Column: With a new head coach at the helm, why Texas is primed to bounce back in 2017

Michael Shapiro

It’s fair for the burnt orange faithful to be skeptical heading into the 2017 season. They’ve been burned time and again over the past three years, with any glimmers of optimism quickly replaced by the realization that at its core, this was at best a mediocre program, incapable of stringing together sustained success.

The Longhorns carried former head coach Charlie Strong off the field after Texas defeated Oklahoma in 2015, only to get shut out by Iowa State two weeks later. And after ESPN’s Joe Tessitore declared, “Texas is back, folks,” following the Longhorns’ opening-night win over Notre Dame in 2016, Texas dropped three of its next four, ending the season with a losing record for the third consecutive season.

So as week one approaches and optimism reigns throughout the college football world, it’s hard to blame Longhorn fans for containing their excitement. As the old adage goes: fool me for one season, shame on you. Fool me for four seasons in a row, shame on me. 

Texas fans are right to be guarded. It’s what you do after a 16–21 record over a three-year period. But this season will be different. And there’s one big reason why.

The changes in the program start at the top. After Strong was dismissed in December, Texas jumped at the chance to hire head coach Tom Herman, who entered Austin following a 22–5 stint over two seasons at Houston. A former graduate assistant for the Longhorns in 1999, Herman instilled his exacting approach to program building from day one on the job. He preached engagement and alignment — a buzzword throughout the offseason — revamping Texas’ culture in the nine months between his hiring and Texas’ season opener on Saturday. 

“(The players) are definitely in line with what we want and what we need,” Herman said. “I have talked about the difference between compliant and committed. I do believe these guys, there’s a lot of them now that are doing these things because they have conviction, that it’s the right way to do things rather than, ‘Hey, I don’t want to get in trouble so let’s do these things.’”

And don’t just take Herman’s word that the program has been revitalized. His sentiments have been echoed throughout the roster during preseason practice, with players noting Texas’ physical and mental transformation. In addition to shedding 500 pounds of body fat during the offseason — as Herman announced in late July — the Longhorns also lost the bad habits they accumulated over the past three seasons.

“We have that mental toughness now,” junior wide receiver Jerrod Heard said. “We had to piece together the mental part with our physical toughness, and I think we’ve found it. It’s going to be a real good season for us.”

There’s no guarantee Texas will see its record skyrocket to nine or ten wins this year, especially in a crowded Big 12. The Longhorns will face No. 4 USC, No. 7 Oklahoma and No. 10 Oklahoma State during a brutal five-game stretch early in the year, and still have to play TCU and West Virginia on the road. The easy wins on Texas’ schedule are few and far between. 

But even an incremental improvement in the Longhorns’ record will lay the groundwork for future success. Rebuilding a program doesn’t happen overnight, and year one of the Herman era will be judged by more than what’s seen in the wins column. Texas may not find itself chasing a Big 12 title in 2017, but the malaise that swept the program over the past three seasons has subsided. It’s now safe to let your guard down. This year will be different.