There are 146 million reasons to not feel sorry for Texas. You can begin with the Longhorns’ athletic budget — yes, close to $146 million last year.
Texas is the goliath, the school with the bags of money. The place that begot Vince Young, Jamaal Charles and Earl Campbell; the home of the burnt orange and Saturday afternoon pageantry.
Texas is a place where college football is sacred, not a place that needs sympathy. But here in Lawrence, coach Charlie Weis can at least understand the plight of a namesake, first-year Texas coach Charlie Strong.
“I feel their pain,” Weis said wryly Tuesday.
Strong, a tough-minded, no-nonsense football man, has embarked on a program-wide cleansing in Austin, a project designed to change the culture of Texas football. The project continued Tuesday, when Strong dismissed starting tackle Kennedy Estelle for a violation of team rules, the ninth Longhorns player to be booted this season.
Just two years ago, Weis gritted through the pain of his own culture change at Kansas. In his first year, Weis parted ways with 29 players — and the Jayhawks promptly suffered the indignity of a 1-11 season.
The situations are not perfect parallels, of course. But as Texas, 1-2, prepares to travel to Kansas, 2-1, for the Big 12 opener for both teams — call it Charlie Bowl I — both KU and Texas find themselves in rare places. The Longhorns, still a two-touchdown favorite, are working on a new identity. The Jayhawks, still building in a third season under Weis, are a little more settled.
“You have core values within your program,” Strong told reporters last week in Austin. “And if you’re going to say that that’s what your program is all about, then you have to be about it.”
After 16 years under former coach Mack Brown, including four Bowl Championship Series appearances and a BCS title, perhaps the program was in need of a reboot. Strong, 54, came to Texas from Louisville, where he had instilled his no-nonsense approach over four seasons and led the Cardinals to a Sugar Bowl victory.
In his first season at Texas, Strong has repeated the following words: “Put the T back in Texas,” a slogan perfect crafted for a T-shirt. In August, Strong stripped the familiar Longhorn logo off the practice helmets; he said it needed to be earned. Later, he began his rash of suspensions and dismissals.
In the short term, the indoctrination of toughness has left the Longhorns a little undermanned. While Estelle, one starting tackle, was dismissed Tuesday, another starting tackle, Desmond Harrison, is still suspended for this week. A third offensive lineman was lost for the season to injury. And starting quarterback David Ash played just one game before retiring from football last week after a series of head injuries; inexperienced reserve quarterback Tyrone Swoopes assumed the role.
“They’re a little bit of a team in transition,” Weis said.
Indeed. Texas suffered a 41-7 home loss to BYU on Sept. 6, and the Longhorns followed that up by losing to No. 11 UCLA 20-17 in Arlington, Texas. And consider this: For the first time ever, a Texas team with a losing record will play a Kansas team with a winning record.
“You feel good that you are getting them early, because maybe they aren’t settled into a routine,” KU offensive coordinator John Reagan said. “With that being said, maybe it would have been nice to play them for the spring game and be done with them.”
Saturday is Homecoming in Lawrence. And Weis expects a cast of former players — including former quarterback Todd Reesing, an Austin native — to be in town. A few might even get an opportunity to address the team.
But if history is a theme on Saturday, it’s worth pointing out that Kansas has not defeated Texas since 1938, nearly 60 years before the Big 12 even existed. For the better part of the last two decades, Texas has mostly owned Kansas — save for a couple of close calls in Lawrence, including the famous 2004 loss that set former coach Mark Mangino into a rant about the BCS.
But for once, Texas might be the team with more question marks, and that sounds fine to Weis. In the end, of course, nobody really feels sorry for Texas.
“I would rather have played them three weeks ago,” Weis said, “as early as possible.”