Still running: Charlie Strong finds ideal spot to reclaim coaching reputation at USF

0:27 | College Football
USF hires Charlie Strong as head football coach
Monday December 12th, 2016

One of the first things Charlie Strong will do when he settles in Tampa is find places to run. He’ll carve out five- and a six-mile routes, and he’ll rise before the sun and plan his day as he pounds pavement. If he chooses to live where many of the people in his tax bracket live, he’ll have one of America’s most beautiful runs steps away from home.

On the south side of Bayshore Boulevard sits a stretch that is believed to be the world’s longest continuous sidewalk. For more than four miles from downtown to Gandy Boulevard, a runner seeking peace or inspiration or an escape can coast uninterrupted in a graceful arc along the edge of Hillsborough Bay. This might be the perfect spot for a man who uses his daily runs as combination strategy and therapy sessions.

And whether Strong winds up running along Bayshore or among the trees in Odessa or along a golf course in New Tampa, he’ll be in the perfect spot for him. Strong didn’t win at Texas, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a successful head coach. We know this because he has been a successful head coach before. Now, at the University of South Florida, Strong will have a chance to remind everyone why Texas hired him in the first place. At a school that seems tailor-made for his skill set, Strong can reclaim his coaching reputation.

When the possibility of USF coach Willie Taggart getting another job first popped up, Strong seemed an obvious choice to succeed Taggart.

That prediction, sent the night Mark Helfrich was fired at Oregon, didn’t require much inside information. Taggart’s past season and a half at USF plus his experience helping Jim Harbaugh build Stanford made him an excellent choice for the Ducks. And Strong’s experience recruiting in Florida plus the fact that he’d won USF’s league—when it was called the Big East—as Louisville’s head coach left Bulls administrators with perhaps the easiest coaching search since the one that landed Tom Herman as Strong’s replacement at Texas.

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In multiple stints at Florida, Strong built excellent relationships with the state’s high school coaches, community leaders and various recruiting handlers. (This is part of the job for any effective recruiter, so quit clutching your pearls about that last one.) When Urban Meyer took over the Gators in December 2005, Strong was the only member of Ron Zook’s staff asked to stay. Meyer did this for two reasons. He knew Strong had the trust of all the players currently in Florida’s locker room, and he also knew Strong was one of the best closers in the recruiting game. He dominated his areas, and fellow coaches would bring him in when they needed help selling a player or a parent on the program.

As Louisville’s head coach, Strong continued to mine the state for talent. He signed quarterback Teddy Bridgewater out of Miami. He landed future first-round safety Calvin Pryor, who grew up a 10-hour drive from Bridgewater in Port St. Joe in the state’s Big Bend region. Florida is a huge state that mixes urban and rural, and Strong has relationships everywhere. He knows whom to call in Miami’s Liberty City to find out whom a recruit trusts most. He also knows his way around the orange groves in Frostproof in case another Travis Henry is piling up touchdowns there.

Will this definitely work? There are no guarantees. It seemed impossible to believe three years ago that Strong would go 16–21 in Texas. But all the signs point toward a bounce back.

Strong could have taken an obscene amount of money—on top of the millions Texas owes him—to run a defense in 2017, but he wanted to be a head coach again. One thing he told his Texas players in his final week as their coach explains this. “You still can't be afraid to go to the blackboard,” Strong recalled telling the Longhorns during his press conference after losing to TCU on Nov. 25. “The reason why is that you may get knocked down. You're going to still have to pick yourself up. You don't quit. You don't ever quit on yourself.” Strong wasn’t going to quit on himself, either. He believes he can succeed again as a head coach, and now he has another shot.

John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Strong seems to be putting himself in a better position than he did when he went to Texas. He brought most of his Louisville staff then, and the offense was a poor fit. First, there was no Teddy Bridgewater at Texas. Second, the pro-style concepts Shawn Watson ran were completely foreign to players who grew up running up-tempo spread offenses. Strong corrected this far too late when he hired Sterlin Gilbert away from Tulsa to install the Baylor offense in Austin. All indications are that Strong will try to bring Gilbert with him to Tampa. We know that offense can succeed in the American Athletic Conference because Gilbert’s former boss Philip Montgomery is setting records with it at Tulsa. Put Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers at the helm and stock it with the speed USF already has on its roster, and the points should come.

Defensively, Strong and his staff will face a far more diverse group of offenses than they saw in the Big 12. That’s good because Strong’s defenses struggled with Big 12 offenses. They’ll still see similar ones when they play cross-divisional games against Houston, SMU and Tulsa, but they’ll also see the triple option from Navy, Scott Frost’s version of Chip Kelly’s Oregon offense from Central Florida and Scottie Montgomery’s version of David Cutcliffe’s up-tempo offense from East Carolina.

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Though there have been some hyperbolic recruiting predictions from the Sunshine State since Strong took the job, don’t expect USF to routinely beat Florida State, Florida and Miami for recruits those schools want badly. Players still want to play for the most popular programs in the state.

