NEW ORLEANS — Three years ago, Charlie Strong came to the Sugar Bowl facing an uncertain future.
Yes, after being passed over for other head coaching jobs for almost a decade, Florida’s defensive coordinator was getting his shot at Louisville.
But it was a place where he had no previous connections, at a basketball school with what his new athletic director called “a still fragile” fan base and one without great natural recruiting resources.
But it also was a school ambitious enough to have just fired its coach — current LSU assistant Steve Kragthorpe — after three disappointing but not disastrous seasons, so Strong might not have much of a grace period.
Three years later, Strong has his own team in the Sugar Bowl. On Wednesday night, it will face Florida, where some of his old players still revere him. Strong’s school is set to upgrade to the Atlantic Coast Conference in two years, not so much because of its basketball reputation but because the Cardinals are a rising football power.
Meanwhile, back in Louisville, they’re putting up billboards praising Strong for passing on what seemingly was a greater opportunity. And in one of the of the ultimate honors in the Bluegrass State, Strong’s visage soon will be on a limited edition of Maker’s Mark whiskey that will raise money for an $8 million academic center attached to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
Looks like things have worked out pretty well.
“When you talk about being a head coach, it’s all about finding the right job,” Strong said Dec. 6, the day he announced that he turned down the opening at Tennessee. “A lot of times, you want to make it happen right away. For me, it didn’t happen right away, but I’m glad it happened when it did because I’m at the right place now. I’m at the right school. ...
“You can buy a person a lot, but you can’t buy his heart. My heart is at the University of Louisville.”
Chances are, Strong’s heart would have been wherever he’s coaching, especially as far as his players are concerned.
“The reason I had the opportunity (to go to Tennessee) was because of the players I had,” he said. “And when you start thinking about leaving, you think No. 1 about the players. I talk to them all the time about trust and commitment to a program and a coaching staff. I just couldn’t walk out.”
Strong cited his relationships with athletic director Tom Jurich and the city as his reasons for staying.
“The first day I took that job, the city was behind us and our football program,” he said. “That enabled us to make the commitment we needed.”
That’s where the billboards come in. When Strong announced his decision, a group of fans purchased space along Interstate 65 declaring, “Charlie, we couldn’t be happier that you are staying. We believe in you. ... Thanks for believing in us.”
At the school where basketball coach Rick Pitino’s Armani persona has fans enthralled, Strong’s downhome style goes over well. Still, there was plenty of soul-searching.
Tennessee was offering a reported $3.4 million salary. And even though Jurich said Louisville would match, a school in the money-soaked SEC with a stadium nearly twice the size of Louisville’s 55,000-seat home ultimately could offer more.
After Strong’s stops at Texas A&M, Ole Miss and South Carolina, plus four stints at Florida that covered 15 years, the urge to compete on college football’s biggest stage had to be powerful. Louisville may be headed for the ACC, but no team from that league has played for the BCS championship since 1999, when Florida State beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
He would have followed the progression of two of his predecessors — John L. Smith (to Michigan State) and Bobby Petrino (to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons) — and three of the past four coaches of the Big East champion — Rich Rodriguez (West Virginia to Michigan), Brian Kelly (Cincinnati to Notre Dame) and Randy Edsall (Connecticut to Maryland). The only exception is WVU’s Dana Holgorsen, and his school made the move to the Big 12.
And if not Tennessee, both Arkansas, Strong’s home state, and Auburn were seeking coaches, too.
“A lot of times, as coaches, we are ego-driven,” Strong said. “There’s no job out there we don’t feel like we can’t go take and accomplish what we need to accomplish.”
Strong turned to one of his mentors, Lou Holtz, who had been his boss at Notre Dame and South Carolina.
“He started talking about Louisville,” Holtz told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “He started talking about the obligation he had made to (quarterback) Teddy Bridgewater and his parents, about the athletes coming back and a couple of incoming transfers he felt were going to be outstanding. He talked about how much he loved Louisville and how the administration had given him a chance when many other schools wouldn’t. He goes on and on, and finally I tell him, ‘Charlie, I don’t know why you’re calling me, because your mind is made up.’ ”
Obviously, Jurich coming through with a raise helped, although the new deal has not been announced.
“Charlie’s somebody who’s going to get his market value,” Jurich said. “I promise that his daughters will have lunch money.”
Strong’s decision was not a surprise to offensive coordinator Shawn Watson.
“I trusted Charlie would be able to do what was best for him and the program,” he said. “But he is so invested in the kids and building the program, he’s not going to take off and run at the first sign of success. That’s not who he is.”
Success was not immediate for Strong at Louisville. His first two teams finished 7-6, winning and then losing in lower-tier bowls.
But last season, with the team at 2-4, Jurich gave Strong a contract extension, and the Cardinals are 15-4 since.
So now Louisville has its coach, and Strong has his school. Count senior tackle Alex Kupper, a Louisville native, among the impressed.
“When coach Strong first told us he was staying, it was like, ‘All right, great,’ ” he said. “But now, looking back on it, in the next couple of years it’s going to be huge.
“The type of commitment that he showed, the type of relationship and bond he’s built with this community is huge. It’s something that hasn’t happened here before. It’s unbelievable.”