A Strong Showing for Charlie

Today’s the day when Florida Gator fans from Pahokee to Portland to all points in between ask the question: what if?

What if, last October 17, Florida had played well enough to score more than a measly 17 points, which would have been enough to beat the Georgia Bulldogs that Saturday, helping propel the Gators to an undefeated regular season and a date with Alabama for the SEC title?

What if, riding that wave of emotion and momentum, Florida rolled over Alabama to win the SEC championship while simultaneously holding a 13-0 record?

What if, given all that, Florida was then one of the two teams playing tonight in the BCS National Championship Game?

Yeah, what if?

Well, allow me to add one more what if to this mix.

What if Charlie Strong, and not Will Muschamp, was UF’s head coach today?

If that were the case, perhaps Gator fans wouldn’t be playing the what if game today. If that were the case, perhaps Gator fans would be settling in to watch their team play for a national championship tonight.

Maybe you were like me, watching the Sugar Bowl last Wednesday night, and practically scratching a bald spot on your scalp wondering how the Florida Gators let Charlie Strong get away.

I know that the Sugar Bowl was just one game, but what a lopsided one game Charlie Strong’s Louisville Cardinals made it over Will Muschamp’s Florida Gators. The final score was 33-23, but if you didn’t see the game then don’t let the 10-point spread deceive you into thinking it was close. Florida was outplayed offensively, defensively, on special teams and, most notably, they were thoroughly and decisively outcoached.

If you didn’t know better, you’d have thought Louisville was the SEC power, and Florida was the Big East wannabe. Charlie Strong had Louisville playing that well, and Will Muschamp had Florida playing that poorly.

So how did he get away?

How did Charlie Strong, a guy whose first coaching job was as a graduate assistant for the Florida Gators back in 1983, back in the Charley Pell era, get away?

I’ll tell you how he got away. I’ll tell you how he got away from Florida, from Tennessee, from Mississippi State and from so many other schools who saw this masterful defensive mind, this elite recruiter, this skilled and confident leader … and yet didn’t hire him as a head coach.

Charlie Strong got away from all of them, and more, because he came as a packaged deal. He came as a black man with a white wife.

Charlie and I have talked about this, more than once.

A few years ago, when he was Florida’s defensive coordinator, he came to Cocoa Beach to speak to the Gator boosters here. Afterward, he and I went off to a quiet place and talked. And talked and talked and talked.

For the first time, Charlie really opened up about how he believed – knew, in fact – that being in an interracial marriage was what was holding him back. Charlie had only intimated this in the past, offering but a few concrete thoughts. But now he was going on the record, and true to his name, he was going strong.

Or so I thought.

About a half hour after I left him, just as I was hovering over my laptop, my cell phone rang. It was Charlie, asking me not to write the things he had shared with me.

“It’s not going to do any good, Peter,” he said. “It’s not going to change things. Please take it all off the record.”

So I did.

Instead, I wrote it from my perspective – that Charlie Strong wasn’t getting a fair shot to be a head coach at a big-time program because he was a black man married to a white woman. And what made it worse is that Charlie was often the guy colleges would bring in, just to show that they interviewed a minority candidate, when they had no intention to hire him.

Often, though, he got no phone calls.

I’ll never forget the look on Charlie Strong’s face when he heard that Dan Mullen got the Mississippi State head coaching job back in December of 2008. Mullen was Florida’s offensive coordinator at the time and Strong was the defensive coordinator. Strong was happy for Mullen. But Mullen was 12 years his junior without nearly the résumé.

Again, Charlie had started at Florida as a GA in 1983, where he also earned a Master’s degree. Later in the ’80s, he was Florida’s outside linebackers coach. After a one-year stint at Ole Miss, he joined Steve Spurrier in the early ’90s, coaching the defensive tackles. He also coached for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame in the mid-’90s. In 1999, he became the first black man to hold a coordinators job in the SEC, when he was named defensive coordinator at South Carolina. He came back to Florida in 2002, this time as defensive coordinator, a position he held through the 2009 season, becoming the only coach Urban Meyer retained from Ron Zook’s staff when Meyer became the head coach in 2005. In fact, Strong was UF’s interim head coach for the 2004 Peach Bowl game, which Florida lost to Miami.

People who knew football knew how good Charlie Strong was, and that he was destined to be an outstanding head coach. Way back in 2000, Lou Holtz was raving about him, telling anybody who’d listen, “Charlie Strong should be a head coach.”

About a month after Dan Mullen got the Mississippi State job, Charlie and I talked down in Miami, several days before he helped Urban Meyer and the Gators win a national championship. I asked him how many college football programs had contacted him about openings? Charlie raised his right hand and pressed his index finger to his thumb, making the sign of a zero.

“Nobody?” I asked, incredulous. “Nobody’s contacted you?”

Charlie just kept his index finger pressed against his thumb, shaking the gesture a couple of times for emphasis.

Zero.

I didn’t know what to say. I stumbled out a stupid comment that maybe he needed to promote himself more. Charlie was kind with me, but firm.

“I am at the University of Florida,” he said. “Everybody knows who I am. I don’t need anyone to market me. I’ve coached for Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. Who else do I need to coach for?”

Is it the way he interviews, I suggested, again stupidly.

“Before I ever went to an interview,” he told me, “I sat down with Lou Holtz for like six hours, and we just grinded out the interview process. ‘This is what they’re going to ask you. No need to answer that way.’ So I’ve done four or five interviews with Lou Holtz. I would think he’d know how to get a coaching job.”

I could see the hurt in his eyes, and it hurt me.

