USF head coach Charlie Strong wasn’t given too much time to bring Texas back to national prominence. But the move to Tampa just may have been for the former Longhorns head coach’s long term best.
We’re still several months away from the start of the 2017 college football season, but a plethora of programs across the country are working hard in spring practice with the hope that a successful new campaign is on the horizon.
Few football teams are set up for a stronger season than USF, which is now being led by a head coach whose stint at one of the nation’s premier programs came to a languid end following the 2016 campaign. But that’s all in the past.
Charlie Strong is now focusing on the present as well as a bright future in Tampa, where he has taken over a program that is one of the healthiest in the entire Group of Five. It’s also a place where Strong can be fully comfortable given his strong roots in the state of Florida.
Just 19 days after being dismissed from his post as the head man at Texas, Strong jumped at USF AD Mark Harlan’s offer to get back on the head-coaching saddle rather than take time off and possibly wait for another Power Five gig. The opportunity to transition to a place like USF was too seamless to pass up.
“I remember where this program was when it started to emerge under Jim Leavitt [who was the first-ever head coach in Bulls history],” Strong told Campus Insiders. “I can remember visiting Leavitt, walking out by the trailers when there were no grass fields here.”
When USF football was founded in 1997, the school had no proper football facilities on campus. A lot has changed in a rather short amount of time in Tampa. But it still remains a very familiar place to Strong, who was head coach at Louisville before it made its way into the ACC. Texas was essentially his first Power Five head gig, as the Cardinals competed in the Big East and AAC during his time. Now at USF, he is back with a Group of Five school. But nothing about that diminishes his enthusiasm.
“What’s very intriguing to me is that when I was at Louisville, [USF] was our main school that we had to recruit against because of the number of players we would recruit in the state of Florida,” he said. “Most of these players would either come here or they would come to Louisville. So I knew that I could build once I was here. It’s just one of those programs that has a lot to offer.”
At USF, Strong doesn’t have to worry about power boosters dissecting every step that the football team collectively makes. He doesn’t have to worry about being thrown on and whisked off of the proverbial hot seat after every win and loss. He can just coach football, which is what he has done very well throughout his long career.
And he’ll do it for a Bulls squad that is coming off of an 11-win season with a dynamic quarterback in Quinton Flowers, who was one of the most exciting and productive players throughout the 2016 season. Strong was quite familiar with the special qualities that Flowers, who threw 24 touchdown passes against seven interceptions last season, brings to an offense. He watched the signal-caller in action at Jackson High School in Miami while recruiting him as Louisville head coach.
“He just goes about his work quietly. He’s not a rah-rah type of guy, but he has great leadership ability because he leads by the way he plays,” he said. “Guys really respect that because they always feel like they’re never out of a game if he’s playing. He’s a guy who can not only beat you with his feet but with his arm as well. His eyes are always down the field, and he can get outside the pocket and find open guys. A special talent.”
One of the things that doomed Strong at Texas was a lack of an established star quarterback. In Flowers, he will have his best starter since Teddy Bridgewater with the Cardinals in 2013.
Flowers is the household name on this team, but he’s far from the only talent. While running back Marlon Mack and wide receiver Rodney Adams are gone, Flowers (over 1,000 rushing yards in ’16), D’Ernest Johnson and Trevon Sands should pace the ground game, while Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Tyre McCants should get more looks in the passing attack. Defensively, though, is where USF should make its biggest gains in Strong’s first year.
The longtime Florida defensive coordinator should help improve a unit that allowed more yards per contest than every other defense in the AAC, giving up an average of 482.0 yards per game. Expect that number to decrease significantly this fall.
Strong takes over a roster that is poised win as it did in 2016, which is a bit ironic considering new Texas head coach Tom Herman assumed a roster that Strong helped build with Top 10 recruiting classes during his last two years in Austin. Herman is going to win—and possibly win big—with the Longhorns. Unfortunately for Strong, he was never able to see his vision through with the ‘Horns.
But there will be no pity party in Tampa. After all, Strong knows that he is at a place where he is wanted. College football fans everywhere saw the embrace that his Longhorn players gave him following his final weekly presser in Austin. His players respected him both as a coach and as a man. Perhaps that’s why his new team started to buy into his program before he even arrived. It also didn’t hurt that, like Flowers, some of the current Bulls were recruited by Strong elsewhere.
“It’s amazing sometimes when you sit back looking at the Texas situation. When this job came open I had some of the players here—I don’t even know how they got my phone number—texting me telling me to take this job. Saying, ‘Coach, please take the job.’ So when I showed up, they were excited.”
Despite holding the worst winning percentage of any head coach in Longhorns history, Strong took three years of high-pressure experience with him to USF, where he said the reception from high school coaches has been great throughout the state but particularly in the Tampa area, where a lot the same coaches remain in place from the time that he was leading Louisville.
USF isn’t Texas, and that’s not a bad thing. Rather, growth is always for the best, even for a 56-year-old head coach intent on showing that his stellar 37-15 record with Louisville was more indicative of his coaching acumen than the 16-21 mark with the ‘Horns.