TWO GAMES TO GO …
As I type, here is the latest as it pertains to Charlie Strong and his future as the coach at Texas following last Saturday’s 24-20 home loss to West Virginia:
Handle business at Kansas this weekend in what looks like 40-degree weather - against a defense ranked No. 1 in the Big 12 on third down and in the red zone - and then come home and play a respectable game against TCU the day after Thanksgiving and Strong most likely remains the coach at Texas - even possibly at 6-6 with a bowl opportunity to win a seventh game, multiple sources close to the situation told HornsDigest.com.
That may not sit well with critical big-money donors who feel like they’ve seen enough of Strong - in terms of wrong hires, poor game management and not enough attention to detail in areas such as special teams - to conclude he’s not a “championship” coach. Even though Strong has already won as many conference titles in seven years as a head coach - two (Big East - 2011, 2012) - as Mack Brown won in 30 (two - Big 12 - 2005, 2009)
An email circulated this week among critical big-money donors made the argument Strong has the worst winning percentage (13-17, .423) of any coach in Texas football history with at least three years on the job.
The email concluded this way:
This is not a personal attack on Coach Strong. He is the worst performing coach in the history of Texas football. He may be the highest paid worst performing coach in the history of NCAA football.
He needs to go.
When I told one of the donors listed on the email it appears Texas president Greg Fenves might be leaning toward keeping Strong - even possibly at 6-6 - that donor said, “Well, then, when the time is right, it will be made clear to President Fenves what is acceptable in terms of the pursuit of excellence around here.”
But one significant factor, I was told, is that no big-money donor has stepped forward, offering to write the nearly $20 million check it would take to simply to buy out the contracts of Strong and his assistants.
And part of the reason for that may be that there is no longer an overwhelming candidate to replace Strong since Tom Herman’s Houston Cougars (8-2) lost to Navy and SMU with a huge home game Thursday night against No. 5 Louisville and season finale at Memphis.
On Thursday, a source close to the situation told HD some school officials are "reluctant - perhaps even unwilling" to consider Tom Herman as a candidate to become the coach at Texas if Strong needed to be replaced at season's end.
But a $20 million buyout check to remove Strong and his staff is just the price of admission to clear the way for the next coach at Texas who would likely then command between $30 million to $40 million in guaranteed money as the Longhorns’ new football coach.
My sources in the Tower (where Fenves’ office is) say Fenves isn’t opposed to “doing what needs to be done” if Strong were to somehow lose to Kansas or get embarrassed by TCU.
“There has been progress on a team that has had 120 starts by freshmen and sophomores this season - the most in FBS - and a team that has 37 of its 44 in the two-deep back next season,” one source connected to the Tower told HD. “I think it’s fair to say - barring a serious backslide - Strong could be back at 6-6. But no decision has been made, and it won’t be made until after the season.”
STRONG’S PROS AND CONS
As I’ve been reporting in HD ONLY seemingly since Texas’ defensive (and sometimes special teams) collapses against Cal, Oklahoma State and OU, the knocks on Strong are well-documented:
Poor hiring and slow-to-react firing of members of his staff. Questionable game management, at times, and - aside from Ray Guy Award semifinalist punter Micheal Dickson - poor special teams.
Four extra points were blocked by Notre Dame (1) and Oklahoma State (3) with the Irish and Cowboys each returning one of those blocks for 2 points. The block/return by the Irish forced OT. … WVU blocked a FG in a four-point loss. … And in the return game, Texas has only two kick returns this season of 30 yards or more and ranks 105th of 128 teams with an 18.8 yards per return average. Texas A&M is AVERAGING 31.1 yards per PUNT RETURN this season.
But a source inside the program told HD this week the areas in which Strong is every bit as elite as Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are “recruiting and getting his players to become men by doing the right things off the field - in the classroom and adhering to his core values. Because if they don’t, they won’t play and probably won’t be around long.”
The source inside the program continued: “His (Strong’s) last two recruiting classes have been unreal, and they always will be. Amazing man and recruiter. I understand he isn’t the best speaker or sideline coach, but the rest - he is the best at. His players battle for him and are about to be so much better than everyone else in the Big 12, some of his deficiencies won’t matter. You have to get players, and Strong gets players who play physical and are starting to figure out what it takes to be a team. That takes time with so few seniors on the roster. No one in the country will have 37 of their top 44 players back next season like Strong will with big-time talent on both lines.”
TWO THINGS MOST NEEDED
Those close to Strong say the two things Texas most needs to point the arrow up and keep it pointed up are: Clint Hurtt as defensive coordinator and more mobility from the QB position.
