For the most part, the first couple Big 12 media day sessions wrapped up without any cause for concern—the coaches largely avoided mansplaining or rambling on about fake families, and the second-most contentious question of the day focused on whether Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury is no longer the hottest coach in the conference.
But even in a relaxed media environment filled with journalists just looking to cop some free conference merch; even with the same worn-out coaching platitudes to hide behind, the concern among the football coaches hailing from Texas was as unavoidable as it was enjoyable. The causes varied from plain ol’ shitty coaching to an ever-escalating sexual assault scandal, but the results looked the same across the board—nervous coaches talking about regaining ground they never thought they’d collectively lose.
The 2016 college football season marked the first time since 1967 that none of the Power Five Texas programs—Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, TCU, and Baylor—finished in the top 25; none of the state’s other five FBS programs managed the feat, either. While the poll is an ultimately pointless exercise given the sport’s current postseason system, the rankings don’t undermine the fact that the above major programs finished the bowl season with a 1-3 record and two no-shows.
At various points throughout the season, all five teams managed to climb into the top 25, only to shit the bed down the stretch—Texas finished 5-7, firing Charlie Strong before season’s end; Texas A&M opened 7-1 before dropping four of its final five games; TCU finished 6-7, just the second time in 10 years the Horned Frogs failed to hit the 7-win mark; Baylor was ranked No. 8 before a six-game losing streak tanked Jim Grobe’s sole season at the helm; Texas Tech finished 5-7 behind its bottom-four (in the entire nation) defense. Tom Herman’s Houston squad, a member of the AAC, led the state, climbing as high as No. 6, but still finished unranked and lost its bowl game after Herman departed early for the Longhorns gig.
And the losses didn’t just come on the field. The state (alongside Florida and slightly above California) is known for churning out droves of blue-chip recruits, but as every program faltered last season, the fickle recruiting process quickly resulted in the Texas teams losing their home-field advantage.
According to ESPN, of the top 10 in-state recruits in the class of 2017, just one (TCU’s Jalen Raegor) chose a Texas school; of the 46 athletes in the site’s top 300, just 17 opted for an in-state school. The recruits they spoke with listed the above problems woven in each program—scandals, coaching turnover, lack of on-field production—as reasons they took their talents away from their home state.
Even with a nation-leading 13.8 percent of college football’s four- and five-star recruits hailing from Texas the past five years, the proximity of the five Power Five and 11 FBS programs mean very little if none of the teams are winning. Walker Little, a Stanford commit from Bellaire, Texas, told ESPN 97.5 it was not a desire to leave the state that drove the overall No. 48 recruit in the nation to Palo Alto, but rather the unfortunate timing on the part of the top Texas programs to synch their slumps:
“I don’t feel like it’s the draw to get out of state. I don’t think kids want to leave the state of Texas,” Little said in an interview with ESPN 97.5. “I think it’s partly because the schools in Texas aren’t at their peaks right now as far as wins and losses.
The onus is now on the five coaches—TCU’s Gary Patterson, Baylor’s Matt Rhule, Texas’s Tom Herman, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, and Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury—to simultaneously delouse their programs and convince the next crop of Texas blue chips that they’re a worthy investment. The cohort addressed these issues during their recent media day outings; the hotter the seat, the more vague the answer, but all are aware the Lone Star crown is up for grabs.
Patterson, the only Texas coach that appears to be comfortably employed at this point, was quick to point out the state’s recruiting woes at his recent Big 12 Media Days appearance, telling reporters the teams ought to “be embarrassed” for their collective 2016 seasons and offering his diagnosis:
Number one, we’ve got to keep players here. I think the Internet and everything else has led to that because kids go anywhere now to look at a school. It’s not regional. And we’ve got to do a better job of keeping them in the state. If you want to have great teams, you have to have great players. No doubt about it, that’s what we have to be able to do.
I think A&M going to the SEC hurt us a little bit because you have that common factor. But to be honest with you, it’s also now — I think the Big 12's learning it’s helping us because we’re now leaving the state to be able to get kids to come into the state. But we should be embarrassed we don’t have a team in the top 25. There’s a lot of good football players, even that come to our schools, that can play and play at a high level, and we need to play better. It’s simple as that.
It should probably come as no surprise that the most comfortable coach, in terms of job safety, espoused the harshest criticisms of his state’s programs. Patterson’s been in Fort Worth going on 17 seasons and has topped 10 wins in six out of the past nine years; the Horned Frogs overlooked his most recent 6-7 outing, signing the winningest coach in program history to an extension through 2022 in the spring. Past him, every school is looking to raise the bar and return to annual top-10 finishes and a cruise-control recruiting system.
Luckily for both Baylor’s Matt Rhule and Texas’s Tom Herman, the first-year young bloods should start out with a low bar for at least their opening seasons. (Until any actual football is played, all we have to judge them by is recruiting and Q&A’s.)
In addressing the football program’s role in the school’s sexual assault scandal, the language Rhule used to discuss the ongoing issue has been coach-y at times (“We’re trying to make sure our kids know what it means to be a man.”) but he hasn’t shied away from actually naming the problem:
“We’re truly committed to getting the wrongs of the past corrected and to a bright new future. Together, we are committed to our continued cooperation with external and internal reviews of past conduct.”
