Button up: Why sweatpants over suits played a role in Texas' loss to Cal

John Hefti/USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas -- Charlie Strong says he thinks sweatpants screwed up Texas' trip to Cal as soon as it began.


When Strong took over the Longhorns in 2014, he instituted a new game-day policy: His players walk into stadiums wearing jackets, khaki pants and white button-up shirts with burnt orange ties. This is non-negotiable.

But Strong made an exception last week. He figured his team wouldn't be as comfortable wearing a coat and tie during the three-and-a-half-hour flight to San Francisco. He changed up the routine. Players wore gray sweat suits on the trip.

He vows he's never making that mistake again.

"For some reason -- it's mental and it's something small -- I go back to that," Strong said Monday. "You know what, I don't care if we're traveling 800 miles, they will get on the plane in a coat and tie next time. Because it's your whole approach to things."

This might sound like total nitpicking nonsense. The reasons why the Longhorns lost 50-43 to the Bears are pretty darn obvious. Most of the problems that popped up in that game are fixable, too.

So why is the head coach apologizing for an outfit change that nobody outside the program really noticed? One educated guess: Strong is realizing how important confidence management will be with this particular Texas team.

The Cal game provided some real tests of his team's still-developing maturity. A team ranked No. 11 too soon had to confront several important questions.

When quarterback Shane Buechele was injured, how would everyone around him respond? The Longhorns' offense generally handled that challenge well.

When the secondary kept getting burned by Cal's Davis Webb and Chad Hansen, could the defense adjust and get stops? Short answer: No.

And with the game on the line, would Strong trust his offense on fourth-and-long or punt and rely on his defense? He chose to punt and that didn't work out.

Better to figure that out early on, considering what's coming next after a bye week are road games against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma that could declare this team is for real or derail its season.

Strong has much to fix this week but still believes, after two seasons in Austin, that his players are up to the challenge.

"I just have a different team right now," he said. "I have a team that is much more mature now and I have a team that has been through it. They've been through those tough losses."

That's true. But they haven't been through enough tough wins. Cal was one of those opportunities. Texas had a 40-35 lead early in the fourth quarter and needed to hold on. It was a scenario they'll probably face again this season in the high-scoring Big 12.

The easy, popular excuse is blaming execution. Texas safety Dylan Haines admits the excuse can't be preparation. The defense knew Cal's tendencies. He knew Hansen would be the guy they had to stop. They knew his favorite route combinations.

"You kind of sit there and think, well, if you knew what to do and you knew what was coming, why didn't you stop it? There's really no answer," Haines said. "We just didn't play. We just didn't play up to our standards."

The challenge with "our standards" is they haven't experienced the most basic standard of consistent, sustained success. The Longhorns have won three games in a row during a season only once during Strong's 28-game tenure. They've yet to start a season 3-0.

Texas does have a good enough roster to go on a run and make a big move in a wide-open Big 12. The loss to Cal suggested what's still missing is a level of confidence and maturity that's hard earned.

"The work is there. The talent is there," offensive lineman Kent Perkins said. "Basically what we have to do is just be more professional all across the board and play like a pro plays."

Which brings us back to the coats and ties. Defensive tackle Paul Boyette Jr. understands the merit of them. In fact, he actually wanted to wear them on the flight. When the team hits the road again to face Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, he says, "Guys have got to keep thinking this is a business trip."

The Longhorns have to get that mentality right. It's a little detail, but in this a make-or-break season, it matters. Maybe they just needed a wardrobe malfunction to figure it out.