AUSTIN — Late one night, he walked into a store, asked to see the manager and announced: “I want to do something here.”
This was last December, back in Louisville, Ky. But after admitting to playing “Secret Santa,” Charlie Strong doesn’t want to divulge many more of the details.
He reveals only that he told the manager he wanted to “pay someone’s layaway off, to go pay a store’s layaway off,” and that he should be identified only as a “sports figure.” Was Strong the anonymous benefactor who made news by giving more than $13,000 to pay Christmas off for 169 families last December at a Louisville-area Wal-Mart?
“That’s one I can’t talk about,” Strong said. “The people back there would kill me.”
Clearly, Strong wants to remain at least partly anonymous, even as he knows it’s not really possible. Not back there at Louisville. And certainly not in his new job, as Texas’ head coach.
“Around here, no, you cannot be,” Strong said. “You try to be. You drop your head. But you cannot be.”
Since Strong was hired to replace Mack Brown, there hasn’t been much question about his credentials, at least not when it comes to coaching football. In his final two years at Louisville, the Cardinals were 23-3, including a Sugar Bowl victory against Florida.
But at Texas, the job description of head coach – especially when, like Strong, you’re making $5 million a year – famously involves much more than football.
You have to win. Big. Given the enormous resources of the nation’s richest athletic department, and in no small part because of the success Brown had in rebuilding the program before its recent slide, the perpetual expectation is to chase the national championship.
Texas started spring practice Tuesday with 13 returning starters from an 8-5 season. The positive spin is that the Longhorns were in the thick of the Big 12 championship race until very late, and the nucleus is talented. Reality is the Longhorns lost to BYU, Ole Miss, Oklahoma State and Baylor, and never threatened to beat Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.
Regardless, any honeymoon for the new coach will last until the first loss. But winning is only a piece of what’s required.
In his 16 seasons, which included a BCS National Championship and a runner-up finish, Brown excelled in the very visible roles as spokesman, ambassador and politician. To use Brown’s own analogy, he found a way for a long time to “keep all of the BBs in the box.” At Texas, there are a lot of BBs.
Back in Louisville, meanwhile, with far fewer obligations and a lot less pressure, Strong developed a reputation of being, at best, indifferent to external relations. With media and the public, he was seen as inaccessible, even aloof.
Asked about the perception, Strong pointed to a day when, after no reporters showed up for spring practice – Louisville’s basketball team was playing in the NCAA Tournament – he closed the rest of the practices to the media.
“I said, ‘OK, if y’all don’t want to come, y’all don’t have to come,’ “ Strong said. “So we shut off the practices. Everybody got upset, but you could have sent a beat writer, a student or someone (to practice). I think that’s where that came from.”
Maybe it’s that simple (although it usually isn’t). Lack of media attention won’t be an issue at Texas, which is tracked daily by dozens of reporters – and that’s not even counting the Longhorn Network – and nationally relevant even when the on-field product isn’t nationally ranked.
But Strong insists that he doesn’t really want to hide, and he has drawn positive reviews for his first few moves, both internal (requiring most players to live on campus, pushing spring practice back a few weeks in order to get in more conditioning) and external.
He recently toured Dell Children’s Medical Center, setting the stage for what he said will be regular – and unannounced – visits. In several media settings, he has been friendly and engaging.
“You have to embrace it,” Strong said, referring to the demands of the job. “When you do get an opportunity to meet a lot of people, I take time out. I don’t ever want anyone to ever feel like I’m bigger than anyone, or that this job is bigger than this university. It’s all about the program.”
He has worked hard at other important outreach, too. Strong is known as a very good recruiter, but he has little experience in Texas. One day last month, he flew to the Dallas area to speak to a regional high school coaches meeting. From there, he flew to Katy to speak to a regional high school coaches meeting. From there, he flew to New Braunfels to speak to a regional high school coaches meeting. By 1 p.m., he was back on campus, ready to host a bunch of recruits on junior day.
“It’s all part of it,” he said. “That’s what you have to do.” And again, he added: “It’s all about the program.”
Make no mistake: It’s Strong’s program now. It will be built his way, with an emphasis on toughness, and probably less emphasis on meeting and greeting the various constituencies.
“I can only be myself,” Strong said. “That’s what’s key for me. I can’t be Coach Brown – and he wouldn’t want me to be him. We have a chance to build our own. That’s what we’re here for. That’s what’s expected of us.”
Strong said his primary focus was on trying to get to know his team, and having the Longhorns get to know the new staff. First impressions were good: “They’ve done everything we asked them to do,” he said. “No resentment.”
Strong, who spoke by phone with Brown on the day he got the job, has nothing but praise for his predecessor. He said he arrived to find the program in good shape.
“It was like somebody gave you the keys to the car,” he said, “where you’re gonna do a little work on it – but you don’t have to do a lot of work.”
But some of the work is different at a place where noted fan Matthew McConaughey leaves phone messages – Strong said he planned to call the Academy Award-winning actor back soon – and where, while taking a run on one of his first days in town, he was recognized. And then chased.
Strong just ran away.
Usually, it isn’t an issue. The 53-year-old averages maybe 30 miles a week, rising six days a week at 4:30 a.m. to clip off five and sometimes six miles. He regularly finds himself running down a new block, on a different route, getting to know another part of his new city. During those predawn runs, he especially likes the residential areas near the campus.
“People are asleep,” Strong said.