Schools nationwide are about to regret passing on Charlie Strong
Cal, ECU, Kansas, Minnesota, Vandy and others all passed on Charlie Strong
Strong didn't want to whine, barely complained about being a token interview
Louisville has embraced Strong, who looks to revive the Cards' bowl fortunes
"Charlie Strong should be a head coach. He's anxious to be, and he and I have talked about how you get a head coach's job. I know we're going to lose him eventually."
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It took eight years to get from that quote to the moment when Charlie Strong stood on a stage, smiling as an athletic director introduced him as a head coach. Why on earth did it take so long? Because Strong never wanted to be a cause. He only wanted to be a head coach.
That's why Strong rarely complained publicly after being passed over for job after job despite success as a defensive coordinator and recruiter. That's why, when Charles Barkley complained loudly that a school in the South wouldn't hire a black man married to a white woman as its head football coach, Barkley was talking about Buffalo's Turner Gill and the Auburn job in 2008 rather than Strong, who had -- behind the scenes and without fanfare -- encountered the same discrimination since before Holtz uttered the above words in 2001. Strong could have called on some powerful friends to rock the boat, but he didn't want to be a boat-rocker. He only wanted to be a head coach.
So even when Strong suspected several schools called him to be the token minority interview, he remained quiet and simply chose more carefully the jobs he pursued. Even when he was tempted to vent his frustration, he held back. After one speech to a Florida alumni association chapter last year, Strong, at that moment the architect of the reigning national champion's defense, gave a revealing interview to Florida Today columnist Peter Kerasotis that touched on several of these issues. Before Kerasotis could write his column, his cell phone rang. It was Strong, asking Kerasotis to keep much of the interview off the record. Why? Strong didn't want to be perceived as a whiner. He only wanted to be a head coach.
Finally, he is.
After years spent proving himself at Notre Dame, South Carolina and Florida, Strong, 49, has been charged with reviving a Louisville program that was in the Orange Bowl a little more than three years ago, but hasn't been back to a bowl since. So what did Strong do the first time he met his new players? He gave them the oral equivalent of a zap from a set of defibrillator paddles.
"The last coaching staff was calm, mellow, easygoing," Cardinals quarterback Adam Froman said. "The very first day, coach Strong comes into the first meeting and just chews us out, just rips us for what he's seen on film, how we played. He told us what we were and that he wasn't going to accept that. He wasn't going to accept four wins. He wasn't going to accept quitting before the whistle, giving up on games."
Reports from the Cardinals' early spring practices mentioned the push-ups Strong ordered to punish undisciplined play. "It was really up-downs," Strong said with a smile. Anyone who has endured a football practice understands the distinction. Up-downs -- or grass drills or belly busters or whatever your particular sadist-with-a-whistle called them -- are the secret weapon of every junior varsity high school coach who wants to separate the wheat from the chaff. Players run in place until a coach's command, upon which they hurl themselves into the ground and bounce back up, still running in place. Sound easy? Try 25. Then try not to jump offsides, because that'll cost you 25 more.
"More than anything, you want them to understand that this is who we are," Strong said. "We're not going to change."
Who will change? The Cardinals. As Strong and his staff instill discipline, they'll also work on the players' attitudes, which morphed from fearless under Bobby Petrino to simpering under Steve Kragthorpe. Strong should know the best tricks, because he learned from some master motivators. Strong's three biggest professional influences are former bosses Holtz, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. He also counts Tony Dungy as a friend and mentor, and in fact it was an unsolicited call from Dungy to Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich that helped solidify Strong's position at the top of Jurich's list.
Dungy probably didn't need to make the call to convince Jurich, who almost hired Strong away from South Carolina in December 2002. "When I hired Petrino, it was him and Charlie," Jurich said. "I went with Petrino because Bobby had been here and I was familiar with him and knew him. That was the only distinction."
When Petrino bolted for the Atlanta Falcons in January 2007, Jurich had little time to deliberate. He decided he wanted an experienced head coach, and few back then found anything to criticize about the hiring of Kragthorpe. After all, the man had worked wonders at Tulsa.
