What is winning worth to you? Would you put kids in harm’s way? Would you put your reputation on the line? Would you make the tough decisions?
Or would you take the easy way? Would you become the experiment? Would you risk your job? Would you lose some money?
What does winning mean to you? Does it mean a W? A shiny trophy? An army of followers?
Or does it mean being able to look at yourself at night? The praise of a few friends? The trust of a few others?
Would you like to be Jimbo Fisher? Or would you rather be Charlie Strong?
On the surface, it’s an easy answer. Jimbo Fisher—of course. Fisher was Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU, and when Saban ditched the Tigers for the NFL, Fisher moved to Florida State as Bobby Bowden’s handpicked successor. Three short years later, Fisher was the head coach at one of the country’s preeminent programs.
His team made the ACC Championship Game in his first year and won the Chick Fil A Bowl. His starting quarterback, Christian Ponder, was picked in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Fisher’s next season was more of a rebuilding year, as E.J. Manuel got comfortable under the center. But that was hardly the story. Fisher secured the top quarterback in the country and the top high school player in Florida: Jameis Winston.
As Manuel finished his senior year, Winston spent the year on the bench redshirting. Manuel made most folks forget about Winston that year. The Seminoles secured Fisher’s first ACC Championship and then followed that up by stomping Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl.
The best was yet to come. With Winston taking the lead, Fisher’s Seminoles were unstoppable in 2013—quite literally. The only time the entire season that made fans sweat was in the National Championship. Going into the fourth quarter, the ‘Noles were down eight to Auburn. Following an interception, Winston threw an 11-yard pass to cut the lead to one. Auburn answered with a field goal, so Levonte Williams took the ensuing kickoff 100 yards to the opposite end zone. Auburn milked the clock and took the four-point lead, leaving Winston and Fisher one minute, 19 seconds and 80 yards to win a National Championship.
Fisher won Coach of the Year. Jameis won the Heisman. They both won a National Championship.
The duo nearly repeated themselves last year. They finished the regular season undefeated, but in the semifinal of the inaugural College Football Playoff, Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and the darting Oregon Ducks took advantage of an exhausted Seminoles team. It was Fisher’s first loss in 29 games. It was Florida State’s longest winning streak ever.
Don’t expect things to slow down soon. Fisher was able to convince former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson to play his final year in Florida State. There won’t be a rebuilding year in Tallahassee. Fisher is just, as they say, retooling.
Strong’s Longhorns, on the other hand, have been rebuilding since Colt McCoy’s arm went limp in the Rose Bowl five years ago. Mack Brown could never recover, and a new athletic director brought a new football coach as well. Charlie Strong was introduced as Texas’ newest football coach in January 2014.
When Brown was fired, Longhorn fans demanded big names as his replacement—the biggest names. They called for Nick Saban and Jon Gruden and Bill Belicheck.
What they got instead was a coach from basketball powerhouse Louisville whose biggest career accomplishment was a Sugar Bowl victory.
The University of Texas is not a basketball school. And they sure as hell don’t see Sugar Bowls as something to brag about.
Strong had nothing to boast about in his first year. After the opening game against North Texas, starting quarterback David Ash—the only quarterback on the roster who had ever started a game—reported concussion-like symptoms to the trainers. It was the latest of a string of concussions that plagued Ash throughout his career, and weeks later, Ash announced he was retiring from football.
The resulting situation was messy at best. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes started his first career game in Week 2 against BYU. They lost 41-7. The next week, they faced UCLA in Cowboy Stadium in Dallas. Early in the game, the Bruin’s star quarterback Brett Hundley left with an injury, evening the playing field and giving the Horns a little hope. They lost on the backup’s 33-yard touchdown pass with three minutes left.
The rest of the season followed a similar pattern. The final record was 6-6, just good enough to qualify for a bowl. They met rival Arkansas in the Texas Bowl and got another month of practice to figure it out. They couldn’t. The final score was 31-7.
The quarterback situation is no clearer today then it was last year. Swoopes has experience but hasn’t shown that he has any talent. Redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard hasn’t shown he has either. The team’s best player, defensive tackle Malcom Brown left for the NFL, along with team leader Quandre Diggs.