Hurtt, currently the Chicago Bears’ OLB coach, was hands-down, without-a-doubt, Strong’s top lieutenant and staff cop at Louisville.
“Unless the head coach is the ‘bad cop,’ every coach needs someone on staff to be the enforcer - the guy who will be the head coach’s eyes, ears and police when the head coach isn’t in a meeting or around a drill at practice,” said a source at Louisville close to Strong.
“Without question, that was Clint (Hurtt) for Strong when he was here. Clint kind of kept everyone - from the assistants in meetings and at practice as well as the players - in line, because he wasn’t afraid to speak out and call people on their sh*t when he had to.”
This is how much Strong values Hurtt: Strong had accepted the Tennessee job (later offered to Butch Jones). But because Vols’ officials wouldn’t let Strong bring Hurtt with him, Strong changed his mind and turned down the job.
Hurtt was still under an NCAA show-cause sanction dating to Hurtt’s days as DL coach and recruiting coordinator at Miami during the Nevin Shapiro scandal - even though Shapiro was already inside the program (thanks to an equipment manager).
Texas wouldn’t let Strong bring Hurtt either, because Hurtt had the show-cause sanction through mid-October of 2015. But now that the show-cause sanction has expired for more than a year, sources close to Strong say it’s time for Hurtt to be welcomed to Austin.
Sources in the Tower say Strong and Hurtt would need to make a compelling argument that there is nothing to fear in hiring Hurtt.
The other thing Texas and Strong need is more mobility at the QB position, sources said, adding that will come as QB Shane Buechele gets stronger with a full off-season. Or it will come with the arrival of incoming 2017 QB commit Sam Ehlinger, who is already more physically developed (6-2, 217) than Buechele (6-1, 191)
“The thing that really takes this offense over the top is the ability of the quarterback to throw the deep ball and be able to keep the defense honest in the read-option, QB run game,” said a coach who learned the offense from Art Briles.
“Buechele needs to get stronger and a little more aggressive as a runner. That will come as he gets in the weight room and really gets after it this off-season.”
SPEAKING OF THINGS TO ADD
Texas has finalized the hire of Andrew Sowder, the former outside receivers coach at Bowling Green (who worked with Sterlin Gilbert at BGSU) as a quality control/FB analyst, as well as Texas Thorpe Award winner Michael Huff as a player liaison on Charlie Strong's operations staff.
Sources said both hires are continued examples of Texas AD Mike Perrin’s support of Strong and the football program.
QUESTIONS MOUNTING FOLLOWING ANGELA KELLY'S CONTRACT EXTENSION
After finishing with a sub .500 record and failing to make the Big 12 tournament, a lot of people assumed the 2016 season would be Angela Kelly's final as women’s soccer coach for the Longhorns.
But those assumptions were far from the reality.
Questions about what's going on inside the Texas soccer program surfaced when the Board of Regents approved a three-year contract extension for the women's soccer coach. Kelly will also receive a pay increase of $20,000 per year, bumping her annual salary to $175,135 - guaranteed through 2019.
"The whole situation is really odd," a source said. "They fired a coach (Chris Petrucelli) with a better record than (Kelly), and somehow she got an extension?"
Kelly's extension and raise has since caused a lot of unrest at various levels within the soccer program, but it sounds like several alumnus are most angry over the situation and are wanting answers, sources told HD.
Kelly's predecessor, Chris Petrucelli, was fired after seeing several years of success coaching UT women's soccer. The reason given for his termination was his inability to make it past the second round of the NCAA tournament, according to sources close to the situation.
Fast forward five years and the Longhorns have nabbed only one NCAA tournament appearance with Kelly at the helm, which ironically ended with a loss in the second round of the tournament.
The program has been on a steady decline since Kelly took over, but it hit an all-time low this season when the Longhorns failed to make the Big 12 tournament for the first time in program history.
Not only have Kelly's squads continued to underperform, many people have struggled to work alongside of her. Multiple sources told HD that Kelly is a difficult person to work with, and that is a major reason why she has failed to have a consistent Sports Information Director during her five seasons coaching at Texas.
With all of the facts pointing towards a needed change, the decision to extend Kelly's contract and give her a pay increase is questionable - at best.
While this may not be the first instance of concern under Kelly's watch, I'm going to go on a limb and say it is FAR from the last.
Here is CHIP BROWN's initial report on the contract extension for Texas women's soccer coach Angie Kelly published in last week's HD ONLY (Nov 9) ...
