I grew up in Texas, but there was nary a trace of burnt orange to be found in my neighborhood. In a mostly black suburb outside of Houston, my childhood friends and I didn’t root for the Longhorns.
We mostly favored the late ’80s and early ’90s teams from Miami, Florida State, and — strangely enough — arch-conservative, quasi-militaristic Texas A&M because of their swaggering greatness. They ran fast, hit hard, and weren’t afraid to tell everyone about it. Most of our local sports stars found their fame elsewhere, most notably eventual NFL Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas. We couldn’t imagine Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin, or anyone from The Wrecking Crew playing for the Horns. There didn’t seem to be room for those kinds of brash personalities or that kind of ball up on the Forty Acres, as the UT campus is known colloquially.
Former Longhorns offensive tackle Stan Thomas suggested as much prior to the 1991 Cotton Bowl, when he called the Hurricanes “typical gangsters,” noting that when he’d seen their players at a bowl-week event, “I thought I was in prison.” His comments seemed an institutional repudiation of the players and the kind of game that we loved. If the Hurricanes had those kinds of players, we thought, then surely the Horns did not.
The Horns’ comeuppance was a 46-3 humiliation by the Canes that set then-bowl records for points scored and margin of victory. In victory, Miami also set records for penalties (16) and penalty yardage in a game (202).
To this day, I can’t remember rooting so hard against the “home” team or taking more pleasure in another’s obliteration. Preteen schadenfreude is a special kind of cruelty.
Some things have changed. On Monday, former Louisville coach Charlie Strong officially became the first black head coach of the University of Texas, one of the most coveted positions in all of football. It’s a decision that would seem to be a watershed moment in racial progress in college sports. Because Texas — which fielded the last all-white national championship team in football — has long had a reputation as an unfriendly place for black athletes that extended far beyond my band of childhood friends.
As recently as 1997, the success of a black Texas quarterback — James Brown — was seen as potentially crucial for football players across the country.
“James’s success has made Texas viable for a lot of black kids that never would have considered Texas before,” Donnie Little told Sports Illustrated in August 1997. Little had been the university’s first black quarterback, in 1978. “It’s brought the community together.”
Little spoke too soon. That fall, Brown underperformed for a 4-7 team, leading to the ouster of head coach John Mackovic and the arrival of Mack Brown, who actually did bring the community together — by winning more than any coach in UT history other than the legendary Darrell K. Royal.
This other Brown remade the football program as broader perceptions changed about Austin, which now fancies itself the progressive antidote to the conservative state around it in spite of its status as “the most segregated city in Texas.” (And if we’re discussing race in Austin generally and UT specifically, we shouldn’t forget the dueling affirmative action cases — Hopwood and Fisher vs. UT — in front of the Supreme Court that could further reduce the population of blacks on a campus where they are already underrepresented.)
The pinnacle of Mack Brown’s tenure came in 2006, when he and Vince Young, a 6-foot-5-inch superhero from the declining neighborhoods of southwest Houston, teamed up to win a national title — the school’s first since that all-white edition in 1969. Incidentally, the turning point in their pairing was when Brown stopped tinkering with Young’s elongated throwing motion and just let him play. Young was once the sort of player who, before, wouldn’t have looked right in burnt orange, but Brown convinced him Austin would be a better choice for him than (of all places) Miami. Meanwhile, on issues of race and really everything else that didn’t involve football, Brown assiduously sidestepped most, if not all, of the uncomfortable conversations that could have made headlines. That’s a credit to his substantial gifts as a politician and CEO.
Of course, as all coaches eventually do, Brown stopped winning as much and the Horns’ fans started to fracture again. So the job of bringing everyone together again has fallen to Strong.
Through no fault of his own, Strong is off to a rocky start in that regard. Red McCombs, one of the university’s most generous benefactors, called Strong’s hiring a “kick in the face” during a radio interview Tuesday. McCombs told ESPN 1250 in San Antonio that he felt that Strong would “would make a great position coach, maybe a coordinator,” but that he was not a strong enough candidate to coach what he called “one of the three most powerful university programs in the world right now, at UT-Austin.”
Thanks to McCombs, Strong now carries the very public burden of proving he’s even worthy of being considered for job. McCombs’ statement is, obviously, ludicrous: No head coach with Strong’s background and recent success would ever be asked to consider taking a job as a coordinator, much less as a position coach. If you feel those comments carry the echo of racism, or if you prefer, white supremacy (under the definition of the phrase that refers to general power and race dynamics in America, not the one that refers to Klansmen), you wouldn’t be wrong.
Few, if any, college programs have the sort of visible old moneymen that UT does. (And I mean old: McCombs was born in 1927.) The Horns have never pretended that their boosters didn’t hold substantial sway over the program, with at least a few making clear — in the not-so-distant past — that their allegiance to Brown had insulated him over the years. This faucet of cash seems like a wonderful thing when the Wall Street Journal ranks UT as the most valuable college football program. But it seems less wonderful when McCombs is undermining Strong’s support only days into his new job. Roger Groves of Forbes.com predicted this sort of trouble, saying, “I suspect Strong’s biggest challenge will not be recruiting and training his student athletes or picking a staff. It will be dealing with the Mack Brown good ole’ boys.”
The good ole’ boys have allies in the media: Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Gil LeBreton said the change from Brown to Strong felt “as if the Longhorn Network fired Leno and hired Arsenio.” The Dallas Morning News tweeted a link to an article about Strong with the tagline “Why he’s (Charlie Strong) not a hip hop coach.” The phrase — “not a hip hop coach” — originated with retired College Football Hall of Fame coach and ESPN analyst Lou Holtz, who mentored Strong at both South Carolina and Notre Dame. Holtz was presumably trying to be complimentary, but of course the idea that someone with Strong’s résumé would need defending against such a demeaning and nonsensical charge is itself an indictment of the atmosphere around the Texas job. (To say nothing of what it reveals about Holtz’s attitudes toward other black coaches.)
And apart from football issues, the UT athletic department is dealing with former women’s track coach Bev Kearney’s race and gender discrimination lawsuit. Taken in context, Strong’s arrival in Austin seems less like a bumpy transition of power and more like a series of ominous signs.
Which isn’t to say Strong isn’t up to the task. Louisville went 2-12 in its conference in the two years before Strong got there; the Cardinals subsequently went 20-9 against league foes over the next four years. Strong knocked off Florida and Miami in bowl games to cap the last two seasons, beating those Sunshine State powers with lower-rated recruits from within their own borders. He helped make quarterback Teddy Bridgewater into one of the NFL draft’s top prospects and built one of the nation’s top defenses. That kind of winning will make Red McCombs’ thoughts irrelevant. Strong suggested as much in his response to the booster, saying, “I’m going to get judged by my work here. Once you win some football games, you’re going to change a lot of people’s attitudes.”
It could be that Strong will represent the change Austin and UT believe they stand for. At a university that boasts that “what starts here changes the world,” he has the chance to reconcile the school’s uncomfortable history — especially as it comes to race relations — with the reality of the modern game (and modern society).
The next generation of 10-year-olds from Missouri City, Texas — heirs to me and my Deion-loving friends — already live in a different time. Post-James Brown. Post-Vince Young. They have Charlie Strong. They don’t have to look to Florida State or Miami anymore.
Their eyes are upon you, Texas. Will they like what they see?