Strong, Louisville continue climb, rout Florida in Sugar Bowl
NEW ORLEANS -- It looked like the receiving line at a wedding. As Louisville coach Charlie Strong spoke to a camera crew on the field at the Superdome on Wednesday night about a program-changing win, some of Florida's best players waited patiently. Then, when Strong finished his interview, those Gators walked up to their former defensive coordinator one by one and bear-hugged him.
First came guard James Wilson. Then came defensive tackle Omar Hunter. Then linebacker Lerentee McCray. Then linebacker Jon Bostic.
Want to know why the Cardinals played so hard and dominated the nation's No. 3 team? They did it because Strong inspires that kind of loyalty. "Over the last month, pretty much everybody in the Louisville nation has learned what his players mean to him," said Strong's wife, Victoria. "To go to another school and have to play your previous school in a bowl game -- a BCS bowl game at that -- and to have your old players fighting to say hi and shake your hand, that's what it's all about for him."
Let's make one thing clear. Though Louisville's 33-23 win was the biggest upset -- from a point-spread perspective -- in the history of the BCS, it had nothing to do with luck. It wasn't because the Gators didn't care. Florida players cared. "We prepared our ass off," Gators safety Matt Elam said. The Cardinals just plain kicked Florida's butt. Louisville converted nine of 14 third downs. Florida didn't convert a third down until early in the fourth quarter. The Gators didn't move the ball until garbage time, and Florida's defense couldn't stop Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Strong had Louisville better prepared than Will Muschamp -- also an excellent coach -- had Florida prepared.
"Got outcoached and outplayed," Muschamp said. "That's the bottom line. That's the bottom line. You go out and you get beat, you get beat."
Those who have followed Strong throughout his career knew this day would come eventually. The shame is that it took so long. From the time he was Lou Holtz's defensive coordinator at South Carolina near the turn of this century, Strong deserved to lead his own program. But schools kept interviewing Strong and hiring someone else. His chance didn't come until December 2009, when Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich hired him from Florida and asked him to change a culture that had become stagnant under Steve Kragthorpe.
Now Strong has led Louisville to an 11-win season. He has turned down jobs from more prestigious -- but less recently successful -- football programs. He brings back 19 starters next season. His program is about to move from the Big East to the ACC, a higher-rent conference that Louisville can win if it keeps playing the way it did Wednesday.
It isn't all sunshine for Strong. He and the school were sued last week by former player Patrick Grant, who was beaten by two of his teammates in the locker room in October 2010. Grant alleges in his lawsuit that a team trainer asked him to lie to cover up the beating. Grant also alleges that Strong reneged on a promise that he would honor Grant's scholarship. The progress of that suit bears watching, but Grant seems to be in a small minority when it comes to Strong's players and former players. Most feel like Florida linebacker Bostic. "He's a guy I'm proud of," Bostic said. "He's worked his tail off. I knew it was a matter of time before somebody gave him a chance."
Louisville cornerback Andrew Johnson, one of a multitude of players Strong plucked out of the Sunshine State, said Strong has an uncanny knack for making players buy in and believe they can do what no one else thinks they can. But, Johnson said, Strong is more than that. "He's the father some of us don't have," Johnson said. "And he's the father some of us always wanted."
Johnson wouldn't be saying that had Strong bailed to go to Tennessee. But Strong, who dreamed of running his own SEC program for a long time, decided to stay. "I told our players I love them so much and I respect them so much," Strong said. "The reason I didn't take that job is because I know I have a football team that is behind me 100 percent."
The season wasn't perfect for Louisville. After all, this is the same team that got whipped by Syracuse and lost to Connecticut. But when everything clicked, as it did against Florida, the Cardinals were unstoppable. "I sometimes wonder why we didn't do this the whole season," Strong half joked after the win.
Meanwhile, Florida failed to do what it had done all season. Sure, the Gators had some ugly scares against Missouri and Louisiana-Lafayette, but they always got better in the second half. Their only previous loss came by eight to a Georgia team that won 12 games. Florida never stood a chance Wednesday. On the Gators' first play from scrimmage, Terrell Floyd intercepted a Jeff Driskel pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown.
The opening of the second half was an even gorier horror show for the Gators. Down 24-10, Muschamp called for an onside kick. Louisville's Andrell Smith recovered the kick on the 49-yard line. Then Gators Loucheiz Purifoy and Chris Johnson were flagged for personal fouls, allowing the Cardinals to start from the 19-yard line. To make matters worse, Johnson was ejected for throwing a punch at Louisville's Zed Evans -- who was wearing a football helmet and therefore impervious to any damage Johnson's hand might inflict. Rarely does one team fail so thoroughly on one play, but Florida managed. "I apologize to our fans and the university," Muschamp said.
Muschamp called the loss "a setback," but he said the Gators will continue to build on a season that was far more successful than anyone expected them to have. "We're building something here," Muschamp said. They'll have to build it without safety Matt Elam and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, who both said after the game that they would skip their senior seasons and turn pro. "It's a dream," Elam said. "It's a goal. You've got to take care of the family."
If there is a silver lining for the Gators, it's this. The last time an SEC team went splat and got humiliated by an underdog in the Sugar Bowl, it was Alabama by Utah following the 2008 season. The Crimson Tide won the national title the following season. If he's smart, Muschamp will remind his players often of Wednesday's beatdown just as his former boss, Nick Saban, reminded his Alabama players of the Utah loss to fuel their offseason workouts.
Strong will have to take a different tack with his team. He can't let the Cardinals become complacent. Like West Virginia last year, they'll get hyped mercilessly during the offseason. Bridgewater will grace many magazine covers in August. Louisville players will have to learn to handle success. The good news? Unlike West Virginia, the Cardinals won't follow their coming-out party by playing a Big 12 schedule. They'll play in the Big East for one more season. The wins should come easily there, and the league still has one more automatic spot in the BCS before the system gets euthanized. But to prove they are bound for bigger things, the Cardinals will have to keep playing the way they did Wednesday.
Strong believes they can. "It's unbelievable where this program can go," Strong said. "We keep saying we're just scratching the surface. We can take it to another level."
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