities are done, Texas faithful will probably forget how painful these times are right now.
But that doesn't do anything for those passionate about Longhorns' athletics right now.
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