By BUDDY MARTIN
Charlie Strong’s patience could have cost him a chance to become a head coach. And probably so did his skin color. Otherwise, what took him so long to become a head coach?
Strong got passed over more times than an airport tower. His career began as a graduate assistant at Florida in 1983. It took him 27 years before he finally became a head coach at Louisville.
Urban Meyer, who befriended Strong when they were Lou Holtz assistants at Notre Dame, inherited Charlie on his 2004 Florida staff. Meyer told me ten years ago how surprised he was Strong hadn’t become a head coach already.
“The thing that impressed me was that he was one of the best fathers and best husbands I’d ever been around,” Meyer said. “There is a correlation to that in coaching with the high stakes.”
Let’s not forget that Strong labored in the fields of near anonymity as a dedicated, loyal assistant on numerous staffs – including as a defensive coordinator on two national championship teams. Strong served at the pleasure of five different head coaches in Gainesville – Charley Pell, Galen Hall, Ron Zook, Steve Spurrier and Meyer – before Tom Jurich gave him his chance to run the Louisville program.
After going 37-15 with the Cardinals, Strong went on to one of the premier jobs in America, but deteriorated circumstances choked off any chance of success at Texas — aka The Austin Dumpster Fire. The $5 million man failed to turn around the Good Ship Longhorn.
When the chopping block came down, Strong took his $10 million and was about to leave town to visit some friends in Columbus, Ohio. Little did he know there was going to be an opening on Meyer’s staff which occurred when co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickel was hired by Cincinnati.
In the nasty, turbulent business of football where coaches are chewed up, spit out and often regurgitated, Strong was left twisting in the wind by Texas while the school jockeyed with Tom Herman. Once again, the tolerance and patience of Charlie Strong probably cost him a shot of negotiating with other schools.
Before there could even be any contact or any interview at Ohio State, however, South Florida AD Mark Harlan was on the phone. In two days Harlan had his man at South Florida, which turned out to be the best fit of any head coaching hire this year.
This was a feel-good story for Bulls fans as well as Charlie Strong fans who were happy to see him back on the soil where he first began.
The football folks in Gainesville, Tallahassee, Miami and Orlando who had a vested interest took a different note: There was an old sheriff back in town and their cut of the available talent around the state was going to get thinner.
Strong was thrilled.
“I feel like I’m coming home, and I’m excited to be back in the state where my coaching roots began,” he said. “A state where I spent a lot of my career and where I already have so many great friendships. I was a part of two national championships up the road, I’ve been in the state a long time, and I have some unbelievable ties to the state. It wasn’t a hard decision coming here. My wife grew up down the street in Lakeland. Her parents are still there. This is an unbelievable opportunity, taking over a program that has won 10 games.”
He left behind a solid foundation for successor Tom Herman at Texas and the cupboard is far from bare.
“I baked the cake at Texas. The cake has been baked,” Strong said to ESPN. “Now Herman will put the icing on the cake, and they’ll go win a lot of games.”
Maybe South Florida has finally arrived. The backstory for Strong and South Florida makes this even more intriguing, because Charlie knows from whence it came.
Said Strong: “I can remember a few years back when Jim Leavitt was the coach here. I was on campus, and we were walking across the dirt to his trailer. He said, ‘You know what, Charlie? Some day, they’re going to build a football office right here.’ Look where we’ve come from. He got the program to No. 2 in the country. We’re looking forward to continuing to build the team and the program, to have a foundation that is so firm and is easy to stand on, so year in and year out, we can make it happen. The future is bright.”
The hiring of Strong at South Florida, along Mark Richt rebuilding at Miami, Butch Davis on the scene at FIU and Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic, the competitive landscape among state schools just got more intense. With Scott Frost making excellent progress at Central Florida, Jimbo Fisher polishing his national championship trophy at FSU and Jim McElwain adding two more SEC East titles at UF, this is not a state void of coaching talent.
Strong had to pass through a portal of refuse and rubbish to clean up Texas. Sources close to the program said the extent of how badly discipline and decorum slipped under the Mack Brown regime in Austin was not widely known, but indications were that Strong had taken care of the most egregious problems. Now he gets to come into a program where Willie Taggart has restored the Bulls’ dignity as a winner.
Now Charlie gets to “put the icing on the cake.”