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Strong: Louisville Will Rise Again
Strong, 49, a former defensive coordinator with the University of Florida, appeared on plenty of short-lists, but was never the guy. On Wednesday, after being introduced as the new coach, Strong declared he is ready to rebuild a winning program.
“Just watching this program and knowing the success it’s had in the past, I knew I could come here and be successful,” he said.
When he was asked about his long wait for a top job, Strong became too overwhelmed to speak.
“When we were offered this job, me and my wife looked at each other and it was so emotional . . . ,” said Strong, who paused for about 10 seconds as his eyes welled up. “Because you just never knew, you thought it would never happen.”
Strong agreed to a five-year deal worth $1.6 million per year. He replaces Steve Kragthorpe, who was fired Nov. 28 after going 15-21 in three seasons.
The Cards finished 4-8 this season and finished seventh in the eight-team Big East Conference.
UofL fit many of the criteria that it would take to get Strong out of Gainesville. The Cards play in a Bowl Championship Series conference.
They’ve had big success before.
“And with the young men and the talent that is already here, we just need to mold it and get it headed in the right direction,” Strong said. “It was an easy decision for me to come here.”
As easy as a phone call.
Before approaching Strong, UofL athletic director Tom Jurich waited a week while Florida prepared to play Alabama in the Southeastern Conference title game. Strong had heard his name mentioned in connection with the opening through media outlets, and Jurich’s call sealed his interest.
“When Louisville called we were like this is it, this is the place,” Strong’s wife, Victoria, said. “Everyone we talked to about it that had been here in the coaching profession said it’s a great place. We couldn’t find anybody to say anything bad about it. When we met with Tom, that was the final piece.”
Strong said Florida never mounted a counteroffer once he told athletic director Jeremy Foley that he wanted to be a head coach. But Strong is not through with being on the Gators’ sideline. He will coach in the Sugar Bowl against Cincinnati.
“I just feel like I still owe it to them,” Strong said. “Tom and I spoke, and he feels comfortable with me going back to coach in the bowl game there.”
At least partly because of his self-imposed dead period in which Jurich vowed not to speak with any candidates that were preparing for a Dec. 5 game, it was the longest football coaching search since he took over in 1997.
“I just thought that I really wanted to go in a different direction,” Jurich said. “I wanted somebody coming up the ladder; somebody who had incredible experience with the type of kids that we’re going to recruit. I wanted somebody who was just so hungry that he would crawl here. There’s no doubt that he would crawl here after being with him.”
As for the immediate future, Strong said, “We’re going to start over as a football team.”
He is challenged with reinvigorating a fan base that turned apathetic during the final games of Kragthorpe’s tenure. The two smallest crowds in the history of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium came on Kragthorpe’s watch, including the record-low 21,497 for the Oct. 31 game against Arkansas State.
Meanwhile, the Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium expansion is scheduled to be completed before the 2010 season begins, which means more seats to fill.
Strong should have one fewer hurdle than Kragthorpe faced. The immediate expectations to win big are far less drastic.
The Cards were coming off the 2007 Orange Bowl victory and were 12-1 in Bobby Petrino’s final season when Kragthorpe was hired. Petrino went 41-9 in four seasons, which culminated in the program’s highest final ranking. Strong inherits a program reeling from three straight seasons without a bowl bid â€” its longest drought since 1995-97. Those numbers don’t intimidate Strong when he looks at the recent history of the Big East.
“Think about this, Louisville was where Cincinnati is right now three years ago,” Strong said. “It’s almost liked they switched. West Virginia’s been there, and look at Pittsburgh â€” they were a play or two away where they had a chance. So you know you can win, and it gives you a chance to win.”
Strong knows about winning big. He was viewed as an invaluable assistant with the Gators, guiding the defense on both the 2006 and 2008 national championship squads. He was also seen as one of their best recruiters and should give the Cards inroads into the fertile Florida recruiting grounds.
“He does so many things, he’s a complete guy and the role he (played) on our team is phenomenal in terms of handling the players,” Florida safeties coach Chuck Heater said.
Frequently mentioned as a top head coaching candidate, Strong has been in the mix for openings at Vanderbilt, California, Mississippi State and Kansas.
He’s a three-time finalist for the Broyles Award, which recognizes the top assistant coach in college football.
Under Strong, the Gators finished fourth nationally in total defense this season, allowing just 253 yards per game. Strong’s unit has ranked in the Top 10 in total defense in four of the past five years.
Strong spent time on the staff during Steve Spurrier’s reign in Gainesville and he served under Lou Holtz at Notre Dame and South Carolina. When Ron Zook was fired at Florida in 2004, Strong was the interim head coach in the Peach Bowl.
Strong said he has taken bits and pieces from every coach he’s served with and has molded them into his own style. Jurich said he believes that style will fit perfectly into getting UofL back where it can compete for titles.
“We’ve got to get our swagger back,” Jurich said. “We’ve got to get to where we’re a very aggressive football team again and go after people. We’ve got to get our kids hungry, and I think we will there’s no question about that.”