Where Strong and company may find the most success is fighting out-of-state Power 5 programs for players ignored by the Big Three. In 2014, Taggart convinced Sarasota, Fla., tailback Marlon Mack to turn down Louisville and go to USF. Mack became a key cog in Taggart’s Gulf Coast offense. If Strong can convince more players to turn down Power 5 schools that are a flight—with a connection in Atlanta or Charlotte—away in favor of a school a short drive from their home, USF could dominate the American. Strong also may be able to identify some recruits early and build a tight enough bond that in two years, the Bulls may be able to withstand a late recruiting charge from the Seminoles, Gators or Hurricanes.

Will Strong stay at USF if he succeeds? That’s the gamble USF must take if it wants to build on Taggart’s recent success. Strong could have two good years and move on to a Power 5 job. Or he might decide he’s found his bliss in Tampa. Strong and Nick Saban each look 20 years younger than they are, which makes it tough to predict how much longer they’ll coach. But Strong will turn 57 before he coaches his first game at USF. He may decide happiness and fit beat the pressure in the Power 5. Or he may win enough at USF that the Bulls get swept up into the in crowd when the inevitable next round of conference realignment hits when the television deals for a number of leagues end in the mid 2020s. Or he may not win enough and get fired. As Strong’s Texas tenure attests, success isn’t guaranteed.

The only guarantee is that Strong won’t quit on himself, and now he has a chance at redemption in a place that feels like an ideal fit. All he has to do now is hit the ground running.

 

A random ranking

We have an excellent selection this week from reader (and Lake Mary High classmate) Kyle Berryhill.

1. “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!” — The Sandlot

Some exclamations simply endure. An entire generation still uses this sentence to express frustration with a teammate who simply won’t get with the program. Some would go with “You play baseball like a girrrrrrrrrl,” but A) that’s sexist and B) I didn’t say that 15 times last week.

2. “Cake Eater” — The Mighty Ducks

This epithet tossed at wealthy Hawk-turned-Duck Adam Banks in The Mighty Ducks served to remind Banks that the Ducks still had lingering anger over the beatdowns laid upon them by Banks’s old team. It also helped provide some grounding for a guy who walked in as the best player on the roster. As often happens within the team dynamic, this morphed from an insult to a term of endearment as Banks proved his dedication to the Ducks.

3. Tanner Boyle’s assessment of his teammates from the original Bad News Bears

If you think I’m transcribing this rant on a family website, you’re crazy.

4. “Hey you, fat lineman! From now on just get your jelly rolls out of Spike’s way unless you want cleat marks up your fat back.” — Little Giants

The lesson here is that people who refer to themselves in the third person ultimately get defrosted by the Ice Box.

5. “Coach Bull, Huh? I know your full name.” — Ladybugs

When you cast Rodney Dangerfield in the 90s, you accepted the fact that 50% of his dialogue would consist of jokes he’d been telling for 40 years. They still killed with the target audience of this movie.

First-and-10

1. With Strong at USF and Major Applewhite getting the Houston job, that only left a few openings for Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin if Kiffin wanted to be a head coach again in 2017. With a likely huge payday from LSU to run the offense for Ed Orgeron still an option, Kiffin opted to be a head coach now and took the Florida Atlantic job, according to a report from ESPN.com’s Chris Low. He’ll replace Charlie Partridge, who went 9–27 in three seasons in Boca Raton.

Kiffin will likely leave money on the table to take this job instead of the coordinator job at LSU, but he’ll be running his own program again. If he is ever going to be a head coach at the Power 5 level again, he’ll need to prove he has changed as a CEO since stints as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders and at Tennessee and USC. Now, he’ll have that chance.

This also would allow Kiffin to remain with the Crimson Tide through the postseason. The recruiting dead period began Monday, so he doesn’t need to be on FAU’s campus. Plus, Tom Herman (Ohio State to Houston) and Kirby Smart (Alabama to Georgia) used successful playoff runs with their old schools to jump-start recruiting efforts at their new ones in each of the past two seasons.

So where does that leave LSU? The Tigers were fairly confident they could land Kiffin, but Ross Dellenger of The (Baton Rouge, La.) Advocate reported Sunday that the program had vetted three other potential offensive coordinators in case Kiffin took a head coaching job. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Matt Canada proved this season he could build an explosive offense around a power run game, which is exactly what LSU wants to do. Former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich knows the secrets of the Chip Kelly offense, but he was never the playcaller for that offense. The third is former USC coach Steve Sarkisian, who is currently serving as an analyst at Alabama and might be in line to replace Kiffin in Tuscaloosa.

2. Congratulations to Army for its first win against Navy since 2001. Here was the reaction in Baltimore as the Black Knights closed out their 21–17 win Saturday.

3. When CBS broadcaster Verne Lundquist signed off after the Army-Navy game, he signed off on a long and distinguished college football broadcast career. Godspeed, Uncle Verne.

4. Later Saturday, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson became the youngest player (19 years, 337 days) to win the Heisman Trophy. Jackson was five days younger than Jameis Winston was when he won the award in 2013. After winning the 2016 trophy, Jackson spent some time with the 2012 winner.

