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January 6, 2014

Why Charlie Strong is the right choice for Texas

I covered Louisville against Florida in last year's Sugar Bowl for SiriusXM Radio. My co-host that week was former Florida QB Chris Leak, who helped the Gators win it all in 2006.

First, we interviewed Florida coach Will Muschamp, then Louisville coach Charlie Strong.

After we interviewed Strong, Leak told me Strong was the one who recruited him to Florida when Ron Zook was the coach.


Strong, 53, was the defensive coordinator at Florida from 2003-09 (helping win national titles in 2006 and 2008), serving two years under Zook before becoming the only holdover to join Urban Meyer's staff in 2005.

"He's an amazing recruiter," Leak told me. "You can't believe how direct he is. If he says it, he means it. He's a high-character guy with high integrity, and he's someone you can trust.

"He's one of the hardest workers I've ever seen, and he has the courage to make the hard decisions.

"The relationships he has with his players end up going way beyond football. To a lot of guys, he's like a father figure, and guys just love playing for him."

Strong's Louisville team was one of the biggest underdogs of last year's bowl season. And during our interview, I found Strong totally engaging. From his smile to his direct look into your eyes when you're speaking with him.

After the interview, Strong shook my hand before asking Leak about his family. The two hugged when they first saw each other and hugged when they said goodbye.

****

When I called Leak on Sunday night to talk about Strong taking over at Texas, he said, "It was just a matter of time for him to get to a big program like Texas. And he's ready."

"Why do you think he's ready?" I asked.

"It's the mindset he brings," Leak said. "You see it reflected in the program. You've seen it at Louisville. They bought in. Everyone there. Charlie's been through a lot of adversity in coaching, getting passed over for a bunch of jobs, and all he's done is prove himself over and over.

"As a team, you take on the personality of your coach, and his toughness is one of the biggest things you see reflected.

"He's had that drive to succeed from day one. That's who he is. He's goal-oriented and has his priorities straight. He wants to win it all, and he has a plan. Charlie always has a plan. He's always prepared. He wakes up thinking about every detail."

I told Leak there's talk Strong might bring Ron Zook, who hired Strong at Florida, to Texas as part of his coaching staff. Zook, like Strong, is known as a recruiting machine.

"Both of those guys in the state of Texas? Oh man," Leak said Sunday. "If they do in Texas what they did in Florida, their presence will be felt in recruiting by guys like Kevin Sumlin and Art Briles. I'll tell you that."

****

Those close to Strong at Louisville said it's not uncommon for him to wake up at 4:30 am and run 6 miles, spending every second of that run thinking of ways to get through to players, ways to get them to play tougher, think tougher - BE TOUGHER.

Strong works out every day and still benches well over 300 pounds. Slap him on the back, and you might break your hand. It's chiseled granite.

When Strong got to Louisville four years ago, he took the word "Cards" for Cardinals and made acronyms:

C - stood for commitment

A - stood for attitude

R - stood for respect

D - stood for discipline

S - stood for sacrifice

You can bet Strong has already come up with acronyms for T-E-X-A-S and the first letter will undoubtedly stand for TOUGHNESS.

Texas players are about to learn about his "mat drills."

Strength coach Pat Moore, who is expected to join Strong's staff at Texas, will put a mat down, throw down a piece of rope and have two guys battle in a one-on-one tug of war. Or he might have two players wrestle. There might be a pushup war between two players. Or a sit-up war.

There will be so many different variations of the mat drills players will be pushed to their physical limits … and most likely a garbage can, Leak said.

****

Let me tell you why Charlie Strong is the perfect hire for Texas right now: because he eats, drinks and breathes TOUGHNESS and is now at a program starving for it.

You're going to hear a lot of static about Strong being too this or too that for Texas or not being enough of this or that for Texas.

You're going to hear he was an important hire because he's the first black coach of a major sport at a school that had the last all-white national championship team (in 1969). You're going to hear he was Texas' second-, third- or fourth-choice hire.

Don't waste your time with any of that.

The school's big-money donors may have wanted Nick Saban (before Mack Brown's rocky departure) and then maybe favored Jim or John Harbaugh, Jon Gruden or Mike Tomlin before settling on Florida State's Jimbo Fisher.

The reason new athletic director Steve Patterson virtually ignored those boosters and went Lone Ranger is because if Patterson was going to sink or swim with this hire, he was going to make sure the new coach and everyone else knew it was Patterson's hire.

And what Patterson found during the interview process is that Strong is the perfect hire for Texas right now, because he happens to be one of the most driven, respected and smart coaches in football.

"I don't think people give Charlie enough credit for his intelligence about the game," Leak said. "I would always go to him and ask about tendencies of an opposing defense and how to study them. He always had the answer."

