Strong bringing culture change to Texas

AUSTIN, Texas -- The head coach wants to see you in his office.

To Cedric Reed and his Texas teammates, those words are supposed to mean trouble. He was admittedly a bit uncomfortable when he showed up to the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletics Center this winter and got the message.

Charlie Strong simply wanted to hang out with his star defensive end.

“He was calling me, ‘Hey, get up here!’ That was unusual,” Reed said. “Never really did that before. We sat there and lounged around and watched film.”

The locks are off the doors in the football offices. The doors are open. The new guy in charge is making changes and making an impression.

Strong is out to change the culture of the Longhorns. And it starts with the little stuff.

Like opening up the coaches’ office and making sure players know the staff always has time for them. Reed is now seeing four or five players hanging in the office at a time, joking around and talking ball with their new coaches.

This is Strong trying to break the ice and to start building some valuable bonds. He can’t ask a player to buy into everything he demands on the field if that player doesn’t trust him off the field.

“I’ve told the players that now, when you come up, you can just walk right in,” Strong said. “I just want them to know who we are. When a young man knows that you care about him, he’ll do everything you ask of him.”

And Strong is asking plenty of his players this spring in an effort to find out who can hang with his expectations. He’s out to remind this team what it means to be a Longhorn, and that’s where the offseaon motto comes from: “Put the ‘T’ back in Texas.”

The line was born, Strong says, from conversation with a recruit shortly after he took the job. Strong asked the question: When you think of Texas, what do you think of?

The prospect was, understandably, less than impressed by the program’s trajectory and recent reputation for underperforming.

That was one of the many reminders Strong needed to shake things up.

Some of the changes are easy to spot. Texas players now make the half-mile walk to and from the practice fields on foot -- no more getting bused around. And they’re not throwing up the horns with their hands, not just yet. Strong feels they haven’t earned that right.

“They’ll get it back one of these days,” he said.

Texas players wore new workout clothes this winter with the new standards listed on the back: Toughness. Trust. Togetherness. Team. That's another Strong idea, and one that he hoped the players would latch onto quickly.

He’s not out to be their motivational speaker. He’s telling them how things are going to be from now on if Texas plans to get back to its winning ways.

“The players understand that,” Strong said. “When I put that on the back of their shirts, (Dominic) Espinosa said, ‘Coach, that’s what we needed.’ They worked.”

And Strong is out to practice what he’s preaching, all the way down to running with the team during offseason conditioning and keeping up with them in the weight room. Reed was startled when he showed up for a 5:30 a.m. workout one day and saw Strong was already soaked from his own early-morning session. Reed sees the same commitment on the practice field, where Strong’s demands must be met.

“He’s real. He’s really real,” Reed said. “He won’t embarrass you in front of everybody, but he’ll come up to you and tell you exactly what he wants. It’s a motivational, ‘I’ll tell you want I want’ kind of thing.”

Whether it all pays off and creates the needed results, only time will tell. There will be roster attrition this offseason if players don’t want to put in the effort now expected of them. Two players have already been dismissed from the program and three more backups elected to end their careers (though two were due to injuries).

The changes won’t stop soon, because it’s going to take a lot more than open office doors and post-practice walks to get the Texas program back on track. As Strong proudly joked after his fourth spring practice: “The screw has been tightened from Day 1.”

Strong won’t talk badly about the Mack Brown era, and neither will Texas players. They don’t want to compare the old and new regimes -- different coaches, different styles.

And these are, indeed, very different days for Texas football.