A photo posted by Johnny Manziel (@jmanziel2) on

5. Since the trophy has been handed out, I’m now allowed to reveal my ballot. Here it is.

1. DE Jonathan Allen, Alabama

2. QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville

3. QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson

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6. The awarding of the Heisman Trophy means it’s time to begin debating who will win the 2017 award. Given that Jackson appeared in hardly any way-too-early Heisman projections a year ago, it’s a safe bet the 2017 winner won’t be on this list. But we’re going to try to predict that winner anyway. Since dual-threat quarterbacks have won five of the past seven Heisman trophies, we’ll go heavy on those.

•​ QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: Mayfield made it to New York this season and could easily wind up back in the Big Apple as a senior.

•​ QB Jalen Hurts, Alabama: Back in early November, when Hurts’s passing and rushing attempts matched up with the numbers from Jackson’s true freshman season at Louisville, the numbers were eerily similar. The question is whether Hurts will make the same leap as a passer that Jackson did between his freshman and sophomore seasons. If he can, look out.

• QB Shane Buechele, Texas: Buechele will begin working with the coach who guided Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Greg Ward Jr. to incredible seasons (and Cardale Jones to an incredible postseason run). If Tom Herman can get as much out of Buechele as he did those quarterbacks and the Longhorns win as many games as Strong predicted they would, Buechele could be in the mix.

• S Derwin James, Florida State: Did you love watching Jabrill Peppers at Michigan? James, who missed most of this season following a knee injury suffered in Week 2, might be even more versatile as a defender. If Peppers and USC’s Adoree’ Jackson are NFL-bound, James would be the top returning defensive candidate.

• QB Jake Browning, Washington: He’s not a dual-threat QB, but he seems plenty threatening to opposing defenses.

•​ QB Sam Darnold, USC: Had coach Clay Helton named Darnold the starter in camp, the redshirt freshman might have been in New York this season.

• QB Josh Rosen, UCLA: The Pac-12 is loaded at this position in 2017.

•​ QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville: Oh, yeah. He’s got at least one more season in college, doesn’t he? Will Archie Griffin finally have company?

7. Former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham has chosen his school.

This probably isn’t the best news for current sophomore starter Sean White, but it means the Tigers won’t face an off-season in which they don’t know if they’ll have competent quarterback play. White proved himself quite capable this season when healthy. If Stidham can beat him out for the starting job, that means Auburn’s offense can only get better.

8. Pittsburgh tailback James Conner, who redshirted as a junior in 2015 while fighting cancer (and recovering from a knee injury) will forgo his final season of eligibility and enter the NFL draft.

9. Here is Oregon president Michael Schill’s advice for new Ducks coach Willie Taggart. It’s pretty sound, considering what happened in Eugene this past season.

10. With former Ohio State graduate assistant and current Rutgers offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer leaving New Jersey to join mentor Herman at Texas, the Scarlet Knights will need an eighth offensive coordinator in eight years.

What’s eating Andy?

Unfortunately, the most important college football award of the year didn’t get anywhere near the attention as the one given out one night later in the same town. But that shouldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for the Piesman Trophy, which honors linemen who do great things with the ball. This year’s winner is Pittsburgh offensive tackle Brian O’Neill, who doesn’t seem nearly fat enough to win this sort of award.

What’s Andy eating?

As we wrap another season of eating, it’s time for another edition of Chains That Should Go National. Some previous honorees such as Pollo Tropical, Rubio’s (fish tacos) and Fuego Tortilla Grill have expanded their footprints in recent years. Others, such as New York-based Xi’an Famous Foods, have remained available only to a lucky few.

This week, we’ll highlight a trio of restaurants that need to be in every town in America.

Cook Out

This Carolinas staple has recently branched out as far west as Mississippi and as far north as Maryland, but everyone deserves a chance to gobble charcoal-cooked burgers and chicken sandwiches and wash them down with a milkshake from a list that goes more than 40 deep. Get the Big Double with fries and a banana fudge shake. Or maybe a Snickers shake. Or maybe a chocolate mint shake.

Braum’s

George Schroeder of USA Today introduced me to this Oklahoma institution. Imagine if Dairy Queen actually served good ice cream. That’s Braum’s. It’s greasy diner burgers with ice cream you’d buy for $5 a scoop at a Haagen-Dazs shop. Get the cappuccino chunky chocolate, the brownie batter or the peppermint chocolate chip. Then beg them to expand beyond Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas.

Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza

This South Florida-based chain has moved up the eastern seaboard into Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and that’s fine. Those are areas that appreciate a pizza cooked in an 800-degree oven with a crisp crust on the bottom that turns chewier as it moves toward the toppings.

But the rest of the nation would love that, too. Plus, while the pizza at Anthony’s is excellent, it isn’t the best thing on the menu. Anthony’s cooks wings in that coal oven as well. Those crispy, slightly charred wings come swimming in caramelized onions and a delicious au jus that can be sopped up with focaccia. There are 43 more states that need to taste those wings. (Except maybe Alabama, where former Crimson Tide and Miami Dolphins player Bob Baumhower has created an excellent version of this concept at Bob’s Victory Grille in Tuscaloosa.)

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