ANGIE KELLY GOT A THREE-YEAR EXTENSION? REALLY?
I honestly thought Texas women’s soccer coach Angie Kelly was in line to get fired after five forgettable seasons (47-39-13 with only one NCAA tourney bid), including this year’s embarrassing 8-9-1 overall mark and 1-6-1 league record in which several sources close to the program believe her players quit on Kelly.
Texas’ league record was so bad, the Horns didn’t even qualify for the Big 12 tournament.
Yet on Wednesday (Nov. 9), the Texas Board of Regents approved a three-year guaranteed extension at $175,135 per year with an annual $30,000 product endorsement taking her annual compensation to $205,135. Her deal also includes the use of “two dealer cars” or $7500 in lieu of one of the dealer cars. (UPDATE: As HD's Taylor Estes reported above - Kelly's base salary is a $20,000 per year raise from her initial contract and includes an extra car. Her initial deal included UT's "best effort" to get her use of a dealership car or $7500/year in car allowance.)
Kelly was hired from Tennessee based on the recommendation of Kathy Harston, a former long-time assistant coach of Texas women’s basketball coach Jody Conradt who later joined Pat Summitt’s staff at Tennessee when Conradt retired.
Harston was hired back at Texas by Plonsky as a senior associate AD after Summitt retired.
I’m told Harston and Kelly are incredibly close, and, of course, Texas women’s AD Chris Plonsky is incredibly close to Conradt and Harston.
Sources told HD it seems nothing will get in the way of Plonsky’s close relationships with women she’s known and worked with for decades. Not even an embarrassing product on the field by Kelly's team and Kelly’s reputation at Texas as one of the least-liked and hardest-to-get-along-with coaches on staff.
Meanwhile, Plonsky appears to be making life miserable for Texas men's and women's track coach Mario Sategna.
And why is Plonsky the athletic director over men's and women's track - after former women's track coach Bev Kearney filed a discrimination lawsuit against the school (a case the Texas Supreme Court has now asked for briefs from both sides regarding a motion to dismiss filed by Texas)?
Sategna has been placed on administrative/paid leave while the athletic department investigates a complaint made against Sategna - a complaint that hasn’t yet been detailed to Sategna, whose program is thriving (including Texas’ Michelle Carter and Ryan Crouser both taking gold at the Rio Olympics in the shot put), sources told HD.
Sources told HD Plonsky has a history of treating Sategna with a lack of respect - almost from the time he took over the track program in 2013 despite the women’s track team winning the Big 12 in 2014 and finishing second at NCAAs and both the men and women sweeping Big 12 Outdoor crowns in 2015.
The women’s soccer and track teams both share Mike A. Myers Stadium.
And when Sategna took over the track program in 2013, some of his male athletes practiced in the Texas heat without their shirts on while the women’s soccer team was practicing, sources told HD.
Sources said Kelly went to Plonsky and complained, and Plonsky told Sategna his team was not to practice while the women’s soccer team was practicing, because it was a distraction to the soccer team.
Sategna apparently said his athletes had limited times to practice and that changing up the schedule to work around the women's soccer practices would be problematic. Plonsky had already given Kelly the first choice of weight room times (ahead of track), sources said. Plonsky told him her ruling was final, sources said.
That, apparently, was just the beginning.
Sources said Plonsky has repeatedly told Sategna his track program "lacks an identity" - even though six of the medals won by Longhorns at the Rio Olympics this summer were from track & field: Morolake Akinosun (gold, 4x100m relay), Michelle Carter (gold, shot put), Ryan Crouser (gold, shot put), Courtney Okolo (gold, 4x400 relay), Chrisann Gordon (silver, 4x400 relay) and Ashley Spencer (bronze, 400m hurdles).
In October, The Associated Press reported Sategna had become the subject of an “ongoing compliance investigation involving personnel matters being conducted by the university's legal affairs office" and the athletic department.
I’m told this is basically an attempt by Plonsky to get rid of Sategna and possibly promote Texas associate head track coach Tonja Buford-Bailey.
I’ll have more reporting soon on what appears to be a history of meddling by Plonsky in the programs she oversees - unless they are coached by women she has a close relationship with - or are coached by a national title winner like women's volleyball coach Jerritt Elliott.
This contract extension for Angie Kelly, whose team quit on her this year, is some of Plonsky’s most embarrassing work. I guess decisions on the women's soccer coach fly under the radar of regents and big-money donors at a time when the fate of the football coach is all-consuming. But those decisions aren't flying under the radar of those inside Texas women's athletics.
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