When Mack Brown departed as the head football coach of the Texas Longhorns, he left as the second-winningest coach behind Darrell Royal and the only Texas football coach to win more than 200 games.
But Brown’s final four seasons at Texas were his worst, including:
- Three consecutive losses to rival Oklahoma, including humiliating defeats where OU “hung half a hundred” on Texas;
- The worst home loss in Brown’s 16 years;
- The worst defensive season in school history.
The hangover of Texas losing to Alabama in the BCS championship led to a 5 – 7 season the following year, its worst in 40 years. Four years removed from that championship game, the Texas football program had deteriorated into a country club culture of entitlement that produced a 30 – 21 record.
Mack Brown’s failure to confront issues ranging from turf wars among assistants and cliques among players to sloppy tackling and botched plays ultimately changed a high-performing culture into one where excuses, double standards, and an attitude of “that’s close enough” became the norm.
There was talk during those four bad years from coaches and players about fixing things and getting better, but that’s all it was…talk.
Small wonder no Longhorn football player was selected in this year’s NFL draft, ending the longest streak in the country that had stood since 1937.
Changing a Culture from Entitled to Accountable
Enter Charlie Strong, the 29th head football coach at Texas. He’s also the new sheriff in town.
Charlie Strong is a protégé of Coach Lou Holtz who observed, “When all is said and done, more is said than done.”
Strong is a man of rock-solid character, few words and purposeful action. “I don’t want to talk about things,” Strong said after his initial meeting with senior players and key leaders. “I’d rather do things. We just talked. Now it’s time to do.” Players have the opportunity to help lead the culture change Coach Strong is engineering or be run over by it.
Based on interviews for my book, Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture, data I’ve collected from more than 4,000 leaders worldwide, and my work with leaders and their teams, changing a culture is a 12-month to three-year process.
As with any turnaround the deterioration that occurred before Strong’s arrival makes his job harder.
Seven principles of successful turnarounds
As with any turnaround, there are seven principles that never change and Charlie Strong is applying all of them.
- Establish vision – Workers involved in a turnaround must know the goal. The Longhorns are a legendary program with a commitment to winning. Strong’s vision for his players and his program is simple and powerful: “You’re here to graduate, win championships and to be a better person.”
- Be honest – Never sugarcoat the facts in a turnaround. Charlie Strong doesn’t. He’s not afraid of telling players they’re not as good as they think they are. “We still have a long ways to go,” Strong said. “To get to that [championship] game, you have to have a really good football team, and I just don’t know how good we are right now.” Some fans were bothered by Strong’s comments, but if you watched a Texas game the last couple of years you know he’s being honest.
- Set clear expectations – Whether you’re losing games or market share, discipline (or the lack of it) is usually one reason why. The new sheriff is setting clear expectations, including:
- Attend class, sit in the front two rows and take notes. No headphones, no texting. Players missing a class will run; if he misses two classes, his entire position unit runs; if he misses three classes, the position coach runs.
- No earrings in the football building. No drugs. No stealing. No guns. Treat women with respect.
- Move quickly and boldly – A new leader’s early actions are watched closely. Last month, Coach Strong dismissed six players for violations of team rules. Two of the players were key contributors on offense last year and another player was contending for a starting job on defense. “My goal,” said Strong, “was not to come in here and try and run players off. At the end of the day, our job is to help young men. I don’t want to see them fail.” Smart leaders give a person time to adjust and get their performance on track. But when a person is not willing or not able to see that discipline prescribed by a coach or supervisor is for their own good and won’t adapt, they’re making a choice. To change a culture, behavior must change. When a person’s behavior doesn’t change, that person must go. Charlie Strong is willing to back up his words with bold action.
- Construct realistic strategies – Players received new workout gear with words printed on the back: “Toughness.” “Trust.” “Togetherness.” “Team.” Charlie Strong is working overtime to “Put the ‘T’ back in Texas.” To change complacency and entitlement to accountability and achievement, he’s shaking things up. He’s taken locks off coaches’ doors so players and coaches can interact. He’s up at dawn jogging, modeling the discipline he expects of his players. Gone are the air-conditioned bus rides to practice, replaced by half-mile walks in full pads to the fields. Practices have been described by players as “intense.” “You can talk about all those teams that throw the ball around,” says Strong, “but at the end of the day, if you can’t line up and run downhill and punch somebody in the mouth, then you are going to have issues.” Charlie Strong knows what it takes to win games.
- Execute on a sustained basis – Talent has rarely been the issue with Texas. Lately it’s been a failure to execute. Time will tell if the changes Strong is making will restore Texas to elite status. But Strong’s track record at Louisville brought him to Austin. He took over a poorly performing Louisville football team and two years later coached them to an 11 – 2 record and a trip to the Sugar Bowl where they upset Florida.
- Focus everything on winning – In business, it’s pleasing customers. In football, it’s winning games. The expectations at Texas are high and the sense of urgency is keen. The idea of a rebuilding year does not sit well with fans. And it’s not Charlie Strong’s timetable. When asked about “rebuilding,” Strong replied “I don’t have time for that.” The expectation is that Texas wins now.
The fundamentals of a turnaround – whether you’re leading a company, a college, a church or a sports club – never change.