A Strong Start at Louisville

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Charlie Strong has Louisville back on the rise in the unpredictable Big East.

<p> Charlie Strong has Louisville back on the rise in the unpredictable Big East.</p>

By Rick Bozich

It was the biggest coaching decision of Charlie Strong’s career as a head coach, and it only took seconds for it to smell like he had made the wrong call.

It was the 10th game of the University of Louisville’s 2010 season, a home game against a beatable South Florida team. Somehow the Cardinals had pushed the game into overtime and then found themselves with the first extra possession.

Now it was 4th-and-1 from the South Florida 4-yard line, and Strong was thumbing his nose at a field goal. You have to take the three points there, coach. If you fail, you’re gift-wrapping the victory for the other team. They’re going to call three conservative running plays and kick the field goal and beat you.

Strong told his offense to stay on the field and get the yard. Period.

Oops.

A quarterback sneak by Justin Burke failed to get an inch. Three South Florida running plays set up the Bulls for the game-winning 37-yard kick. Instead of giving his team a chance to play a second overtime and providing at least a shot for the Cardinals to win their sixth game, Strong ensured Louisville’s fifth defeat. The talk show callers howled for several weeks.

Guess what? What might have been the wrong call at that moment was absolutely the right call for what Strong is trying to achieve at Louisville. And that’s to install an industrial-strength belief that this program will always get the tough yard.

“Even after that 4th-and-1, we didn’t tank it,” he says. “Very easily they could have said their season was over. But they didn’t do that. They had built up enough confidence in each other that we went out and finished the job.”

Today this Louisville program again looks like the most ambitious program in the Big East Conference, determined to become the program it appeared to be five years ago. The Cardinals are playing with the swagger of a team that believes its destiny is to win seven, nine, 11, eventually 13 games, with a coach who performed as well as any first-year coach last season.

Louisville lost to South Florida, 24–21, in overtime. Then, the Cardinals slipped to 5–6 by losing to West Virginia a week later. They did not lose again, popping Rutgers to become bowl eligible and then defeating Southern Miss in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl to finish 7–6, only a year after Strong had taken over a sagging program he had inherited from Steve Kragthorpe, a program that won one Big East game and finished a listless 4–8 in 2009.

“If you would have asked me last year at the end of spring ball, I would have said, ‘We’ll win one or two games,’” Strong says. “I was thinking: ‘If we win more than two or three, we’ll be OK.’

“I can remember Vance (Bedford, Louisville’s defensive coordinator) saying, ‘You got me. You got me here. You lied to me. You got me good.’”

Before Strong started last season, there were questions about how he would handle the transition from career assistant coach to first-year head man. Although he had worked at South Carolina, Notre Dame and Florida, learning his craft from Lou Holtz and Urban Meyer, Strong was 49 years old and seemed destined to remain an assistant forever.

Minnesota, California, Vanderbilt and several other schools had considered him for their head coaching positions, but he never got beyond the final round of interviews.

Some whispered that Strong did not interview well. Strong is African-American. One columnist in Florida wondered if the issue was Strong’s inter-racial marriage, which might not play well in parts of the country.

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich focused on Strong early in the hiring process. He received ringing endorsements from football people such as former Indianapolis Colts’ coach Tony Dungy as well as personal friends like Seth Hancock, the president of Claiborne Farm, the prestigious horse farm near Lexington, Ky., once the home to Secretariat.

It wasn’t long before Jurich was saying that his only mistake was not hiring Strong earlier in his career. The biggest worry around the Louisville football program today is this: The more success Strong has and the more publicity he receives, the more likely it is that somebody from the Southeastern Conference or another powerful football league will try to hire him.

Strong waves that fear away. He says that he, his wife (Victoria) and their two daughters love Louisville, where they are active in youth volleyball. He says he’s focused on delivering two more talented groups of recruits to replenish the Cardinals’ roster. And he says he is deeply appreciative of the opportunity Jurich provided.

“I have an athletic director who has yet to tell me, ‘No,’” Strong says. “That just shows what is here and what we can really build.

“There are so many resources within this city and within this university. It’s so important for us to be successful here.”

By preaching toughness across the offensive and defensive fronts, Strong has given the program confidence and self-esteem. Louisville started leaking those qualities shortly after Kragthorpe replaced Bobby Petrino following the 2006 Orange Bowl season and failed to place in the Cardinals in a single bowl game in three tries.

Under Kragthorpe there were player defections. There was always chatter about off-the-field issues but few details. There was constant grumbling within the fanbase. There were more excuses than shining moments. There were three consecutive losses to Kentucky, a team Petrino had beaten four times in four tries. And recruiting sagged.

Recruiting is not sagging any more. Neither is the program.

Strong took a discouraged collection of players, led by 25 seniors, and achieved things that were a struggle for Kragthorpe. He won a pair of conference games on the road. He beat UConn, the team that represented the Big East in the Fiesta Bowl, 26–0.

Under Strong, halfback Bilal Powell became a durable runner who gained more yards in one season for his new coach than he had in three fumble-prone seasons for his old coach.

Don’t forget recruiting. The Cardinals’ incoming group of players ranked 29th nationally in one recruiting service and 34th by Athlon Sports. Clint Hurtt, one of Strong’s assistant coaches, was named Recruiter of the Year by ESPN.com. He turned down an offer from Auburn to remain with Strong.

The class is headlined by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater of Northwestern High School in Miami, who declined multiple offers from SEC schools to play for Strong. The coach says there is more work to do.

“You have to up the ante now because you got seven wins,” Strong says. “How many more can we go get? We need to continue to build this program. We need consistency in this program. What is it going to be?”

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