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
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
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
"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
"I've been there, I still feel like I owe it to them," Strong
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.