By Josh Cook
Unless you’ve been out of the city, or in rehab, for the last nine months you probably know that Charlie Strong is the new University of Louisville football coach.
And if you don’t know his name, then surely you had some clue given all the billboards around town, and along the area interstates, using some play on the coach’s surname to promote the Cardinals and their upcoming season.
Strong is the man hand-picked by Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich to lead UofL back to the Bowl Championship Series after the please-can-we-forget Steve Kragthorpe Era. Strong is the guy who is supposed to get the program back on track after its freefall since winning the BCS Orange Bowl on Jan. 2, 2007.
LESS than a week after that program-affirming 24-13 victory over Wake Forest then-coach Bobby Petrino pulled a Baltimore Colts (who left that city for Indianapolis in the middle of the night in the early 1980s) and all but snuck out of the city under the cover of darkness for the Atlanta Falcons. Kragthorpe came in with a reputation for being an offensive coach. His coaching was offensive...to UofL fans. The Cards got progressively worse (6-6 in 2007 to 5-7 in ‘08 to 4-8 last year) in his three years of leading the program as it went from BCS to a mess. The low point came in the Cards’ season-ending loss to Rutgers when Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium was less than half-full.
With a stadium expansion in the works the prospects of empty seats galore in 2010 and losing recruits (“I probably wouldn’t be going there if Kragthorpe was still there,” said Seneca High School senior DaMarcus Smith, one of the top quarterbacks in the country) was too much for Krags to overcome. Jurich had to pull the trigger and fire the coach he had happily hired after Petrino bolted. He did so the next day.
In searching for Kragthorpe’s successor Jurich quickly zeroed in on Strong, the defensive coordinator at Florida, and consulted Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive, Indianapolis Colts’ president Bill Polian, former Colts coach Tony Dungy, former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, Florida head coach Urban Meyer and Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, among others, about him.
“Of all the advocates Charlie has, Tony Dungy is the best,” Jurich said at the coach‘s introductory press conference. “To hear him, and to listen to him, and to see his conviction and to know he is what we need in this program. The constant was the class and integrity and character Charlie brought to the table. His coaching ability is unparalleled. He’s had incredible success. He’s somebody that’s very hungry and humble for this job, which is something that I’ve always felt, that this is a blue collar job. And I think that Charlie is going to be the perfect, perfect individual, not just to coach this team, but to lead this team and to be a true ambassador for the university.”
Words like “home run hire” accompanied Strong when he was named the program’s 21st head coach, and its second African-American coach, on Dec. 9, 2009. He had worked for three different coaches - Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier and most recently, Meyer - who have won national championships. He won a pair of national titles with Meyer at Florida, where he served as defensive coordinator for the previous seven seasons. The high point for him may have been the 2009 BCS national championship game when Strong’s defense shut down the highest-scoring offense in the history of college football (Oklahoma) and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford. So it should be no surprise that Strong’s bio on uoflsports.com describes him as “one of the most respected defensive minds in college football.”
The day Strong was introduced he didn’t proclaim that the program was “on a collision course with a national championship,” as The Pipe, former gruff, pipe-smoking coach Howard Schnellenberger did when he took over the program in the 1980s.
“It is up to me to get a staff together to continue this tradition and get this program headed back in the right direction,” he said that day at Papa John‘s. “With the young men, and the talent that is already here, we just need to move ahead and get this program headed in the right direction.”
Immediately after that initial presser Strong, who in person is shorter than you might expect, briefly spoke with some of his future players in a hallway. They quickly got the message - there’s new sheriff in town...and his name is Charlie Strong.
“Right when he talked to us we got the vibe that he’s all business,” junior running back Vic Anderson recalled. “He wasn’t smiling he was ready to get to business right after his press conference. That’s going to help us out a lot, we’ve got to be about business around here. We’ve got to come out every day Monday through Friday, put together great practices and come out on Saturday and do the same thing. He had to get his point across when he first got here. As we’re in practice he’ll joke around, but it’ll be a serious joke around. He’s a loose guy and he knows how to win.”
THAT'S good because Louisville fans love a winner, but can be a fickle bunch too. That’s why they didn’t mind the dictatorship of Petrino, who won, and lauded Kragthorpe when arrived, but applauded when the nice-guy coach got canned because he didn‘t produce a winning season.
“They have so much passion and enthusiasm,” Strong said of the fan base. “It’s like every time I go out, be ready, because they’ll wear you out now....I think this is a great community, there’s a lot of passion, a lot of enthusiasm. People want to win. They want this program to get back to where it was.”
And Cards fans are seemingly falling all over themselves to welcome him. A few hundred showed up for the team’s first practice at 6:10 a.m. Aug. 5. Seven thousand more came for UofL’s Fan Day on Aug. 15. The city is hungry for a winner. So hungry in fact that Strong already has a sandwich named for him...and he hasn’t even coached one game yet.
The people in and around the community aren’t the only ones buying what Strong is selling so, most importantly, is his team.
“What he says goes because the dude has won wherever he’s been,” senior quarterback Justin Burke said. “I’ve been around a lot of coaches in the last five years and he’s pretty much the best.”
“Just off the first meeting you knew that he was going to bring the intensity, bring the passion to be successful,” senior wide receiver Doug Beaumont said. “And that carried over to the next week to the team meetings and you could really see what he was like. He was a motivator.”
What has he said to motivate you?
“I probably can’t repeat some of the words,” Beaumont said with a laugh. “But he said me, as a senior, I’ve got to be a leader and just do whatever it takes to try and motivate these freshmen and also try and motivate these underclassmen.”
But Strong knows the biggest motivator of all is winning.
“These players want to win and they’re taking the right steps to go in that direction,” he said. “What needs to happen is you’ve got to go win a football game. Then you have to get them to believe in themselves and get the right confidence cause when that confidence comes there’s no telling what they can do.”
AND Strong, who leads by example, doesn’t ask his team to do anything that he wouldn’t do.
“Every morning at 4:30 in the morning he’s running the neighborhood,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. “Every morning he doesn’t miss a workout.”
UofL has missed the postseason each of the last three seasons. But getting back to a bowl game is the least of his concerns at this point in the year with the Sept. 4 season-opener against archrival Kentucky just around the corner.
“We’re still trying to find our identity,” Strong said. “The identity I’m really looking for is just an aggressive football team. That’s the way we practice. We practice very aggressive, we coach very aggressive, I want to be aggressive on offense, I want to be aggressive on defense, I want to be aggressive in the kicking game.”
There is a lot riding on Strong. He is the hope of this program. The coach who is going to lead Louisville out of the Big East basement - where the Cards were picked to finish in the preseason - and back to the BCS.
“We have two goals here,” Strong said. “We’re going to graduate, we’re going to get our degrees from this university. And we’re going to win some Big East titles. Now that’s going to happen. How soon? We’re working to get there.”