2015 Best Feature, by Pete Thamel

ffaw_redesignComment by the judge, Steve Richardson: Thoughtful, well-researched piece on UT’s Charlie Strong. This story got way below the surface and explained why Strong is the way he is. It explains his life every step of the way from his childhood to becoming the CEO of one of college football’s traditional powers.

By Pete Thamel

Sports Illustrated

Pete Thamel, Sports Illustrated

Pete Thamel, Sports Illustrated

Charlie Strong opens his eyes. It’s 4 a.m. He rises, dresses and, without caffeine, drives 20 minutes to the Texas football facility. On Mondays he runs south to downtown via Red River Street and returns on Guadalupe Street. On Tuesdays he heads through neighborhoods to the north. The routes vary each day, but the goal remains the same — shave a few seconds off his time from the week before.

He does not always succeed, but Strong still bangs out five miles at a nine-minute clip, straining to outrace some previous version of himself. He has done this for his entire career, through 14 coaching jobs at eight universities — three decades spent pushing himself forward while running in loops. And yet even when he has reached his destination, Strong cannot help but do what he has always done, so he runs just as hard.

Last winter, after going 23-3 during his final two seasons at Louisville, Strong landed what many consider the best coaching gig in the country, signing a five-year, $26 million deal at Texas. If everything is big in Texas, the task of reviving the football team is no exception. The Longhorns went 18-17 in the Big 12 under Mack Brown over the last four seasons; this year they didn’t have a player drafted by the NFL for the first time since 1937. And Strong’s hiring as the program’s first black coach carries with it a social significance that matches the breadth of his improbable journey. “Could you ever believe,” Strong confided to a friend recently, “that I ended up at Texas?”

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