“I want to move forward. But I want to move forward always acknowledging the past. And you know what, this issue of sexual assault and gender violence, this isn’t a Baylor issue; this isn’t a college football issue. It’s everywhere. It’s a higher education issue.”
It’s not much, but at the least, it’s an improvement from what the school had to offer last season. And this attempt at displaying actual progress, along with his injection of youth and stability into a program that’s been in flux for two years now, has benefitted him on the recruiting trail. Rhule’s already made up for last year’s mass exodus, taking a Class of 2017 that had one recruit when he inherited it in December and crafting it into the 39th-best group in the nation by signing day. Next year’s group is already ranked 23rd, per ESPN.
Herman also had some recruiting ground to cover when he took over Texas in December; he ended up putting together the 33rd-best class in the nation. To most, that would be a reason to celebrate, but the norm established at Texas—the Longhorns ranked in the top 20 in every prior modern era of class ranking—makes Herman’s first class look a bit lackluster. He defended the class in cliche fashion (“What rankings don’t do though is crack their chest open and look at their heart,”) but he’ll be shielded this year by the fact that Charlie Strong left him a roster filled with players constituting three top-16 recruiting classes.
In his main Q&A session, Herman addressed the recent drop-off the Texas program’s suffered, which dates back to 2012 if you’re generous and the 2009 title game loss if you’re a Longhorns fan. The Texas coach said that his most recent batch of recruits needs be educated on “what Texas is capable of,” while his senior class needs to rewrite their “legacy.”
“Since the class of 2018, these 16-year-old kids that we’re recruiting — since they were 2 years old, they’ve seen two winning Texas football seasons, two; and they’ve seen four losing Texas football seasons. So the Texas that they know is a lot different than the Texas that people in my generation know. So it’s our job to show them what Texas is capable of, what Texas has been in the past, and what we’re planning on being again in the future.”
Only three members of the current Longhorns team, all redshirt seniors, have finished a season with a winning record—like Strong found out, even when you’re dealt a shit hand, 16-21 is how you book a ticket out of Austin.
Unlike Herman and Rhule, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin—the only SEC coach in Texas nowadays—and Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury do not have the benefit of being judged by only recruiting class rankings and media interactions.
Sumlin was recently provided a not-so-subtle public reminder by his athletic director, Scott Woodward, that his time for program building is officially up. The AD told Paul Finebaum in May that the coach is aware “he has to win this year.” Sumlin responded at SEC Media Days last week, offering a brief anecdote about the similar pressure that came with being a low-level receivers coach (“You better start catching the damn ball”), and bullshitting his way through the rest.
“Scott and I have known each other for a while, even before he came to Texas A&M. So, we’ve had a lot of conversations before that. Might have been conversations after that. I’m not going to get into what those conversations were about, but, you know, it’s — like I said, for me, my job, nothing changes for me. And, you know, you’ve been around me a long time. Nobody puts more pressure on me than I put on myself and nobody wants to win more than I want to.”
Despite the fact Sumlin has hauled in nothing but top-20 recruiting classes for six straight years, A&M has finished a season ranked just twice, and both teams had Johnny Manziel on them. A&M finished with the best record of any of the Power Five Texas programs last year, but three consecutive 8-5 seasons that provide little hope of crossing the 10-win mark have left Woodward and the rest of Aggie nation impatient. Sumlin can and will play it cool, but he knows as well as anyone his ass is on the line this season.
Kingsbury, meanwhile, received the verbal support of AD Kirby Holcutt in November, though it’s worth remembering that even on-record statements of support amount to nada after a(nother) year’s worth of angry calls and email over the horrendous defense.
The issue facing Kingsbury is, compared the other programs, fairly simple: Texas Tech’s defense has been fucking abysmal under their sharp-dressed leader. The Red Raiders ranked No. 128 out of 128 in scoring defense last season, No. 125 in 2015, and No. 126 in 2014. His first three questions at Big 12 Media Days were all about defense, with the third being this exasperated man just trying to make sense of it all:
Even with the fifth-best offense in the nation, if Kingsbury doesn’t drastically improve his team’s defense—he’s reportedly taking more a hands-off approach with the offense to address these issues—the 37-year-old is going to be fielding questions like this until he gets axed.
And therein lies one of the main issues the state’s elite teams are currently having: All the Texas teams struggled to break through to college football’s top-tier in 2016, which isn’t ideal, but is not a dealbreaker; what is a dealbreaker is constant coaching turnover paired with shitty seasons, even at name-brand schools with their own TV channels. With two programs on their second or third coach in three years and two more looking like they’ll have new coaches by 2019, recruits have understandably been choosing the quality and stability that exists at various out-of-state schools.
While all the Texas programs have encountered their own struggles over the past decade, there was never a season in which one could observe the land of endless five-star recruits and proclaim all the programs within it to be middling teams struggling to attract kids from their own backyard. Even though a number of those teams have a promising 2017 ahead of them, the reality is that heading into the upcoming season, for the first time since the AP poll only included 10 teams, the Texas programs will be playing catch up.