Saturday, June 23, 2018
Colleges

Fennelly: Lights, camera ... crickets? Charlie Strong adjusts to different fan base at USF

TAMPA — Where are the cameras?

USF football coach Charlie Strong has asked that more than once after one of his open spring practices, a fresh slant for him, intended to let the media in to see his Bulls. But the cameras haven't been there a lot. Um, same goes for sports columnists. Strong wonders: Where is everybody, anyway?

He comes from a short, rough tenure at Texas, a school with a 100,000-seat stadium and its own TV network. Those Longhorn Network cameras were always there. As for the rest of the cameras, they were outside looking in. Closed spring workouts.

"Too many cameras," Strong said, laughing, as he sat in his office at the Selmon Athletic Center. "Austin, it was too much. … I've never opened practices like this before. I couldn't do it in Austin because everybody would have critiqued every player on every play — 'This guy is no good.' "

USF holds its spring game Saturday at Corbett Stadium, the school's on-campus … soccer facility. There is Texas, and there is USF.

And there is Strong, who replaced Willie Taggart after Taggart rode an 11-2 breakout season all the way to Oregon.

"We're the only college show in town," Strong said. "I'm just wondering: How do we get the fans on board? How do we get this town on board?"

It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside "Why don't we go the beach instead?"

But here's a tip:

Keep winning.

This isn't Austin. This isn't Gainesville, where Strong has worked as an assistant for Florida more than once. On the other hand, what Strong inherits from Taggart isn't Louisville, where Strong went in and flipped in three years, from 7-6 in his first season as head coach to 11-2 and a Sugar Bowl win over Florida in his third. Then it was on to Texas. Now it's back down to USF.

Taggart has already flipped USF.

Strong needs to keep it flipped.

He steps into a team that ended last season nationally ranked and will enter this season nationally ranked. A look at the USF schedule tells us that Strong's team, armed with quarterback Quinton Flowers, should be favored in every game it plays. Period.

"There's no grace period," Strong said. "Me, personally, I don't want a grace period."

Your wish is granted.

There is still so much out there for USF. The school has never played for a conference championship, much less won one. It is still looking for its first New Year's Day bowl game. And there has never been sustained excellence. That's on the radar. In fact, it's in demand.

Taggart built a winning culture. Strong is out to add to it. His way. He has instilled precision to USF drills. Meetings begin when they are supposed to begin. Strong closely watches players come to the practice field.

"I want them running when they hit the grass," he said.

He knows he needs to hit the ground running. He senses a team with something to prove, especially on defense, the weak link last season. Strong has hovered over the defense this spring when not watching Flowers air it out, more vertical, less running from the sensational Q, more passing.

"There are some real goals out there," Strong said. "You've won 11 (games). It's about sustaining. You can't go 7-6 with this (talent)."

Maybe Strong has something to prove, too.

"I had success at Louisville, so I know how to coach and win," he said. "And then at Texas I didn't. Now I get another opportunity. A lot of people don't get another opportunity. You take advantage of it."

By the way, he doesn't think he left the cupboard bare when he was dismissed by Texas. The new coach, Tom Herman, has some talented Strong recruits to work with.

"I baked the cake," Strong said. "I feel the same way here, with what Willie left. He left me a good football team."

USF season ticket sales are up compared to this time last year. Strong is doing interviews right and left. And those spring practices, all of them were open to media. Some fall practices will be like that, too.

"Whatever I need to do, I'll do it," Strong said. "I want our guys to get the recognition. … We don't want to be second fiddle. We don't have to be second fiddle."

We've heard that tune fall on deaf ears before in this fickle, easily distracted sports town. Charlie Strong wants to make USF so good for so long that there will be cameras everywhere, so many that he'll have to shut them out of practice. USF football could use a problem like that.

"You got to win," Strong said. "People follow winners."

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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