March 29, 2010
New coaches and the schools that love them (for now). Today: Louisville's Charlie Stong.
The Old Guy. Steve Kragthorpe, previously known to insiders and die-hards as the guy who ran Texas A&M's offense when Texas A&M was still relevant in the Big 12 championship picture and later silenced a decade-long death rattle at Tulsa with three winning seasons in four years, will instead go down as the guy who ran an Orange Bowl program with a Heisman-caliber quarterback into the ground. With star quarterback Brian Brohn en tow, Kragthorpe's first team at Louisville was a darkhorse national contender after finishing a field goal away from an undefeated season in 2006, its second near-miss in three years under evil genius Bobby Petrino. Instead, the Cardinals collapsed on defense, barely escaped Middle Tennessee State, lost to Kentucky and Syracuse, and missed a bowl game altogether for the first time in a decade.
Literally nothing good happened here under Kragthorpe -- he was 0-3 against Kentucky, didn't have a single "signature" win, didn't land any stellar recruiting classes, lost promising players to armed robbery with an uzi and being Willie Williams, etc. -- a record so disastrous that even athletic director Tom Jurich was forced to publicly admit "it just didn't seem like the right fit from Day One," which is approximately when many fans began to turn against their new coach: The Cards averaged more than 10,000 empty seats at Papa John's Stadium last year, sinking to 1-7 in the Big East for their second straight finish in the conference cellar. The offense, easily one of the best in the nation the year before Krags' arrival, finished dead last in the conference in '09 at 18 points per game, less than half its average under Petrino three years earlier.
The New Guy. Charlie Strong has worked under Steve Spurrier, Lou Holtz and Urban Meyer, a resumé that helped establish his leading role in the annual "Why hasn't this guy been hired as a head coach yet?" articles for about five years running earlier in the decade, a sentiment that had become so strong by the end of 2008 that Strong himself openly suggested he was being passed over for jobs because of his interracial marriage. The numbers justify the hype: Four of Strong's defenses in his last five years at Florida finished in the top 10 nationally, for teams that won a pair of BCS championships and finished 13-1 last year.
Even as one of the most respected coordinators in the game for the better part of a decade, Strong has no experience as a head coach and little for more than 20 years with the less-than-blue-chip talent pool he inherits at Louisville, a far cry from the blue-chip hauls he could essentially take for granted at Florida and Notre Dame (and, to a lesser extent, South Carolina and Ole Miss). By way of comparison, the Cardinals finished next-to-last -- ahead of only Syracuse -- in total and scoring defense all three seasons of Kragthorpe's tenure, a decline one of his coordinators, Ron English (now head coach at Eastern Michigan after heading the Louisville D in 2008) attributed directly to the sheer lack of numbers on that side of the ball. This is a wholly different sort of "rebuilding" mission than the one Strong faced with the young-but-talented group at Florida that grew from lackluster debutantes in 2007 to the core of the Gators' dominant run over the last two years.
Immediate Impact or Slow Burn? Kragthorpe didn't exactly light the Big East on fire as a recruiter any more than he did in any other respect (those blazes you noticed were probably the Cardinal secondary), striking out on a few hyped junior college prospects and leaving Strong with a fairly steep learning curve even if the program hadn't been wracked by attrition. Strong's first recruiting class is a good start, featuring decommits from Georgia and Florida who specifically cited Strong as their incentive for balking at the SEC and a trio from Miami's Northwestern High, one of many fire hoses of talent in South Florida that Strong can deliver from his old connections as a Gator.
As totally bereft as the Cardinals are of playmakers, though, the most important aspect of Strong's first season will be somehow extending the momentum of his overwhelmingly popular hiring through his first season and first full recruiting class, which ought to be accomplished easily enough with a return to a bowl game (any bowl game) after a three-year absence. With Cincinnati likely returning to earth from the Brian Kelly Nebula where they've been residing since taking over Louisville's title as the league's unlikely football power du jour, the Big East is wide-open to facilitate modest goals -- a .500 record, a low-rent bowl game -- right away, a potential catalyst for some of the old visions of grandeur to come creeping back in Year Two. In the long run, there's nothing holding Louisville back from its brief perch among the conference's perennial contenders except its own inability to get there -- though, if it does, Strong is likely to follow Petrino and John L. Smith on the first train out of town en route to a more marquee job. It will be worth it if he gets there.
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Previously: Mike London, Virginia.