Column

Bohls: Charlie Strong sounds happy, and why not? He’s back home at South Florida

Posted January 9th, 2017

Story highlights
  • Strong said he thinks he "benefited" from his experience at Texas — and hopes that Texas benefited from his time there.
  • The former Longhorns head coach said he had "plenty of offers" to be a head coach or a defensive coordinator elsewhere, but took the USF job.
  • He's already hired three of his former UT assistants, including Sterling Gilbert (as his offensive coordinator) and Brian Jean-Mary (defensive coordinator).

TAMPA, Fla. — The smile’s as broad as ever.

And genuine as well.

Charlie Strong is home.

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Home in the Sunshine State, where he spent 15 years of his career, starting as a Florida graduate assistant in 1983. Home, where he helped the Florida Gators win a pair of national championships. Home, where he can rattle off the names of the area high schools like Garcia or Castle as if he was recruiting them yesterday and will tomorrow because his new school has only seven out-of-staters on its roster.

Strong spent all of Monday morning whisking from one radio interview to another. He posed for pictures with Bulls cheerleaders. He took questions from ESPN’s “First Take” shouters, where he was greeted with loud chants of “Char-lie, Char-lie, Char-lie” from the crowd of locals at the Tampa Convention Center.

He did another stop at Raymond James Stadium, hours ahead of Monday night’s national championship game between Alabama and Clemson and the place where he’ll walk the sidelines this fall as head coach of South Florida.

UT Head Coach Charlie Strong arrives at Royal-Memorial Stadium before the game against TCU on Friday November 25, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
UT Head Coach Charlie Strong arrives at Royal-Memorial Stadium before the game against TCU on Friday November 25, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Strong looked relaxed and fit and happy in his light green pullover sporting the Bulls’ colors.

He’s a virtual rock star here, and I told him so.

Strong laughed heartily and said, “No, I just came back to a place where everybody knows you.”

The good “you.” The one who helped bring titles to Florida in 2006 and 2008. The one who left for Louisville, where he went 37-15 and produced 18 draft picks off his last two teams, four of them first-rounders.

USF represents his second chance, much the same as it does for the Heisman-caliber quarterback he inherits in Quinton Flowers.

South Florida quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) gets around South Carolina defensive back D.J. Smith (24) for a touchdown during the first half of the Birmingham Bowl NCAA college football game, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, in Birmingham. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
South Florida quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) gets around South Carolina defensive back D.J. Smith (24) for a touchdown during the first half of the Birmingham Bowl NCAA college football game, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, in Birmingham. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

The senior-to-be, who is coming off a spectacular 11-2 season punctuated by a MVP performance in the Birmingham Bowl victory over South Carolina, was lightly recruited as a quarterback. Flowers ironically was offered a Florida scholarship to play defensive back by the same Will Muschamp who got fired by the Gators for not having a solid quarterback.

This will represent every bit the same redemption opportunity for Strong, who remains a top-notch head coach even though that wasn’t reflected in his three years at Texas.

He threw no stones in his exit. He has no regrets about his days in Austin, but still flinches at the memory of the bitter, first-year loss to UCLA in Arlington on a Bruins touchdown pass after a double move.

“That game was critical,” Strong said, shaking his head. “If we had won that game, we’d have played with more confidence and been on our way. We never caught a break.”

Strong lamented that loss and the career-ending concussion of quarterback David Ash after just one game and the shocking 2015 shutout at the hands of lowly Iowa State, a game he had a premonition about when quarterback Jerrod Heard fretted about how wet the grass on the field was during warmups. Heard slipped on the first series, and the bad vibe continued in a 24-0 loss when Texas had barely 208 yards of offense.

He hasn’t shied away from his ugly 16-21 record and three consecutive losing seasons at Texas and makes no excuses for them. He’s still as classy and authentic as he was during that traumatic Longhorns experience, one that he stills says he wouldn’t trade.

“I’m not happy with what happened at Texas,” Strong said. “I had all the support I needed there, but the wins and losses aren’t what we wanted. I feel like I benefited from being at Texas, and I hope Texas benefited from having me there.”

Texas did, especially with a pair of top 10 recruiting classes that successor Tom Herman has inherited.

Strong will benefit from the standard that Willie Taggart set for a USF program that’s been at the FBS level only since 2000 yet has had 11 winning seasons and eight bowl appearances. Strong turned down Taggart’s offer of a place on his new Oregon staff as the Ducks’ defensive coordinator as well as “plenty of offers” from other Power 5 coaches and head coaching offers.

Texas Head Coach Charlie Strong celebrates with his team as they defeated Notre Dame 50-47 during a NCAA football game at Darrell K. Royal?Texas Memorial Stadium, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American Statesman)
Texas Head Coach Charlie Strong celebrates with his team as they defeated Notre Dame 50-47 during a NCAA football game at Darrell K. Royal?Texas Memorial Stadium, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American Statesman)

Strong, who met with his new players in a team meeting Sunday night, was eager to remain as a head coach and should succeed instantly with the help of Flowers and 16 other returning starters and 35 total players off the two-deep in a program that runs the Gulf Coast Offense. Taggart and his staff visited Baylor’s Art Briles a while back for offensive tips.

“I’m a better coach and a better person for having been at Texas, and I’m happy I had my time there,” said Strong, adding that his youngest daughter will remain at Westlake High. “I always say you have to be willing to go back to the chalkboard. This is a chance for me to get rebooted. When you don’t win, it hurts inside.”

Strong has hired three assistants off his Texas staff, including offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and linebacker coach Brian Jean-Mary — who becomes USF’s defensive coordinator — but still needs a secondary and defensive line coach. Vance Bedford won’t go with him.

Strong joins a Who’s Who list of high-profile names in Florida with Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, Miami’s Mark Richt and new coaches Butch Davis at Florida International and Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic.

“There’ll be some really good recruiting battles,” Strong said, adding he’ll still recruit the state of Texas but anticipated no Longhorns transfers to USF.

Oh, and Strong’s Bulls will face Herman’s Longhorns beginning in 2020, with games in Tampa in 2022 and in Austin again in 2024.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” Strong said, grinning. “They’ll be very good by then.”

They’ll have Strong to thank for that.

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