Louisville faces stiff challenge in convincing coach Charlie Strong to stay

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – They'll be coming for Charlie Strong now. Count on it.

The Southeastern Conference is edging toward four football coaching openings – Arkansas for sure, Kentucky in all probability, with Auburn and Tennessee certainly giving it strong consideration. Strong figures to be a prime candidate for at least one of those jobs, and possibly more.

The Louisville coach beat Cincinnati's Butch Jones Friday night in a game that could be called the Arkansas Derby. Both third-year coaches have been in the speculation rotation regarding the Razorbacks job. Strong, an Arkansas native, beat Jones for the first time to improve to 8-0. Advantage, Charlie.

The Louisville coach is a rising star in the profession, in large part because he's surrounded himself with rising stars on the field. Strong has recruited a young, precocious, gifted and inconsistent but intriguing team that remains unbeaten – occasionally in spite of itself. The Cardinals withstood the Bearcats 34-31 in overtime on a raw, rainy, blustery Friday night – their fifth victory by a touchdown or less.

"Each week is going to be like this," Strong said, "so prepare yourself for it."

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Strong can prepare himself for increasing questions about where he'll be working next season. Jim Rome asked him on his radio show recently, and Strong said he isn't going anywhere. It sounded convincing – but every coach tries to sound convincing in October. We'll revisit his commitment level in December.

By then, a Louisville team powered by excellent sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater could be 12-0. At the very least, winning this game sharpened focus on the season finale Nov. 29 against fellow unbeaten Rutgers. Winner will probably be Big East champion and Orange Bowl-bound.

Problem is, 12-0 in the Big East isn't likely to get anyone into the national championship conversation. Even one-loss teams from the other major conferences will almost assuredly get stronger consideration than a Big East unbeaten. That is the reality Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich faces as he tries once again to keep a successful coach in town.

In 15 years at Louisville, Jurich has built a remarkable all-sports athletic program, one capable of moving from Conference USA to the Big East and succeeding wildly. Men's basketball is the recession-proof centerpiece, but women's basketball has reached the Final Four and the baseball team has played in the College World Series in recent years. And then there is football, Jurich's baby.

He hired John L. Smith, who took the Cardinals to five straight bowl games before committing career suicide by leaving for Michigan State. Jurich hired Bobby Petrino, who went 41-9 and won the Orange Bowl before leaving for the Atlanta Falcons and Arkansas and a career-derailing motorcycle ride.

Then Jurich made the one major mistake in a career full of great hires. He chose Tulsa's Steve Kragthorpe to succeed Petrino, and it didn't work. After a 15-21 record in three seasons, Jurich had to fire his friend.

The timing for Louisville's slip couldn't have been worse. With the conference landscape shifting and everyone looking to make a stabilizing upgrade, a prospering football program had become shaky. And so had the Big East, with schools defecting left and right.

When Louisville found itself in a back-room battle with West Virginia for a spot in the Big 12, the Mountaineers won out. West Virginia offered almost no advantages over Louisville other than a more solid football program and a slightly larger fan base. The Cardinals called in every heavy hitter they have, up to and including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a proud alum, but could not pull off the move.

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So now, with the realignment roulette wheel stopped for the time being, the Cardinals are stuck in the Big East. With a coach who will be drawing interest from programs in more powerful leagues.

Jurich has taken extraordinary care of Strong. He gave the career assistant his first head-coaching job at age 49, then a year ago gave him a new seven-year deal with a raise from $1.6 million base salary to $2.3 million. He's shelled out good money for Strong's staff as well. For a guy who entered this season with a 14-12 record, Strong's been treated like royalty.

Is that enough to secure Strong's loyalty for the long haul? Or does loyalty have limitations commensurate with the limitations that come with Big East membership?

There were reports this week that a proposed seventh BCS bowl is in danger of being scrapped – and a seventh BCS bowl is a very important thing to Big East members. Without it, the league could be further marginalized. A lucrative new TV contract would certainly help, too, and negotiations are ongoing in that area.

The irony here is that Strong could stay in Louisville and have a better team in 2013 than any of the SEC schools who may be making a change. The Cardinals are good now but potentially great next year, thanks to Strong's success on the recruiting trail. They started just four seniors Friday night, and nine sophomores.

The crown jewel is Bridgewater, a five-star recruit who spurned Miami, LSU and several other more established schools to become a Cardinal. Bridgewater overcame a wobbly start in adverse throwing conditions Friday night to pass for a career-high 416 yards, rather handily winning the (mis)matchup with Cincinnati's Munchie Legaux.

Munchie has a colorful name and a glib tongue, and it got him in trouble this week when he told the media he's a better quarterback than Bridgewater. That was poster material in the Louisville locker room leading up to this game.

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There was precious little in Munchie's body of work this season to support that assertion, and even less after the game. Legaux was 13 of 28 passing for 157 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions – the last of which came in overtime and virtually handed the game to Louisville.

Bridgewater is the anti-Munchie, a guy who hews closely to a coach's preferred method of cautious commentary. But when I asked him after the game who the best quarterback on the field was, he did flash a braces-filled smile.

"The 'W' says it all," he said.

It was another cardiac 'W' in a season full of them for the Louisville Cardinals. And while it pushed the program closer to a Big East title and BCS bowl bid, it also pushed Charlie Strong further up the desirability scale for other schools looking to make a coaching change.

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