Any hopes of claiming the kind of progress needed for Strong to return as coach in 2017 faded Friday in Austin after the Longhorns were trounced 31-9 by TCU to finish the season 5-7 with three straight losses. It was Strong's 11th loss by 18 points or more in 37 games and his third straight losing season.
By finishing 6-7 in 2014, 5-7 in 2015 and 5-7 in 2016, Strong's three-year record at Texas was 16-21 (.432).
The focus of Texas' search for a replacement for Strong was expected to include a meeting this weekend with Herman and his agent, Trace Armstrong, possibly as early as Saturday afternoon or evening (after meeting with Strong in the morning), sources told HD.
Herman has been the focus of a group of big-money donors at Texas for nearly a year, dating to the nearly botched hire of offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert last December, when Fenves and Perrin had to take a private jet to Tulsa to close the deal, multiple sources told HD. But it's unclear how Texas chancellor William McRaven, president Greg Fenves and athletic director Mike Perrin feel about Herman until they meet with him, sources said.
One of the big-money donors who has been pushing for Herman to replace Strong told HD Friday night they expected Texas to be able to step in front of LSU and land Herman, because they believe Texas is Herman's "dream job." Herman's Houston team lost its season finale at Memphis 48-44 Friday after the Tigers scored the go-ahead touchdown with 19 seconds left. Herman did not appear at the post-game press conference.
On Thursday, HornsDigest reported LSU was closing in on a deal with Herman but that a source close to Herman said Herman would probably wait to sign anything with LSU until he knew if Texas would be replacing Strong.
Herman's agent - Armstrong - had gotten far enough along in discussions with LSU that the two sides were nearly in agreement on terms in a letter of memorandum, a source close to the situation told HD.
Sources close to the situation said LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron would likely be the frontrunner for the Tigers' head-coaching job if Herman was pulled away by either Texas or Oregon. Sources said Oregon mega-booster Phil Knight met with Herman last weekend and the two really hit it off. Current Ducks' coach Mark Helfrich is 4-7 heading into Saturday's season finale against Oregon State.
Sources said UT intermediaries have also attempted to gauge the interest of Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, Baltimore Ravens' coach John Harbaugh and Clemson's Dabo Swinney.
Strong said he told his team in the locker room after the game he was excited to return as coach next season and made the case to the media that he should return because he has a bunch of young players (37 of 44 in the two deep return next season) who will be ready to win in 2017.
Strong said he expected to meet with school president Greg Fenves and athletic director Mike Perrin on Saturday to evaluate the season.
"When I took this job three years ago, I came here to win the national championship and to change lives," Strong said. "I knew I would impact lives. Everything is a challenge. And what we've been going through was too much pressure on them. They're young - 17, 18 and 19 year-olds - and it affects them.
"It's tough to focus when so much is thrown at them. I didn't read it. But they have social media and they read it. Tonight was about the seniors and what bothers me is they didn't have the chance to go to a bowl game."
Strong has two years and $10.7 million remaining on a guaranteed contract. Texas will have to buy out $6.6 million in guaranteed assistant coaches' contracts as well.
Multiple sources told HD Fenves and Perrin were looking for reasons to bring Strong back in 2017 over the second half of the season.
Fenves, who spent more than 20 years as a faculty member and engineering dean at Cal, was very sensitive to the fact Strong was the first African-American men's head coach in Texas history and wanted to see him succeed. But the combination of Strong's struggles in Year 3 along with the rising star of Herman, a former grad assistant at Texas (under Mack Brown in 2000), just 200 miles south of Austin reduced the patience of the fan base and a group of big-money donors enamored with Herman.
Texas lost four of its last six games as the defense improved under Strong's direction but the offense under first-year coordinator Sterlin Gilbert plummeted.
Texas went from averaging 41 points per game through the first five games of the season to 25.4 ppg over the final seven games.
In losing three straight to finish the season against West Virginia, Kansas and TCU, the Texas offense averaged just 16.7 points per game and converted just 12 of 53 third downs (22.6 percent). The worst third-down conversion rate in all of FBS belongs to Tulane (26.5 percent).
Two of the bright spots in the season for Texas were junior RB D'Onta Foreman, who became just the second player in Longhorns' history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season on Friday while also breaking Earl Campbell's record of 11 straight, 100-yard rushing games set in Campbell's 1977 Heisman Trophy season with 13 straight and counting.
Foreman, a Doak Walker Award finalist, had 31 carries for 165 yards (5.3) against TCU Friday to finish the season with 2,028. Only the 2,124 yards rushing by Ricky Williams in his 1998 Heisman Trophy season tops Foreman.
Punter Michael Dickson, a Ray Guy Award finalist, averaged 48.1 yards on eight punts, including a 74-yarder downed at the TCU3.
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