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Horns' chemistry growing in lively players' lounge

Empty here, Texas' players' lounge has given a place for the Longhorns to build their camaraderie. University of Texas Athletic Photography

AUSTIN, Texas -- Charlie Strong has a master's degree in education, but like any head coach with 35 years on his resume, he is an expert in chemistry. What gnawed at Strong during his first two years of trying to excavate Texas from the muck of mediocrity is that he had to go downstairs to the locker room to find his players.

It wasn't the flight of stairs that bothered him. Strong, 56, awakens at 4 a.m. every morning to jog. He has the physical presence of a man 20 years younger. What bothered Strong was the players' lounge, or as he calls it, "the game room," right down the hall from his office.

The lounge looked as if it belonged in a business titan's vacation home. The lounge was a man cave of dark wood, cushy chairs, high-top tables and two big flat-screens hovering above eye level. In the middle sat a pool table with burnt orange felt. What the game room didn't have was bodies. It looked emptier than Perry-Castaneda Library on Saturday night.

"You walked in there, and it was always clean," Strong said. "You're like, 'God almighty! We don't even use this thing.'"

If the Longhorns return to glory in their third season under Strong, it will be because the 30-man freshman class, with players like guard Patrick Hudson, receiver Devin Duvernay, and especially quarterback Shane Buechele, have the maturity to match their athletic skill. It will be because the players who sat home during last bowl season came back in January with the desire never to do that again.

But don't forget about the pingpong table.

The transition from Mack Brown to Strong was rocky, which explains why only three seniors are expected to start this season. The difference in attitude between Strong's first two teams and this one is stark.

"I don't have to say, 'Hey, listen, tomorrow I'd like for some of you guys to be over (here), doing something,'" Strong said. "They show up now." Players used to come over to the football building, get their snack and go back to their dorm room. Strong, the defensive coordinator on Florida's two most recent national championship teams, knew a lack of chemistry when he saw it.

So in June, Strong began serving lunch to the players in the lounge. He also had the lounge upgraded, adding a pingpong table, a second pool table, a foosball table, an air hockey table and even an old-school arcade game. The change came almost overnight.

"The place is always packed," Strong said. "Even in the afternoons, they're in there. They're always in there. They're always in there. They're sitting around, and it's such a big deal. They're interacting! They're shooting pool. They're waiting on a pool table. 'Hey, Coach! I'm the best pingpong player EVER!' 'OK, whatever. You can't beat so-and-so.'"

When August practice began, that so-and-so might have been Buechele, undefeated at pingpong since the table arrived in June. Junior defensive end Naashon Hughes has been seen taking down Strong at the billiards table.

"The players' lounge used to be a spot where people would go and take naps. People would go and relax," senior safety Dylan Haines said. "And now we've added all these different games and stuff. It just provides more areas for competition for the players, and it gets us all in there and all involved with talking to one another."

"You see a team coming together, which we had never had happen before," Strong said.

When players want to be in the football building, it means they want to be around football. That sounds simplistic to the point of idiocy. Until it's missing. When senior offensive tackle Kent Perkins began taking his bench-press test this summer, his teammates gathered. As Perkins continued past 20 reps, past 30 reps of the 225-pound bar, his test became a team event.

"He was going for rep 35, 36, 37, 38, 39," defensive line coach Brick Haley said, "and you could just feel the energy in the room. Everybody is into their teammate and not into themselves."

"You see guys doing extra where they've never done it before," Strong said. "Or you ask a guy to do something, and it's not like, 'Why do we have to do that, Coach? We've never done it before.' You don't hear that now. If you walk over (to the football facility), they'll be watching video, or they'll be outside on the field throwing, just doing things they've never done before."

On Friday, Strong sat down for a Big 12 Digital Network interview. In the middle of it, defensive end Breckyn Hager burst into the room. Strong, with bemusement, halted the interview.

"I beat Shane!" Hager said. "I'm the first one to beat Shane!"

"You beat him? How bad?"

"21-18."

"I will be down there," Strong said, unable to control his laughter. "Why are you sweating?"

"Cause I've been trying. This means a lot to me!" Hager said.

Exit Hager. "That was breaking news," Strong said, still laughing.

For Texas to contend for its first Big 12 championship in seven years, the Longhorns will need the fortune of good health. They will need freshmen and sophomores to beat juniors and seniors.

Strong is too smart to promise anything. He trusts improvement. Improve, and success will follow. Already he has seen attitudes improve. The Longhorns held their first scrimmage on Saturday. It was also their first day of two-a-days. When they returned to the field Saturday night, they retained the enthusiasm they brought to the scrimmage.

"Sometimes you feel like there's been a change," Strong said. "You feel it, and you see it. That's what you see now with the team. You see it."

You see the Longhorns' chemistry formed in the heat and grind of sweaty August competition. And that's just in the air-conditioned comfort of the players' lounge, the room a few steps down the hall from the head coach's office.

Max Olson contributed to this story.