GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When some of Florida's older players talk about former defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, there's one word that always seems to come up: fun.
Strong loved to joke around and have fun with the players, which is one of the reasons he was one of the most popular assistant coaches during his time in Gainesville. That's why some of the 23 players who are still on the roster from Strong's time at UF are looking forward to next week's Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup against Strong's new team, Louisville.
"He liked to have fun and liked to work at the same time," redshirt senior nose tackle Omar Hunter said. "I miss Coach Strong."
Hunter said he was one of the players Strong liked to tease. He'd try and trick Hunter's position coach, Dan McCarney, into believing that Hunter was loafing when the team was supposed to be running.
"Coach [Urban] Meyer would always tell us to run off the sideline," Hunter said. "I'd be sprinting off the sideline and he [Strong] would be screaming my name like I didn't run just to get my coach to yell at [me]. He was just one of those type of guys [who liked to] just have fun and laugh and joke while you work hard."
That made it easier to respond when Strong did push the players, senior safety Josh Evans said, because you knew it wasn't a personal attack.
"He was a funny coach, but he knew when to take it serious and push us to the next level," Evans said. "And I'd say that was probably the best thing about him, knowing when you're lacking and pushing you to be the best player you can be."
Strong wasn't just popular with defensive players. He was well-liked by the offensive guys, too, and they were just as much a target of his good-natured ribbing as the defensive players. It wasn't just the way he acted on the field, either. He essentially became a surrogate parent for a lot of players.
"He would give you advice as if you were his own child," said redshirt senior wide receiver Frankie Hammond. "You can come to him about anything. When you have a coach like that, it sticks to you and you want to be around people like that.
"Even the offensive guys [were treated that way]. He didn't leave anybody out. Whether you were a walk-on or a scholarship athlete, he pretty much spoke to everybody."
Hunter said the way Strong treated players made them want to play hard for him. That's evident by what the Gators accomplished during Strong's fourth stint at UF as the defensive coordinator from 2003-09. UF's defense was a huge part of UF's two national titles under Meyer. Strong was the co-defensive coordinator with Greg Mattison when UF smothered Ohio State in the 2006 BCS National Championship Game, holding the Buckeyes to just 82 yards in a 41-14 victory. In the 2008 title game, Strong's defense held Oklahoma, which averaged 54.0 points per game and had scored a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 702 points, to just 14 points.
Even though Strong's quest for a head coaching job was well-chronicled, it was still a shock to the players when Strong left following the 2009 season to become the head coach at Louisville, Hunter said.
"A lot of defensive guys took that pretty rough," he said. "Me being a younger guy, I didn't really understand it as much as the older guys. But that was definitely tough for a lot of guys."
There was never any doubt that Strong would be successful, though. Louisville winning the Big East title and earning a BCS bowl berth in Strong's third season isn't a surprise to Hammond.
"He's turned that program around and made tremendous strides with that program," Hammond said. "I have nothing but positive things to say about him. He left his impact here, left his mark here at the University of Florida, and now he's making one over there at Louisville."