****

I hear people saying Strong doesn't have the patience or appetite for the public relations and politics of Texas.

Neither does Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops or Art Briles. All of those guys would rather be reaching out to recruits, finding a better way to connect with a player or coming up with a better third-down play.

All of them enjoy winning on their terms and tolerate the PR and politics when they have to do weekly press availabilities or a summer golf outing with boosters.

Put Strong in that category. When the cameras go on or he meets boosters for a barbeque, Strong will flash that winning smile and say all the right things. Trust me. I've seen it.

Will he ever come close to the PR and glad-handing of Mack Brown? No.

No one will.

And that's just fine.

Texas doesn't need a football coach who has the message packaging of GSD&M (or Idea City or whatever they call it now) with a minor in gubernatorial politics.

Texas needs a football coach who makes everyone accountable - from the equipment manager to the coordinators - with one, clear, attention-to-detail message from a tough-as-nails former defensive coordinator. (Louisville's turnover margin the past two seasons was +28.)

What every follower of a school's football program - from the billionaires with their names on campus buildings to the sophomores in the student section - truly wants is a coach who wins, wins the right way and who physically wants to punish your ass so you'll never forget it.

That's Charlie Strong, the son of an educator and coach, who is driven to help student-athletes win at the highest level on and off the field.

When he arrived as coach at Louisville, three scholarships had been stripped by the NCAA because the football program had an Academic Progress Rate of 896 for the 2009-10 school year - far below the APR minimum standard of 925 (equivalent to a 50 percent graduation rate), said UL football spokesman Rocco Gasparro.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Strong went so far as to contact Louisville players who had left the program - players he didn't even know - and asked them to return to school and get their degrees so future Louisville football players wouldn't be penalized.

Few, if any, listened.

Strong took an active role in checking to see if players were in class. After his first three years at Louisville, according to the Courier-Journal, 93 of Strong's 98 players had graduated, and the Cardinals' APR shot from 896 to 948 (2010-11) in Strong's first year to 971 in 2011-12.

Gasparro told me this week the team's 2012-13 score (to be released this spring) will be close to 1000, which is a perfect score.

"You don't want the perception that they're just football players and are just here to play football," Strong told the Courier-Journal. "That's not what this program is ever going to be about."

Strong's father, Charles, a longtime teacher and coach in Luxora, Arkansas, is the one who instilled the importance of education in him and is the reason Strong has two master's degrees (one from Henderson State University and one from Florida).

Strong returned to his hometown of Luxora, Arkansas, in July of 2013 for the town's Kids Day festivities, which took place on "Charles Strong Day" at the Charles Strong Recreational Center, named after his father.

"When you talk about a player's future, it all starts in the classroom," Strong told the Courier-Journal. "And what players have to understand is if we're going to talk about it, we have to be about it."

****

In the buildup to last year's Sugar Bowl , I remember talking to Strong's Louisville players. And every one of them seemed to be trying to warn Florida not to take them lightly.

(Nearly three dozen players on the Cardinals' roster were from Florida, 15 of them from Miami, including star QB Teddy Bridgewater. Strong has had a dominating recruiting presence in Florida by finding kids hungry to improve their lives and then helping them do it.)

In the days and weeks leading up to that showdown with Florida, Strong would keep yelling about his former team in practice, "They have the players everyone thought was better than you, so we have to be tougher."

Over and over again, Strong said it - "If we're the tougher team, we're the better team" - until he could see the chips forming on his players' shoulders.

Louisville, with a starting lineup loaded with sophomores, including Bridgewater, threw the first punch and kept throwing while building a 24-3 lead en route to a 33-23 victory.

One of the signature moments of that game came when Florida LB Jon Bostic, a player Strong recruited and coached in Gainesville for one year, hit Bridgewater so hard, Bridgewater's helmet went flying backward.

Before Louisville fans could fear for Bridgewater's well-being, he bounced up and smiled. He then methodically destroyed the Gators.

After the game, Strong ran into the locker room and yelled, "See, I told you that you could make them look soft! You made them look soft! You made Florida look soft!"

Strong might have used more colorful language than that. But Strong celebrates toughness … and he demands it every day.

Strong needs to ignore voices saying he needs to change to accommodate the Longhorn Network or other PR and political demands.

If Strong simply focuses on what has made him successful - creating Texas Strong players - no one will ever again question the Longhorns about being soft.

"If you're not tough, you're not going to play for Charlie Strong," Louisville safety Calvin Pryor told me last year. "Period."

Something tells me Texas football and the entire athletic department just got a menacing makeover it sorely needed.


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