DALLAS — The meetings lasted less than 10 minutes. When a player entered the head coach's office, Charlie Strong had two questions:
"Is this the best you can play? And is this the best I should expect every game?"
FOOTBALL FOUR: Rating, debating college football
Then he pressed play. A brief lowlight reel unfolded: Ten plays, or maybe 15, culled from last season and tailored to each player's performance. When the action on the screen ended, so did the meeting.
"I'd just say, 'If this is you, let me know,' " Strong says. "They'd walk out of the room with their head down."
A new era is unfolding at Texas. A new coach has brought a new philosophy, and the approach is anything but touchy-feely. At the risk of oversimplifying, it can be distilled to:
Toughness – do you have it?
If there's an overarching immediate priority for Strong, that's it. As the 2014 college football season approaches, it's difficult to figure out what we should expect from Texas. The easy preseason picks in the Big 12 are Oklahoma or Baylor, and then everybody else. Where Texas fits isn't certain. But if Strong has his way, the program will no longer be called soft.
Since taking the job last January, Strong has been careful to say all the right things about former coach Mack Brown. Tuesday, he called Brown an icon, alluded to the Longhorns' 2005 run to the BCS national championship and said, "the foundation has been laid. It's up to us to continue to build on it."
But since Texas played in the BCS title game after the 2009 season, the program had slipped several notches. The trend was downward. And it's pretty clear Strong is laying a brand new foundation. On Tuesday, he reiterated something he's said often during offseason speaking engagements:
"It's all about putting a 'T' back into Texas," Strong says. "You talk about toughness, you talk about trust, you talk about togetherness and you talk about just becoming a team."
Strong, whose roots are as a no-nonsense defensive coordinator, arrived in Austin after rebuilding Louisville into a BCS-level contender. When he immediately made wholesale changes to the Texas strength and conditioning staff, it was only the start. The power of positive thinking has not been a point of emphasis.
During spring practices, the Longhorns walked a half-mile every day from the locker room to the practice fields, and then walked back afterward. Under Brown, they'd routinely bused to and from the workouts.
It's mental toughness, too. For a time, Strong prohibited the Longhorns from flashing the familiar "Hook 'Em" hand signal, saying they had to earn the right. He also required them to be early for classes, and to sit in the front row, with correct posture – and then he regularly checked their attendance himself. He has temporarily banned some players from the locker room when he determined they weren't living up to the standards.
"When people talk about toughness, it's not physically where you're always trying to beat them down," he says. "It's a toughness to just go do the right thing. ... Just go do the little things."
Asked what's tougher now than before, senior cornerback Quandre Diggs says: "Everything."
"You work for what you get," Diggs says. "That's the way life is. In life, you're never gonna be given something. You're always gonna have to work for it. I think that's something that we took for granted – we're given a lot at Texas."
After spring practice had ended, while his assistants were out recruiting in May, Strong reviewed the film from the 2013 season, then called in the players one by one for some quick film review of their substandard performances.
"It wasn't a real complicated meeting, at all," senior running back Malcolm Brown says. "It was real simple. It was real fast."
It was, as senior center Dominic Espinosa put it, yet another "reality check" in an ongoing series. But he says Strong's approach is working.
"We might have thought the idea of 'tough' was different than what we think now," Espinosa says. "We know (now) we can push further and further and get to a different type of 'tough."
Will the approach translate into wins? It would probably be wise not to expect too much from 2014. Texas returns 13 starters (six offense, seven defense) from a team that finished 8-5. And although the Longhorns were mathematically in the race for the Big 12 championship deep into November, the undeniable truth was they only faintly resembled the Top 10 teams Brown had built only a few years earlier.
The 2014 nonconference schedule includes BYU and UCLA. Texas was picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 by league media, behind Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas State. The Longhorns begin preseason practices next month with significant questions to answer at quarterback, along the offensive line and at linebacker.
Last April, Strong made waves, while kicking off the "Comin' on Strong" offseason speaking tour at an event in Fort Worth, when he answered a fan's question about expectations for the 2014 season.
"We have everything available, and I don't know why we can't be successful," Strong said, as recounted by the Austin American Statesman. "There's no reason for us not to be. Now, I can't tell you how soon it's going to be. Don't hold me to that. Don't say, 'Oh, coach said next year we'll be in the national…' We will not be in the national championship game."
Strong says now he was referring to what he'd seen from the Longhorns at that point, after they had completed spring practice. Whatever he meant, the comment raised eyebrows, even as it shouldn't have – Texas is not a national contender.
"You've seen us play," he says a reporter. "You think we're gonna win one this year?" And a moment later, he adds: "Just look at the tape."
For now at least, it's all he needs to say.
"Players are smart," he says. "You think about it. Kids figure out. They see the big picture, and they know how they have to improve. That's why I wanted them to see those plays, and why I broke it down.
"I think they understand where they are. I think they understand what the expectation level is at the University of Texas."
It's not all tough love. Strong says the Longhorns have bought into his approach, that he's pleased with their progress, and ready to see how it translates."Just from their attitude right now," he says, "I think we're going to find us a different football team." But for now, this passes for praise:
"We're not as bad as we used to be," Strong says. "I'll tell you this: We still have a lot of work to do."
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE BIG 12 MEDIA DAYS