So, certainly you are thinking, “Joe, this is obvious. Why even bother asking us who we’d rather be?” It is obvious judging from the performance on the field, but the second the lights and cameras are off, the blacks and whites fade to grey.
On the field, Fisher’s Seminoles are winning. Off the field, there’s a control crisis. Players held unaccountable. Police playing dumb. A coach facilitating.
In August 2014, wide receiver Bobo Wilson was riding a stolen scooter when campus police stopped him. He said he was borrowing it from someone whose name he didn’t know. The police officer let him go and told the scooter’s owner he was worried an arrest would “ruin” Wilson’s reputation. Meanwhile, Wilson wrecked the scooter. Three weeks later, after the owner’s father went to FSUPD headquarters himself, FSU PD arrested Wilson. He was only asked to pay for the scooter that he totaled.
In 2012, there was the BB gun shootout involving 13 football players that got so out of hand a police helicopter was called in to look for suspects. Over $4,000 in damages was reported.
Nobody was charged.
And then there is Winston, the Heisman winning quarterback, who Fisher rode to Pasadena and a perfect season. Winston, as you well know, was at the center of a rape accusation that was thrown out after a year of investigation for a lack of evidence. He stole crab legs from a Publix and was suspended. From baseball, not football. In June 2014, he was involved in another BB gun fight that broke a stranger’s window. At only one point did Fisher suspend Winston. The offence: standing on a table in the student union and screaming “F— her right in the p—y!” The suspension was originally for only the first half but was later increased to a full game.
This offseason has followed the same pattern.
First, a video surfaced of freshman quarterback De’Andre Johnson punching a woman at a bar. Johnson was kicked off the team, but he wasn’t likely to ever see the playing field, anways.
Weeks later, sophomore running back Dalvin Cook was arrested for battery after punching a woman outside a bar, but Cook was the starting running back. Fisher suspended him.
“I don’t think what’s happening at Florida State is relative to Florida State,” Fisher said at ACC Media Days earlier this week. “It’s happening all over this country. We get more attention on it because of the success of our program and I understand it. But we have to continue to work on the problems we have.”
Four years into the job at Florida State, Fisher’s Seminoles are still very much a work in progress. Strong, on the other hand, wasted no time working on the problems he inherited at Texas. His first message to his players was to lay out his core values: honesty, treat women with respect, no drugs, no stealing and no weapons.
“Do what I ask you to do,” he said. “It’s not hard.”
The first player to test Strong’s sincerity was senior fullback Chet Moss. He was kicked off the team for breaking the rules.
By the time summer practices ended, Strong had dismissed five players from the team and suspended three others. Of those eight players, three were starters, and two played wide receiver, a position already struggling with lack of depth on the UT roster. A week into the season, Strong suspended both starting offensive tackles. One of them was kicked off the team for good. At the end of the year, the Longhorn roster featured ten fewer players.
Strong coached his team to a 6-7 record. In the Texas Bowl, they lost 31-7 to rival Arkansas.
Even as the team slogged to mediocre performance every week, Strong started gaining respect. In the middle of the NFL’s Ray Rice fiasco, Roger Goodell met with Strong in Austin.
“No means no,” Strong told the commissioner. “If you put your hands on a woman, you are through.”
Strong’s players have gotten the message. This offseason, the biggest behavioral problem Strong has had is wide receiver Daje Johnson, who released a rap song called “Dealer,” that had lyrics that talked about selling drugs.
When Strong heard it, he called Johnson and told him, “You’re no longer on the team, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
“You got a rap song out. You must not be on the team anymore. You’re a rapper.”
The song was removed from Soundcloud instantly.
But Strong is still an outlier. Shockingly so, actually.
“A lot of times (coaches) think, ‘Well I can help him.’ But are they helping him?” Strong said on ESPN last week. “If you see a young man with issues, you have to surround him with enough people to help change his life. If you can’t surround him with enough people to help change his life, you can say all you want, but the kid is never going to change.”
It’s hard to read that quote and not think Strong is referencing Jimbo Fisher, whose Seminoles had been in and out of the news for all the wrong reasons in the weeks leading up to Strong’s comments.
