Florida assistant Strong heading to Louisville
AP Sports Writer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Charlie Strong tried to stay patient, kept telling himself that one day the right opportunity to become a head football coach would come along.
But the years passed and the phone call offering the perfect job never came. More than once the longtime Florida defensive coordinator wondered if it ever would.
Strong did his best to soldier on, never fully realizing how much he wanted to lead his own program until it the moment it actually happened.
It’s why he had to bow his head and bite his lip moments after agreeing to take over as head coach at Louisville, the weight of years of frustration washing away into the frigid December air.
“When we were offered this job, me and my wife (Victoria) and I looked at each other,” Strong said, “because you just never thought it was going to happen.”
Strong, who helped Florida win two national championships, becomes the 11th black coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the fourth hired in the last month, signs that major college football is finally embracing minority hires.
“I think athletic directors and presidents are finally showing a sincere commitment to inclusion and equity,” said Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association.
While Strong wondered when his time would come, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich had no such doubts. His only concern was that he waited too long to lure Strong away from the Gators.
Jurich pledged not to contact Strong until after the Gators finished their regular season out of respect. He spent the down time talking to people like former NFL coach Tony Dungy about Strong’s character. Yet when other jobs became available during the interim, Jurich admitted thinking his decision to be polite was “stupid.”
He didn’t hesitate once the Gators fell to Alabama in the SEC title game. Jurich and Strong met in Gainesville on Sunday and spent the next two days talking on the phone before Jurich flew back to Florida on Wednesday to get his man.
“I just wanted somebody so hungry he would crawl here, and there’s no doubt he would crawl here,” Jurich said.
Instead, Strong sprinted.
Strong was so focused on getting the rebuilding process started he and Jurich didn’t even go over the details of his five-year contract that will pay him a base salary of $1.6 million annually until moments before he was introduced.
“It’s like a non-issue to him, it’s like it doesn’t matter,” Jurich said. “I just shook my head. I said ‘Charlie I’m going to this board meeting in 15 minutes we’ve got to get it ratified’ and he hadn’t even addressed it yet. He just wants to win some games.”
So do the Cardinals, who slipped off the national radar under former coach Steve Kragthorpe, who was fired after going 15-21 in three seasons.
“We’re going to start over,” Strong said.
Louisville doesn’t really have a choice after going 4-8 this year. Even worse than the inconsistent play on the field was the apathy among the fans who were turned off as the team sank to the bottom of the Big East.
A crowd of just over 23,000 turned out for last month’s season finale against Rutgers, a decline the program knows must stop with Cardinal Stadium expanding to 55,000 seats in time for next year’s opener against rival Kentucky.
Strong will spend the next few days recruiting and beginning to assemble his staff but plans to be on the sideline for the fifth-ranked Gators when they play No. 4 Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl.
“I’ve been there, I still feel like I owe it to them,” Strong said.
Florida coach Urban Meyer and athletic director Jeremy Foley did little to stand in Strong’s way.
“Once I said I want to be a head football coach, the conversation kind of stopped,” Strong said.
Besides, now Strong will get a chance to match the success of his longtime friend.
“What you always want to do is, you want to take a program and say ‘You know what, I want to see if I can go and win a national championship also,”‘ Strong said.
He’ll have his work cut out at Louisville, where the defense’s precipitous fall has fueled the Cardinals’ descent into the Big East cellar. Louisville ranked 67th nationally in both total defense and scoring defense this year, significant improvements from 2007 and 2008 but still only good enough for seventh in the eight-team Big East.
Though he’ll be in charge of the team, Strong will call the defense. That’s fine by the Cardinals.
“We have to come back renewed, ready to get this bad taste out of our mouth,” sophomore defensive end Greg Scruggs said. “We have to feel refreshed with the new coach, new stadium, new start. A lot of things are going to change around here.”
Including where the Cardinals get their players. Kragthorpe and his staff largely abandoned recruiting in the south in favor of looking for players from the west and southwest.
“There are some deficiencies somewhere on that (recruiting) board,” Strong said. “Now let’s go find those guys.”
It’s a mission he’s been waiting for his entire career, one he’s been focused on since he and former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz would go through mock head coach interviews when Strong was coaching the defensive line for Holtz in the mid-1990s.
“It was good that I had him as a model for me,” Strong said.