Strong, meanwhile, continued to get passed over. Aside from Louisville, he also interviewed at Cal, East Carolina, Kansas, Minnesota and Vanderbilt, and he was rumored to be a candidate at Kentucky when Rich Brooks was hired. Remember, this is a business in which a formal interview is often merely a formality. No one pulled the trigger on Strong. "What I got tired of was when your name keeps coming up for a job, and everyone starts wondering why you didn't get that job," Strong said. "Did you really have a fair chance to get a job?"
There were rumors Strong was a bad interview. "He was a terrific interview for me," Jurich said.
There was also the issue of his marriage. Strong's wife, Victoria, is white, and while it may sound silly to any civilized person in 2010, this was a factor in the delay. A few years ago, a high-ranking official at a southern university confided to me that he believed Strong was denied consideration for some jobs in the South because presidents and athletic directors feared their booster bases weren't quite evolved enough to accept an interracial couple.
Fortunately, Jurich has more faith in his boosters. "It never crossed my mind. The only thing that shocked me was how did he land her?" Jurich joked. "She's a beautiful lady, inside and out. How he put the hook in that one, I don't know."
Louisville's donors have embraced Strong, his wife and their two beautiful daughters. One such donor is renowned thoroughbred breeder Seth Hancock. Hancock, who graduated from rival Kentucky in 1971, met Strong in 2002 and has been one of the coach's fiercest advocates since. Hancock's son even served as a manager for Strong at Florida. "I don't claim to be any great football guy," Hancock said, "but he is a hell of a man."
Strong's path to Louisville began in the mid-'90s when Holtz, then the head coach at Notre Dame, realized one of his best position coaches would make a fine head coach someday. So Holtz gave Strong a three-ring binder and told him to fill it with all the ideas he thought would make a football program successful. Then, when the time came to interview for a head-coaching job, Strong could pull out that binder and show an athletic director his blueprint for success.
The binder worked on Jurich. It's still packed away in a box after the Gainesville-to-Louisville move, but that's just as well. After all those years hunting a head-coaching job, Strong knows it by heart.
Somewhere in there is a section about hiring a staff that can coach and recruit. From Florida's staff, Strong cherry-picked Vance Bedford to be his defensive coordinator and Kenny Carter to coach running backs and special teams. As his offensive coordinator, Strong hired Mike Sanford, who ran Meyer's offense at Utah before he became the head coach at UNLV. To further bolster the recruiting pipeline Strong is building between Florida and Louisville, Strong hired defensive line coach Clint Hurtt, who was the recruiting coordinator at Miami when the Hurricanes brought in most of the players who will start this season ranked in the top 15.
Until they can get their pipeline pumping, Strong and his staff will have to make do with a roster that went 4-8 last season with just one win in Big East play. The Cardinals finished last in the Big East last season in sacks and tackles for loss, and they return only two defenders (defensive tackle Greg Scruggs and cornerback Johnny Patrick) who started all 12 games in 2009. Fortunately, Louisville should have a healthy Victor Anderson at tailback. Anderson rushed for 1,047 yards in 2008, but injuries limited him to eight games last season. At quarterback, the 6-foot-4, 226-pound Froman seems to have a style suited to Sanford's offense, but the senior will have to beat out fellow senior Justin Burke and sophomore Will Stein.
Though the Cardinals' résumés are light, they do want to win. They all signed with Louisville expecting to play in BCS bowls, so they welcome Strong's attitude, even if it has caused a few more sore muscles. "There's no doubt in our minds that we're going to a bowl game," Froman said. "It's just which one."
Of course, Froman said, it's easy for a player to follow a coach when he sees him running in the pre-dawn hours or tossing up weights on the bench press. "He'll get in there in the weight room," Froman said, "and just put 315 [pounds] on the bar and start repping it out."
Strong's physical strength is surpassed only by the mental strength required to stay the course even when he couldn't get a fair shake in the interview process. Strong could have quit trying, or he could have started complaining. He did neither, because he didn't want to be a quitter or a complainer. He only wanted to be a head coach, and now that he is one, he's about to make a lot of people regret passing on him.
"It's probably just as well that he didn't get some of those others that came along," Hancock said. "This is the one that probably had his name on it from the beginning."
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