DALLAS — Charlie Strong isn’t promising national championships or predicting win totals.
Far from it.
Arguably the nicest thing the Texas coach said about his football team during Big 12 media days: “We’re not as bad as we used to be.”
And by the look on his chiseled face, he wasn’t trying to be funny.
On a day when Strong and his Longhorns got every bit as much attention as the Big 12 favorite Sooners, there was an obvious change in the vibe around Texas. Gone are the days of Mack Brown cracking jokes and shaking hands and kissing babies and treating everyone like a long-lost play cousin. Crossing the seriousness of a drill sergeant and the drive of Billy Blanks — I wondered if the broad-shouldered coach might jump up at any moment and start doing pushups — Strong seems like he’d enjoy becoming friendly with reporters about as much as walking across hot coals.
Heck, he’d probably prefer the coals.
Strong had to fight his way up the college football food chain, and it made him hungry, tough, successful.
He wants the same for his team.
But how do you breed that where the football program has every advantage, every facility, every gadget, every last luxury that the players could want?
Strong has taken them away.
The air-conditioned buses that took the players a half-mile to practice?
Now, the players walk.
The off-campus housing that a vast majority of players lived in?
Now, they’ve been told to move back to campus housing.
The unfettered access that players have to the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center, which is as impressive as it is massive?
Strong banned four of them from it earlier this summer.
“They did it (to) themselves,” he said Tuesday. “Go to class. Do what I tell you to do.”
Texas running back Malcolm Brown said of Strong: “He preaches that toughness is not just about physical toughness ...not just about going out and wearing us down in practice. He always says, ‘Toughness is getting up and going to class early when you’re tired.’”
Now, I admit that some of Strong’s tactics seem a little hokey. The Longhorn logo in the carpet in the middle of the locker room, for example, has been roped off. No one is allowed to walk on it. Only on game days will the ropes be removed so that the players can gather on the logo, hoot and holler on the horn.
That will be seen as a privilege, a spoil that is earned.
“It’s almost ‘Remember the Titans’ish,” center Dominic Espinosa said a bit sheepishly of some of Strong’s methods, “but I think he believes in that a lot.”
He acknowledges that the program needed much of Strong’s tough love. A fifth-year senior, Espinosa has played in big games, even won some big games, but he hasn’t won a title — not even a Big 12 crown — since being at Texas.
No current Longhorn has.
All of them came after Texas last reached such heights, winning the Big 12 and falling just short of a national title against Alabama.
“We shouldn’t be acting like we’re that team,” Espinosa said, “because we haven’t been that yet. ...The media and fans might think that’s harsh, but that’s the reality of it. We’re all on board with that.”
Defensive end Cedric Reed said: “There’s no entitlement. We’re no longer a school that hands everything to us.”
Well, every major-college football player has things handed to them. It’s the nature of the sport, the life that players lead.
So, it’s anyone’s guess if this philosophy of having to earn everything will actually make a difference at Texas. In December, we might look back on the season and say nothing changed from the end of the Mack Era to the start of the Strong Era.
But at least one person is predicting better days for Texas — Charlie Strong.
“I just know this,” the mince-no-words, throw-no-bouquets coach said, “from their attitude right now, I think that we’re going to find us a different football team.”
He’s doing his darnedest to make it so.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.