AUSTIN (AP) – Across the East Texas triangle that connects Austin, College Station and Houston, most everybody is happy with their favorite team’s college football coach after the first weekend of the season.
Tom Herman has Houston Cougars fans thinking College Football Playoff.
Charlie Strong gave Texas Longhorns supporters not just a “signature” victory against No. 10 Notre Dame — his words — but an offense and a quarterback that finally look as if they can compete in the Big 12.
Sure, maybe Texas A&M followers left Kyle Field a little frustrated that the Aggies blew a fourth-quarter lead, but a win against a ranked team in overtime is no reason to raise the heat on coach Kevin Sumlin’s seat.
Such is college football in the Lone Star State this year: an almost weekly referendum on the coaches at Texas and TexasA&M, while the sports’ current boy genius roams the sideline for a non-Power Five school that has a chance to become the story of the season. Two coaches facing pivotal seasons and their possible replacement within reasonable driving distance.
For now, things are looking up for Strong. A year after getting humiliated 38-3 at South Bend, Indiana, by the Fighting Irish, the Longhorns beat No. 10 Notre Dame 50-47 in double overtime on Sunday night.
“Our fans really needed that,” said Strong, who got a hug from Gov. Greg Abbott as he left the field and a “Charlie! Charlie!” chant from a smattering of students who hung around just to see the coach run through the tunnel.
“We’ve been down for so long and people have been talking about us. It was a night for us to make it right. At least for one game, for one game.”
Strong’s standing with fans wasn’t great after two seasons, an 11-14 record and an offense that seemed to be trying to reinvent itself weekly. A third straight losing season would probably mean the end of the Strong era in Austin.
To fix the offense, Strong hired former Baylor assistant Sterlin Gilbert to install the Bears’ spread offense. And he handed the keys to freshman Shane Buechele. The 18-year-old passed for 280 yards and a couple of touchdowns against Notre Dame. He throws a beautiful deep ball, and Texas has receivers who can run them down and backs to take advantage of the room that the stretched out field provides.
The Longhorns beat Oklahoma last season, but that turned out to be only a temporary respite. Texas would later be shut out by Iowa State on the way to 5-7.
“Everybody knows this year’s different,” said senior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, who scored three touchdowns, including the winner, in his new role as short-yardage quarterback. “We just got a lot of senior leadership. We’ve got a lot of young guys, but they play a lot bigger than they are.”
Strong needs the kids to come through. A small step forward might not be enough for him if Herman is pushing the Cougars toward a playoff berth with an American Athletic Conference team.
In 15 games at Houston, Herman, a former grad assistant for Mack Brown at Texas, has become one of the rock stars of college coaching. He’s media savvy and media friendly — a quarterback whisperer with a diamond grill . He has Urban Meyer’s blue print, Rich Rodriguez’s offense and Vince Vaughn’s coolness.
“What I have noticed about him is he’s got an incredible ability to relate to 18-22 young men and push them harder than I think they’ve ever been pushed before and at the same time, give them a lot of love,” Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek.
Houston raised Herman’s salary to $3 million after last season when he turned down overtures from South Carolina, and Herman gets $5 million if he helps get Houston into a Power Five conference. But Yurachek knows the next suitors to come calling for Herman could have a lot more to sell than South Carolina did.
“There’s just certain jobs that are premiere jobs in our industry,” Yurachek said Sunday, a day after No. 15 Houston beat No. 3 Oklahoma 33-23. “I would not fault Tom for taking a look at those jobs.”
Is Texas A&M one of those jobs? Maybe. Maybe not. But many Aggies certainly believe it to be, which is why Sumlin’s 37-16 overall record and 17-16 mark in the Southeastern Conference in five seasons aren’t enough to appease the base.
Just like Strong, Sumlin’s work will be judged against Herman’s this season. And if it doesn’t stack up, the Aggies might want to trade in their former rising star from Houston for the latest model.
A bidding war between Texas and Texas A&M for Herman would bring the dysfunctional rivalry between the schools to new heights.
But for now, Herman seems more likely to be the next LSU coach than the next Texas or Texas A&M boss. Or why not just stay at Houston if it lands in the Big 12?
These things change quickly. Strong knows he is not in the clear.
“No, because I’ve still got a few more to go, so I don’t have any relief,” Strong said with a laugh. “No, I don’t think you get any relief, no.”
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