TAMPA —Went to USF practice the other day. The Bulls were preparing for a return to the Birmingham Bowl, where Saturday they will meet Texas Tech. I think I’ll start my watch party with pigs in a blanket.
Anyway, the Bulls are getting ready. So is their head coach.
"A lot of coaches have left," USF sophomore receiver Darnell Salomon said. "I’m glad he’s staying with us."
It turns out that Strong wasn’t one-and-done after coaching the Bulls to a 9-2 season. It wasn’t altogether his choice. Maybe too many schools said too old, too defense, too Texas toast.
Frankly, I think it’s ridiculous that this trained professional did not have a new seat when the music stopped. I mean, Florida didn’t so much as phone Charlie. Tennessee did everything but hold a séance to gauge General Neyland’s interest. Florida State blew right by Strong on its way to Willie Taggart, who Strong replaced at USF. Sorry, Charlie.
"I’m not bitter," Strong said. "I have a great job and we have a vision of where we want to be."
Hey, it’s USF’s gain. It gets at least another year of Strong. I think this would have been a good deal for USF even if Strong had come and gone in one season.
Strong delivered highly competent football. No, the Bulls didn’t have a perfect season or win that elusive conference championship. And it seemed small solace that Strong and the Bulls played in what might have been the most entertaining game of 2017, that loss at UCF. It stung.
Next season now becomes a chance for Strong to coach his team, not Taggart’s team. It’s a chance for him to show his recruiting skills, and USF apparently did well in the early signing period. No four-star talent, but plenty of threes.
Now: Who’s going to play quarterback?
Quinton Flowers, the greatest player in USF history, finishes his college career today, and might go out in a blaze of touchdowns to outlast Texas Tech’s high-scoring attack.
"Then people will wonder who’s next," Strong said.
So will he.
A 9-2 season and a Birmingham Bowl might not be the ticket to make this a great. How many times can you say that not even Alabama has ever won consecutive Birmingham Bowls?
I bet Strong would have loved to have played in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, name and all, if the opponent had been (technically ineligible) Florida State. Tell me Strong and USF wouldn’t have loved a crack at the team Taggart is inheriting.
But Saturday can be jump start to next season, an opportunity for Strong to sell his kind of team to USF’s arms-folded fans. Turn out another 9- or 10-win season and Strong’s stock will rise again, along with USF’s profile. Some of Strong’s returning players have already bought in.
"We can actually be better than this year," Salomon said.
"You like to take the season and build on it," Strong said of today’s game. "But you still have to sell it. When you’re talking about a competing against a Power Five, who have some of the things that we don’t have, it’s a big sell."
It would not hurt, at all, if USF higher-ups began putting a shovel to planned improvements, like a standalone football facility or an indoor field or an outdoor on-campus stadium. It’s not about talk anymore.
This wasn’t moving season. Maybe Charlie Strong was boxed out. But don’t blame him if he doesn’t act like he has been sentenced to USF or something. Bring on Birmingham.
"It gives you a jump start to go into winter conditioning," Strong said. "When you go into it, you have a whole new team, new expectations, new challenges. We’ve just got to take advantage of it."
Bring on recruiting, too.
"You’ve got to convince them somehow that, hey, we have a vision here and we need to get there," Strong said.
By the way, the Bad Boy Mowers company is based in Batesville, Ark. — Strong’s hometown.
"Hey, I know those guys," Strong said with a grin.
He’ll take Birmingham. He’ll take USF. And USF should be glad.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly