Louisville, presumptive favorites in the Big East with Pitt‘s loss to Youngstown State, may require an elevation to Threat Level: FlightAware if the Cardinals finish the 2012 season like they started. Clocking an SEC program, even if it is You-Joker-we’re-waiting-for-Calipari Kentucky, sits well on a head coach’s resume. Landing and developing a star under center like Teddy Bridgewater
catches the eyes, ears and wallets of regional boosters.
Rebuilding a team and fan base that grew lethargic with Steve Kragthorpe makes SEC athletic directors take notice. Charlie Strong is on the list, from Fayetteville to Knoxville to Conference USA pipe dreams in Orlando. Should the Cardinals emerge as the Big East’s dominant team this season, Strong’s name suddenly becomes much more intriguing this winter. Why is he different than any other hot seat filler?
Let’s take a look.
Co-Big East coach of the year and bowl victor in 2010, Strong’s successful first season in Louisville led to an extension last October. AD Tom Jurich bumped his salary from $1.6 to $2.3 million and crafted a re-worked seven-year deal. The burly former defensive coordinator has long expressed loyalty to Jurich, who gave him his first top job after seven years at Florida and two national titles. Strong himself wondered aloud in 2009 whether his interracial marriage played a role in 27 years passing as an assistant without a head coaching offer.
With Louisville recruiting better (they finished #50 in 2012 according to 247 Sports but signed linebacker Keith Brown — offers from Alabama, Clemson — and the top safety nationally in Gerod Holliman), an ascending vibe as an athletic department — Louisville hoops made the Final Four, the school covets an invite to the Big 12 — and Teddy Bridgewater, why leave?
Strong served at three traditional SEC schools as an assistant (Florida, South Carolina, Ole Miss) as well as a graduate stint at newly-minted member Texas A&M. His name appears via familiarity or the work of an underrated agent whenever there’s an opening in that conference. At some point, he’s going to interview, he’s going to get offered and he must decide whether loyalty to Tom Jurich extends further than a premier or top 15 job. Arkansas and Tennessee both began 2012 as possible programs to speak with search firms this winter. If Tyler Bray
delivers Derek Dooley a Year Four, that drives up the demand for the Razorbacks gig.
John L. Smith almost needs to win the SEC West in order to make that temporary contract permanent. Is Arkansas willing to pursue another offensive-mind at the expense of remaining deficient to Alabama and LSU defenses? There’s plenty of money in Fayetteville and Jeff Long won’t risk another public relations disaster so he’ll find a buttoned-up, high character individual. Strong fits. I think Arkansas broaches his interest and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him reciprocate.
Still, the kicker might be wondering how far Bridgewater can carry Louisville in 2013. He’s dual-threat tantalizing as a sophomore but as an experienced junior? That’s the sort of opportunity for special, BCS-type seasons and choosing a new job rather than pursuing it. Should Strong lead the Cardinals to a reasonably successful 2012, he’s on the radar. Push them toward another Orange Bowl and he’s answering multiple calls from athletic directors.
The gig to watch then is Strong’s former employer. Jeremy Foley somewhat surprisingly tabbed Will Muschamp to lead the Gators following Urban Meyer‘s departure. Many words have been written about the disciplinary issues the Ohio State head coach left behind. Is Strong too close to the unraveling locker room to merit consideration if Muschamp shows little to no improvement in 2012 and 2013?
It seems almost inevitable that Charlie Strong will don a headset on an SEC sideline. When and where that happens depends mostly on fulfilling expectations in Louisville, the desperation of boosters and administrators in the southeast and the rise of his quarterback.