PALM HARBOR — For former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, life as a first-time head coach is good.
"It's been everything I expected," he said Friday afternoon at the Black Coaches and Administrators national convention at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club. "There haven't been many curveballs."
Strong, 49, left the Gators to take over at Louisville, a school known first and foremost for college basketball and a city whose identity is inextricably linked to thoroughbred racing (yes, he went to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby last month), but has been thrilled to see "a lot of passion, a lot of enthusiasm" for football. And for him.
But he realizes, as one of the few African-American head coaches at a school that plays in a Bowl Championship Series conference (the Big East), he carries some added pressure to produce.
"You can't let that affect you," he said. "The only thing you can do is do your job. You coach, you have good assistant coaches, and you get your players to play well. When you take over a program, you want to get your players to become better people, better students and better football players. That's what you're looking for."
BCA president Dave Leitao, the former men's basketball coach at Virginia now working for ESPN, challenged the 5,500-member organization to support coaches such as Strong, Joker Phillips (Kentucky), Mike London (Virginia) and Randy Shannon (Miami).
"In the late '70s and early '80s, there were very few black head coaches in college basketball and the torch was passed to John Thompson and John Chaney and Nolan Richardson, and they became the reason why the doors opened for a lot of other people," Leitao said. "Part of what's going on today is a repeat of that, but it's in the sport of football.
"Whether it's Kevin Sumlin (Houston) or Charlie Strong or Mike (London), the more they win and the better they do, the more opportunities there will be in all of athletics, but particularly in football. Our challenge as a body is to support them in any way we can."
Heartfelt message: The guest speaker at Friday's luncheon was Dr. Cedric Bright, who looked to shed light on a health gap involving African-American athletes. He cited statistics that show that an athlete dies from sudden cardiac arrest every three days, 90 percent of whom are male and of that group, more than half are black.
Bright, a primary care physician who also teaches at Duke, said coaches need to have medical equipment available and the training to use it. They also need to take care of themselves, beginning with a screening for modifiable risk factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes.
"If we do the things we know we have to do, we can protect ourselves," Bright said.
Making a statement: Florida A&M football coach Joe Taylor, who adopts a mission statement before each season, said this year's is "Choices still matter." It's on the players' T-shirts, it's on the top of each piece of paper passed around the team.
"I tell them, men do not decide their futures; men decide their habits and habits decide the future," he said.
That's a relief: Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, a former member and chairman of the men's basketball committee, was relieved the NCAA Tournament isn't going to expand to 96 teams.
The field will have a more modest increase from 65 to 68.
"Ninety-six really scared me because of the potential to diminish the importance of the regular season and the conference tournaments," he said.
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.