Deep in the heart of Texas: Any faith ghosts in the dramatic story of Charlie Strong?

You know you are in the great state of Texas when even the mega-state university has a fight song that ends with a clear reference to the Second Coming. I still can't believe that the powers that be in hip, secular Austin allow folks to stand up in their burnt orange and belt out the following:

The Eyes of Texas are upon you, 
All the live long day. 
The Eyes of Texas are upon you, 
You can not get away. 
Do not think you can escape them 
At night or early in the morn- 
The Eyes of Texas are upon you 
'Till Gabriel blows his horn.

Yes, it's football season again, that time of year when your GetReligionistas ask all kinds of God-shaped questions about major figures in the land's most popular sport, to the sound of crickets chirping in the comments pages. We will continue to treat sports news as a major element of American life (duh!) and even journalism (duh!). So there. 

Yes, I'm smiling as a type that.

What does this have to do with the University of Texas fight song?

Right now, one of the biggest stories in the heart of Texas is that the Longhorns have a new head football coach, one who has been charged with putting the state's dominant university back on the national football map -- or at least back in front of the tiny sort-of church schools in Waco and Fort Worth. (Editor's note: Yes, I have two degrees from Baylor and my family bleeds green and gold.)

The new UT coach's name is Charlie Strong and the subtext, if not the text-text, on most stories about him is that he is the school's first African-American head coach in a men's sport. Most stories also stress that this man is tough as nails and as disciplined as an old-school general. That is certainly true with the ESPN the Magazine feature story about the life and times of Strong.

I would argue that there is another important element to the Strong story and that is morality, or at the very least the creation of a moral culture around his team. 

I admit that I do not know if there is a religious element to this part of the story. Because Strong is working in Texas and because, as the ESPN story notes, the "head coach at Texas leads a culture as much as a team," I think it is fair to ask that question.

What, for example is going on with all of the recent dismissals from his first Longhorns squad? Surf these headlines and look for signs of moral fortitude. And what about that credo -- quoted in the ESPN piece -- that he keeps drilling into his players, the one that goes like this: "No drugs, no guns and treat women with respect"?

The ESPN piece also lists, as Strong's most prominent coaching mentors, Lou Holtz and Urban Meyer -- two men who are known to spend some time in church pews, perhaps even while recruiting (hello Tim Tebow).

So this passage jumped out at me in the section of the ESPN feature addressing the initial tensions between the Strong supporters and the all-powerful UT booster named Red McCombs:

Strong does not shy away from the uniqueness of his situation. A white coach can succeed or fail on his own merits, devoid of any cultural significance. But Strong, a black man stepping into a job held by a white man for the past 121 years, must walk a tightrope. For many, he represents not just a football coach but another toppled barrier.
Strong also understands the importance of sure footing. His first balancing act came when influential Texas booster Red McCombs -- signs for "Red's Zone" are among the first things you see in the stadium -- expressed his displeasure with Strong's hiring by calling it "a kick in the face. ... I think he would make a great position coach, maybe a coordinator."
Many viewed McCombs' comments in a racial context. "It really didn't hurt me," Strong says. "He's an alum who's given a lot of money to this program and university. A lot of times people want to know what's going on, and maybe he thought he didn't know.
"He and I talked. Went to dinner with him. Went to his office."
"Did he apologize?"
Strong hesitates, the internal edit at work. "Well, he said, 'The statement wasn't really toward you.'"

That is the context for the following pivotal quotation:

Much of the job, for Strong at least, might be found within that balancing act. He is fond of paraphrasing and personalizing Deuteronomy by saying, "I drink from a well I did not dig." It is his way of paying homage to those black coaches who came before him and weren't fortunate enough to make $5 million a year as the leader of the richest program in the country.

Now Deuteronomy is pretty off-roads biblical material, in the public square. At this point, I really wondered if part of Strong's appeal in Texas -- especially in a state with a powerful black church establishment in its major cities -- is somehow connected to faith and family.

No input there, this time around. However, other journalists have talked about this man's strong roots and, in The Dallas Morning News, this detail surfaced in a discussion of his character and values:

Rena was the boy’s middle name. That was what his mother, Delois Ramey, decided he should be called. The 13 other family members who lived in her house on 14th Street as well as the rest of the town dutifully followed. To his football teammates and coaches, he was known as Tub in honor of a fall while taking a bath.
To this day, on the rare occasions he travels back to Batesville or when the family gets together as it did a year ago at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Strong answers to Rena.
It was as Rena that Charlie Strong’s mettle was forged. He was still a child when he began showing a single-minded determination, work ethic and attention to detail that he was determined would take him far beyond Batesville’s city limits.
“And Rena never missed going to church on Sunday,” said his aunt, Cardia Ramey, who also lived in the house on 14th Street and still calls Batesville home. “He was a very great young man. He always tried as hard as he could. You know, he is still a great young man.”

And in the present? ESPN did not need to play the faith card in that story. I know that. But if you are trying to understand the challenges Strong faces in the Bible Belt culture of Texas, it would not have hurt to ask the faith question.

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