But Florida State is ranked in the top 10. Texas will start the season unranked.
Those rankings are no reflection for work yet to be done. Both coaches are nowhere near where they should be. Fisher must fix the Seminoles off the field. Strong must fix the Horns on it.
Unfortunately for Fisher, his problems might be beyond fixing. Whatever Fisher says about conduct is immediately ignored as meaningless coach-speak. How can he get the message across to players?
How can he get the message across to the people of Tallahassee?
Change will have to start with accountability. Every player, whether backup quarterback or star running back should be immediately dismissed if they hit somebody off of the field. Fisher needs to make it clear to the police and fans that consequences are in the best interest of his kids and his program. He needs to provide structure and support.
He will have to recruit with a keener eye. Character should be measured alongside bench press reps and touchdowns. It’s a whole lot easier to follow the rules when you aren’t used to breaking them.
But this is all so easy for me to say. Of course Fisher should do these things. But I am not the one that needs to answer to maniacal fans when that running back’s absence cost us a game. I am not the one that needs to answer to a screaming mother whose baby just went to jail. I am not the one that promised that mother that I would make sure he got his degree.
It’s much simpler to ignore these problems. It’s even easier when everyone chooses to ignore them.
The result of tackling these problems head on is what you see in Austin with Strong. Focusing so much on character has been a handicap. It’s thinned out his team and his options recruiting, which means that he’ll have to be perfect on the recruiting trail to compete on Saturdays. Where Fisher simply needs to find the best player, Strong must find the right player.
Jameis Winston, Heisman and all, would not have survived two weeks with Strong.
All ten players that Strong dismissed in his first year would have finished the season for Fisher.
Strong made waves in December when Texas’ number one prospect, linebacker Malik Jefferson, chose Texas over Texas A&M, but he couldn’t turn the momentum into other results in the state of Texas. The heart of his recruiting class was from Florida, and it’s infinitely harder to convince top prospects to leave home to play their college ball. How can Strong bring the University of Texas back on top without attracting Texas’ top players?
Can you blame them? At 17, who’s looking for a mentor and father figure? Most would rather be attending the craziest parties, meeting the prettiest girls and forgetting their responsibilities. Other coaches told recruits to stay away from Strong because he was a tyrant, and to a 17 year old, that’s just what he seems like.
Strong, unlike Darrell Royal or Mack Brown before him, faces competition from every coast, from every school for the best players in Texas. Satellite camps, Twitter and conference realignment has changed recruiting. Alabama, UCLA and Florida State all recruit in Texas. For those that want to stay in state, A&M, Baylor and TCU all have better teams than the Longhorns. Austin is not the destination anymore. It’s just one of many.
Strong’s biggest enemy, however, is going to be time. His rebuild, in year two, is still looking years away from bearing any fruits. His Longhorns are still learning to walk, and Longhorn fans expect running. His defense is young, his offensive line inexperienced, and his quarterback M.I.A. Strong won’t be given five years to get tinker with his game plans, no matter how many kids graduate or keeps out of trouble.
Entering year two, doubt is already rolling in to Austin. Is it worth it?
To Charlie Strong, it will be, no matter how few wins he attaches to his name.
In 50 years, it will be Jimbo Fisher that has a statue in front of his school’s stadium. Charlie Strong’s name will largely be forgotten, only remembered by very few. To most, his will have been a bad time, a time when the Horns lost week after week, when they never even beat OU.
Seminole fans will remember Jameis’ fourth quarter comeback in Pasadena, laughing because of something about crab legs. They’ll remember the first round draft picks. The sold out stadium. Whooping on Miami.
But when Strong meets a former player, they will give a hug and tell him, “Thank you for what you did for me.”
And that is when it’s clear that Charlie Strong was the true winner in this little contest of character vs. brawn. When it is all said and done, Strong will be able to say he changed the trajectory of young men’s lives. He’ll be able to say a kid walked into his office without a future and left four years later with a college degree, and more importantly, morals. He threw them into the deep end and showed them how to swim on their own.
It’s not what a coach is paid to do or even expected to do, but it’s what they should all strive to achieve.
Every decision that Strong has made has been the tougher one.