NEW ORLEANS — About an hour after the announcement that Florida and Louisville would meet in the Sugar Bowl, Charlie Strong was already thinking about the Gators.
Not about what defensive schemes would work best, or how to attack Florida's stingy defense. Instead, the third-year Louisville coach was thinking about the Gator players he once recruited and coached but would now have to face on the opposite side of the field.
"It's funny when you look at that defense, and the team, you just see so many guys that you're so familiar with," Strong said. "Omar (Hunter) and (Jelani) Jenkins, all those players, Frankie Hammond at wide receiver. And Caleb Sturgis, I thought my man was done but he's still kicking there. You look at (Jon) Bostic and how well he's played. Just looking at a lot of those players, I'm very familiar with them. It's really special to see how they've developed."
For six years as defensive coordinator, then associate head coach/defensive coordinator, Strong was one of the most popular coaches on the Florida staff. Many of the players on Florida's roster are there because of Strong.
"He's the main guy who recruited me to come to Florida," Bostic, a senior linebacker, said. "I've had a good relationship with him ever since high school. A lot of coaches try to sell the program when they are recruiting, but he really wanted to form a relationship with me and be more than just a coach. I knew wherever Charlie went he was going to have success. It was just a matter of time before somebody gave him a chance after all the great things he has done."
Many players often talked with Strong after he left to take the Louisville job, but as time went on the contact lessened. The Sugar Bowl will be bittersweet, they said, because their love and respect for Strong remains, but now he stands between them and finishing out their final season with a 12-1 record.
"He'll have his defense ready, no doubt," Hunter, a senior nose tackle, said. "But I'm looking forward to seeing him. I miss Coach Strong. He's a great guy, first and foremost, and a good coach."
Since he arrived at Louisville, Strong, 52, has quickly made an impact, going 24-14 in three seasons. In his first two seasons he led the Cardinals to 7-6 records, consecutive bowl appearances and their first Big East title since 2006. Louisville is playing in its second BCS bowl and its first Sugar Bowl. None of Strong's Gator players are surprised.
"The players that played with him, we all agreed that when he was here he was a winner," senior safety Josh Evans said. "And we know the way he coached and the way he would get after it with his players that he was going to push them and motivate them to be the best they can be. He was a high-energy guy, too, man. He was a funny coach, but he knew when to take it serious and push us to the next level. I'm looking forward to playing him. It will be very fun."
No matter what happens in the Sugar Bowl, Strong said he's proud of the players he helped recruit and how they've developed.
"I recruited a lot of those guys, and you don't ever — anyone that you've ever recruited, wherever you are, you like to watch them and just watch their success and see how well they are doing," he said. "That's why I pay so much attention to that program. Plus I was a part of it, and I know that Will (Muschamp) has done a great job of coming in and making those players better football players and not only that, just making them grow up into top quality men."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.