Louisville’s Charlie Strong has waited and waited, all the while thinking someday the right opportunity would come along in which his coaching acumen would be viewed above all else. The color of his skin would be an afterthought, he hoped.
His time has arrived at Texas.
In one of the most significant moments ever for the University of Texas, school officials announced Sunday that Strong would become the new head football coach, making him the first minority head coach of any men’s sport in school history.
“This is a historic day for the University of Texas and a historic hire for our football team,” UT President Bill Powers said in a statement. “Charlie Strong is one of the best coaches in the country.”
Strong will receive a five-year contract worth approximately $5 million annually, two Texas sources said. However, all contracts must be approved by the UT System Board of Regents.
Strong and his wife, Vicki, and their two daughters arrived in Austin from Louisville on a private plane Sunday afternoon. The school has scheduled an introductory press conference at 11 a.m. Monday that will be televised on the Longhorn Network.
“I’m excited and my family is excited to have the chance to lead one of the premier football programs in the country,” Strong said in a statement released by the school.
Some university officials privately hoped Strong would get the job because the school has such a checkered past in race relations. Now for many, Strong will become the public face of the university, much as his predecessor, Mack Brown, was for 16 years.
This is the same school that banned black athletes from playing until 1963. It didn’t have a black player on the team until 1969. Julius Whittier was on the team that year but wasn’t allowed to play because NCAA rules made freshmen ineligible. He was a full squad member in 1970 and ’71.
‘Zero. Zero interviews’
Just five years ago, Strong believed race was a key reason he couldn’t land a head coaching job after rising to prominence as a Florida assistant from 2002 to 2009.
“Everybody always said I didn’t get that job because my wife is white,” Strong said in a January 2009 interview with the Orlando Sentinel during the run-up to the Florida-Oklahoma national championship game.
Asked how many schools contacted him about their vacancy, Strong said: “Zero. Zero interviews.”
That same day, former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy told ESPN, “When they see what he can do, you’re probably going to have a lot of people disappointed they didn’t hire him sooner.”
Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich didn’t miss his chance to grab Strong after the 2009 season. The Cardinals went 7-6 in both 2010 and 2011 but finally broke through in 2012.
With standout Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, Louisville went 11-2 and finished tied for first in the Big East Conference in 2012. Strong and his program really turned heads at the 2013 Sugar Bowl when Louisville defeated Florida 33-23. This year, Louisville went 12-1 and Bridgewater announced he was leaving school early to go pro.
After the Florida win, Strong was given a huge contract extension, bringing his annual compensation package to $3.7 million annually. That contract also included buyout language stipulating that Strong owed Louisville $5 million if he left in 2013 and $4.375 million if he bolted in 2014.
Texas owes Louisville officials at least $4.375 million, and the two sides were negotiating the final buyout figure.
“I wished him well, him and his family, and I told him I give him an A-plus-plus for the way he change the culture here,” Jurich said Sunday. “Not only from the football standpoint in wins and losses but the type of kids he recruited, type of coaching staff that he assembled, what they did academically. We had very few problems off the field.
“So I was very impressed with that, and in my next hire, my ambition and intentions are to find somebody that will follow up and build on what Charlie’s built already.”
Culture change at UT
The 53-year-old Arkansas native is likely to change the culture within the Texas athletic department, too.
In Brown, the school had a skilled public relations master who excelled under klieg lights. Some have labeled Strong the “anti-Mack.” It’s been widely reported how Strong dislikes the politicking that goes along with these types of high-profile jobs.
He developed an off-and-on relationship with the Louisville media, a group that sprinted to cover Rick Pitino’s basketball program while football got ignored. He once closed media access entirely to spring football practice as punishment because all the Louisville reporters went to the Final Four.
At Florida, Strong could watch Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer handle the daily media circus. Football will always be front and center with the Longhorns, something Strong noted in remarks issued by the school.
“Texas is one of those places that is always on your radar and a program anyone would dream of being a part of because you have a chance to compete on a national level every year,” Strong said. “It’s special because it has such great history, pride, tradition and passion for football.”
The Texas media relations office will probably shield Strong for a little while, mainly because he must get to work.
Per NCAA rules, coaches can start making in-person visits with recruits again Jan. 16. That leaves little time for Strong to assemble his staff, examine what recruits Texas already has and figure out what to do before National Signing Day on Feb. 5.
For example, school officials did not allow the media to meet Strong at the airport around 1:30 p.m. Sunday for the typical photo shoot of the new coach getting off the plane. UT photographer Jim Sigmon captured the moment instead.
Building a staff
Jurich said he assumed Strong would take most of the Louisville staff with him to Texas. However, two sources told the American-Statesman that Strong will not be allowed to bring defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Clint Hurtt, who ran afoul of NCAA rules and cannot recruit until spring 2014 as a result.
Hurtt was given the NCAA’s “show-cause” penalty, which means any new school would have to go before the NCAA Committee on Infractions and explain why it wants to hire the coach. Most schools avoid that because of the bad publicity.
“He will not be joining the staff,” UT athletic director Steve Patterson said. “I wouldn’t characterize it as a demand, but it’s hard to walk into a new school with a show-cause.”
Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, who played defensive back at Texas, might wait and see if he will become a candidate for the now-vacant head coaching job at Louisville.
Recruiting experts believe Strong should either retain some UT assistants or find new ones connected to the state’s high school coaches. Strong has spent the bulk of his coaching career in the Southeast, mostly in Florida. His specialty is recruiting Miami, but the Louisville staff had been making a push into the Florida Panhandle recently.
Two recruits from Jacksonville, Fla., pulled their commitments from Louisville and will now stay close to home in the wake of Strong’s move to Texas, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported Sunday afternoon.
Florida players might feel that going to Kentucky is one thing but going to Texas is something else entirely.
“The difference between Louisville and Texas, well, it’s hard to even grasp the differences,” said Bobby Burton, editor of 247sports.com. “You’re going from one of the smallest in-state recruiting populations to perhaps the very largest.”
For the time being, Strong could — and fans would argue should — be holed up in the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletics Center focused on football.
Teams always take on the personality of the head coach. Strong is a no-nonsense, somewhat old-school football coach who wants hard-nosed, physical players. Some recruiting experts believe Strong, who can bench press 350 pounds, will weed out weaker players and boost the team’s overall athleticism.
“That’s his M.O.,” CardinalSports.com editor Howie Lindsey said. “That’s just who he is.”
Whether the coach is black, white or burnt orange, Texas fans just want a winner.