TAMPA — Soon after Charlie Strong got fired at Texas in late November, he isolated himself in the office of his Austin-area home. He occupied his time and thoughts by scribbling ideas on a yellow legal pad. Day after day, he wrote page after page.
What could I have done better? What really happened? What do you do when you get your next opportunity? What are you going to change about yourself?
Introspection isn’t a specialty of Charlie Strong. He’d plowed through 14 jobs at eight schools in his coaching career to get to Texas, abiding by the simple mantra of trying to get a little better each day. Strong played at NAIA Central Arkansas, started coaching on the field at Illinois State and didn’t get his first head job until age 49. He crushed his first opportunity to be a head coach, going 23–3 in his final two seasons at Louisville and earning arguably the most prestigious job in college sports.
When Texas officials fired Strong with a 16–21 record after just three seasons, it allowed him a chance to evaluate, tweak and ponder. He laughs when recalling his first unemployment epiphany—there’s no way he was taking a season off.
“There’s so many questions,” Strong said on Thursday afternoon. “It just wore you out. Your mind is all over the place. I just hate not being successful. It eats at you more than anything. A lot of times, you feel like you let a lot of people down because a lot of people are counting on you.”
It didn’t take him long to come to a conclusion: “When [the USF] job came available, it was like, I’ve got to get back into it. I’ve got to go back to work.”
Strong, 56, once again found himself forging ahead, another school, another team and another opportunity. He’s adjusted seamlessly to his new job as the coach at South Florida, right down to the green and gold Under Armour pullover. Sitting at a conference table in his new staff room on Thursday, the persistent buzz of Strong’s iPhone provided the background noise for an hour-long interview. After his two weeks of introspection, Strong flew to Tampa on a Texas booster’s plane. As he drove through town with athletic director Mark Harlan, Strong pointed out the exit for every high school in the city. “It felt like home,” said Strong, who had four separate stints at the University of Florida and met his wife in Gainesville.
Strong’s latest opportunity at USF can be distilled into a compelling Culinary Swap. Upon taking the USF job, Strong took one last glance in the rear-view mirror. “I baked the cake at Texas,” he said at his USF press conference. “Now it’s Tom Herman’s job to put icing on the cake and win a lot of games.”
Strong left one tantalizing cake, but few outside of Tampa know just how enticing the cake is that he received. He inherits from former USF coach Willie Taggart one of the best situations in all of college football. USF should start next season nationally ranked and could be considered a reasonable preseason facsimile of Houston in 2016. USF returns 17 players with significant starting experience and the American Athletic Conference’s best quarterback, and it finished No. 4 nationally in scoring offense last year. (The difference is that USF’s non-league schedule in 2017—San Jose State, Illinois, Stony Brook and UMass—doesn’t give it nearly the same chance to crash the College Football Playoff that Houston had with Oklahoma and Louisville.)
Taggart departed for Oregon, but left behind the core of the best team in school history. USF finished 11–2 in 2016 and capped the season with a 46–39 victory over South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl. Strong needs to ice the cake of a team that returns 35 players from the two-deep, along with both kickers. The Bulls should be favored in every game next season, as Tulsa, Houston and Temple all go to Tampa.
USF returns star quarterback Quinton Flowers, who was the AAC Player of the Year and finished No. 9 nationally in points responsible for (18 rushing touchdowns and 24 passing). The team will miss junior tailback Marlon Mack, the school’s all-time leading rusher, who announced Thursday he’s leaving for the NFL. It may be a foolish move, as an NFL scout told SI.com on Thursday that Mack would be a late-round pick.
Strong’s biggest issues his first two seasons at Texas were a lack of a competent quarterback and an offensive identity. Neither of those will be an issue here, as Flowers is among the most dynamic QBs in the country and coordinator Sterlin Gilbert takes over a program with a familiar Baylor-inspired scheme. “What Willie and them did last year is they went to Baylor to visit Art (Briles),” Strong said. “It’s the (schematic) family that Sterlin comes out of. Offensively, you’re going to see the same background.”
If there’s a similar result, the onus will be on Strong to shore up the defense. USF finished No. 92 in scoring defense last year. And just a marginal improvement there, along with its dynamic offense, could mean a shot at an undefeated season. The AAC isn’t a meek conference, as Tulsa went 10–3 last season and Houston, Memphis, Navy, SMU and UCF will all be formidable. But USF has the best returning roster, the best-known coach and the best chance to steal national headlines. “You need elite teams,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said Thursday. “You need those teams that stand out.”
Since USF football debuted in 1997, it has been labeled a sleeping giant because of the fertile local recruiting base. But as the years ticked off to pedestrian results and local apathy, some wondered if it could ever awake from its slumber of mediocrity. Jim Leavitt had bursts of early success, but even after debuting at No. 2 in the 2007 BCS standings, the Bulls finished that year 9–4. Could the loaded roster Taggart left behind and Strong’s presence be the collision course that changes the trajectory of the USF program? “We’re excited about the stage this team has set for us going forward,” Harlan said. “There’s a real feeling in this community that they’re ready to get behind this team.”
A veteran team will have a new face with a fresh perspective after three years in the Texas pressure cooker. Strong reflected on Thursday on a few of the notes he jotted down after his time at Texas.
Do not ever forget where you came from.
Do not let this experience define who you are.
When you get knocked down you have to pick yourself up.
Strong faced the prospect of a season of reflection and rejected it instantly. Instead, he’ll go back to what he knows. Another team. Another program. Another season. On Sunday afternoon, when Strong holds his first full meeting of 2017 with his new team, Alabama will be practicing outside on USF’s fields in preparation for Monday’s national title game here. The only perfect team remaining in 2016 appearing on USF’s campus offers a fitting inspiration for the 2017 Bulls. The cake has been prepared for Charlie Strong. A year after Strong's job status dominated the conversation in college football, there’s a good chance his team’s play could make he and USF relevant in 2017. With no regrets and perspective through experience, Strong is ready to forge ahead the way he’s always done it. “I don’t think you can ever change who you are,” he said. “You know who you are. That will never change. There’s different ways to do things.”