Strong brings hope to ailing Louisville program

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Charlie Strong has a better idea when I tell him I've come to a Louisville practice to write a story about him.

"You shouldn't write about me," he says. "You should write about the program."

Strong in many ways is the Louisville Cardinals program right now, though. He's the reason why Cardinals fans dream of returning to the top of college football after three non-winning, no-fun seasons under Steve Kragthorpe. He's the reason the school believes it can sell tickets for the new deck on Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, a place the team had trouble filling to half capacity by the end of last year. He is the agent of change.

Strong would likely cringe at all those declarations. He's a soft-spoken guy who doesn't seem comfortable talking about himself or dredging up old stories about why it took so long for someone to give him a head coaching job. So we'll let others talk him up.

"We all have a world of respect for him," defensive lineman Greg Scruggs said. "If you don't have respect for someone who's accomplished what he's accomplished, then I honestly think something is wrong with you."

"When you come in with credentials like he has, then you automatically get respect," quarterback Adam Froman said. "You don't have to prove anything. It's like, 'OK, I'll listen to whatever you have to say.'"

Or how about those assistants who left major programs to help Strong rebuild at Louisville -- coaches like Vance Bedford and Kenny Carter who left Florida; Brian Jean-Mary who said goodbye to Georgia Tech; or Clint Hurtt who departed his alma mater, Miami. Strong called those hires a testament to the university and the city, but the coaches see it differently.

"The guys that are here don't come here if not for Charlie Strong," Hurtt said. "He's such a highly-respected man in college football for so many people all over. The special ones just have a presence about them, and you naturally just feel that presence being around him. "

Strong may seem like a mild-mannered man in social situations, but put him on a practice field or a meeting room and he burns with intensity. He's not afraid to get in a player's face or grab him by the shoulder pads after a mistake. It's the same passion that made him one of the nation's top defensive coordinators at Florida, where he helped the Gators win two BCS titles.

And it's a different vibe this spring for the Cardinals. Kragthorpe was often accused, probably unfairly, of not being fiery enough. But there always seemed to be a disconnect in the way he communicated with the players.

Strong's message is direct and simple. In his first meeting with the players after being hired, he told them "You guys aren't good enough. You've got to get better."

"He's like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Froman said. "Off the field, away from the stadium, he's a great guy, very soft spoken, polite and nice. But as soon as you get through those doors over there [to the practice field], the light switch goes on 100 percent. If you're not as intense as he is, you're going to hear about it.

"You need that from a head coach, especially with our team. We're trying to make a transition right now, and it's huge for our team to have that intensity, that fire."

Attitude may be the easiest thing for Strong to change right away, because he faces a major reconstruction project. During much of his tenure at Florida, he was coaching multiple future NFL draft picks. Louisville's talent has nosedived to the the point where you can't pick out one surefire NFL player on the roster this spring. The defense, which is his field of expertise, lacks depth and playmakers at just about every spot.

"You've got to have the players," Strong said. "Florida had a little more players. But I remember when this program was an elite program just three or four years ago when they were going to the Orange Bowl. We've just got to get it back. We've got to go out and recruit some guys here."

He's already making headway. Strong's first recruiting haul was ranked among the best in the Big East and included players who had committed or were being wooed by programs like Georgia, Florida and Miami. He used his connections to sign seven players from Florida, a traditional recruiting hotbed for Louisville that was curiously devalued under Kragthorpe.

Strong said he didn't flash his two national title rings at prospects but instead just sold them on what Louisville had to offer. Still, it's hard to believe that Strong's reputation and name recognition didn't play the key role in their decisions.

In fact, Strong's immediate success on the recruiting trail and in attracting a top-shelf staff prompts old questions about why no one else had hired him before Tom Jurich did at Louisville. He once suggested that his race and interracial marriage played a role. Perhaps had he not come to Louisville, he would have been in play for later openings at Tennessee and South Florida. But how could he pass up any opportunity after being passed over for so long?

These are subjects Strong has little desire to address again. Besides, his introductory press conference in December told that whole story. He had to pause for several seconds, gather his emotions and wipe back tears that day as he recalled how he and his wife wondered if his chance would ever come.

Strong is a head coach now, and working on improving his team is all that matters. He looks forward to the time when the story on Louisville football is about a whole lot more than just him.