He was 48 at the time, old enough to have remembered seeing the KKK marching down the street when he was a boy growing up in Arkansas. Yet, this was also on Jan. 6, 2009, when the president-elect was a biracial man – Barack Obama.

He told me that day that I’d been writing as long as he’d been coaching

“You know the issue,” he said. “You know what’s going on. Just write about it instead of asking me.”

Later that week in the national championship game, Charlie Strong’s Gator defense held Oklahoma, which at the time had the highest-scoring offense in college football history, to 14 points, which was a staggering 40 points below what the Sooners had averaged that season.

Later that year was when Charlie opened up to me in Cocoa Beach, and then called my cell phone a half hour later to go off the record.

I felt for him. I had met his wife, Vicki, a couple of times, and found her to be just a lovely, sweet woman, and a wonderful mother. We sat at the same table once at Ron Zook’s house, when Zook was Florida’s head coach and he had some of us from the media over for a barbecue. When you saw Charlie and Vicki together you didn’t see color, you saw a happy couple committed to their children; a hard-working husband and father and a devoted wife and mother.

There’s a great video snippet on the Internet from last Wednesday night’s Sugar Bowl, during all the postgame celebrating, when you see Charlie with his two daughters, who’d gotten to him first on the field. Then Charlie sees Vicki, and the way his face lights up, and how he rushes to embrace her, is just priceless.

That a human being could have a problem with that, just because he’s black and she’s white is beyond me. And that there were universities who wouldn’t hire him as their head football coach simply because of that is even further beyond me.

I’m not saying Florida was definitely one of those schools. Maybe the timing to hire Charlie Strong as the Gators head coach never was right. But I am saying that Charlie Strong is a better defensive coordinator, a better head coach and a better recruiter than Will Muschamp. And somehow, some way, a guy who first started coaching at UF 30 years ago got away.

I’m also saying that there are more than a handful of other universities who interviewed him and could’ve hired him, and didn’t.

So Florida and other schools watch now as Charlie Strong builds a great program at Louisville. By the way, he’s done so with 34 players on the current roster from the state of Florida – the most notable being the Cardinals’ sensational quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. Two days after beating Florida in New Orleans, Strong got a commitment from another elite Florida prep player, defensive end De’Asian Richardson, a 6-foot-3, 285-pound, four-star recruit, according to Rivals.com. Richardson will head to Louisville straight from Gator country – i.e. Jacksonville.

Two of Strong’s assistant coaches are former Gator assistants – Vance Bedford and Kenny Carter. Another assistant, Clint Hurtt, is a former University of Miami assistant.

He’s got it going on, which doesn’t surprise a whole lot of folks. It reminds me of what former NFL coach Tony Dungy told Pat Forde, who was then at ESPN.com, when Louisville hired Charlie Strong on December 9, 2009.

“When they see what he can do,” Dungy predicted, “you’re probably going to have a lot of people disappointed they didn’t hire him sooner.”

Or that they didn’t hire him at all.

Now, though, they’d like to have him.

Tennessee came calling a few weeks ago, and Charlie Strong said thanks, but no thanks. He’s staying at Louisville, the school that gave him a chance. He then signed a 7-year contract extension. Later, he told his team that there was no way he could leave them.

“I told our players I love them so much and I respect them so much, and the reason why I did not go take that job, because I know I have a football team that is behind me 100 percent,” he said. “I’m in the position I’m in right now because of what they did, and I told them that. I said, ‘Guys, people are calling me just because of what you’ve done — nothing I’ve done.’ “

His players, of course, love him for that. That was apparent in the way they played for him in the Sugar Bowl.

What was interesting, though, was how many Florida Gator players sought out Charlie Strong after that loss to congratulate him. Let’s not forget that those players were recruited to UF by Strong. One by one, during the postgame celebration, they sought him and fought through a crowd of people to give him a hug, oblivious to the color difference – their orange and blue to Strong’s red and black.

As they hugged the victorious coach after perhaps the biggest upset of any of these bowl games, you have to wonder how many of those players, like a lot of Gator fans, were wondering: what if?

(6) Comments

  • Charley Hester
    01 May 2013

    Thanks for once again having the courage to tell it like it is! Great story, as we who follow you always expect.

  • Sandy Wilson
    09 Sep 2013

    An ‘up’ kid with cancer story always beats a ‘down’ racial story.

  • Charlie Greene
    09 Sep 2013

    The strangest part to me is how colleges recruit players who have white girlfriends and players that eventually marry white women before they graduate and have no problem with that.
    I’m glad though that Louisville, a major college, gave him a chance to coach because of his ability and not the color his wife is.

  • Charles "Phil" Smith
    10 Sep 2013

    GREAT Article! Many of us knew over the past what the reason was why Charlie Strong was not a Head Coach. I am glad you shared his story. Hope he continues to be a good Head Coach.

  • Joe Byrom
    10 Nov 2013

    I’ve been saying all along that Charlie Strong should have been the Gators Head Coach! The first time Urban Meyer quit, I didn’t care, because I figured Florida’s Athletic Director Jeremy Foley would let Coach Strong run the team like last time and hopefully give him his fare shot! The Will Muschamp hire was devastating, because Charlie Strong deserved to be Florida’s HC! Now we will probably never get that chance and we could have again created a machine that the SEC West once feared! God doesn’t judge color, only Heart and Actions… Charlie gave Florida all of that and more. Florida needs to give him the same.

  • Ivan Briggs
    21 Jan 2014

    Again tremendous inside story about Charlie Strong, and the reason all of your fans appreciate so very much your writings.

    Thanks again, you are indeed the Peyton Manning of sports writers.

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