ST. PETERSBURG — Charlie Strong worked 27 seasons as an assistant before becoming a head coach this year, so his personality in running his own program is a patchwork of the best attributes of the coaches he learned from.
A few years under Lou Holtz, a few under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, a little gleaned from each along the way.
"It's taking a piece of each one — every coach is cut differently, with different values," the 50-year-old said this week as he prepared Louisville for the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl against Southern Miss tonight at Tropicana Field. "You take a piece from each one and try to relate it to my coaching experience."
Louisville is 6-6, but the progress Strong's team showed in this first year was enough that he shared Big East coach of the year honors with Connecticut's Randy Edsall, who won the conference crown. The Cardinals have won in Strong fashion — dominant, harassing defense, limiting mistakes on offense and winning at the line of scrimmage, which doesn't surprise his old coaches.
"There wasn't any doubt he would be a good coach," said Holtz, who had Strong on his staff at Notre Dame in 1995-96 and will be part of ESPN's broadcast team tonight. "He thought like a head coach, never got real high or real low. We worked well together, and he was a good disciplinarian, but he always had compassion for his players."
Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich plucked Strong from Florida's staff after the Gators had won national titles in 2006 and 2008, with enough talent to have four defensive first-round picks in the past four NFL drafts. Strong wouldn't have the same talent at Louisville, but he saw a situation conducive to winning, even with players who weren't accustomed to success.
"You had 25 seniors, so you felt like when the leadership came and they started realizing they were a good football team, they would have a chance to go win some football games and go to a bowl," Strong said.
Louisville's fans have certainly embraced the hire. The Cardinals' home attendance rose 56 percent this season, in a year in which no other Big East team had a gain of more than 6 percent. They've mobilized this week as well, quickly selling out their allotment of 10,000 seats for tonight's game, where Jurich expects at least 15,000 fans for the program's first bowl appearance in four years.
"He's changed the culture completely," Jurich said. "These kids, they'd run through a brick wall for him. It's amazing to watch the transformation. He pays so much attention to detail, and his organizational skills are second to none. I love how the kids are so accountable to him, yet he is their father figure. That's a special, special feeling. He's been an incredible inspiration to everyone around here."
Jurich points to every detail, from landscaping (planting hedges at the field) to veritable espionage in making sure his kids are going to their classes.
"He's like a spy," Jurich said. "He makes sure those kids are in there. If I was a student-athlete, I'd rather go to jail for 30 days than to miss a class and have Charlie find out."
Strong said he has a great staff of assistant coaches but likes to stay involved with his players on a personal level, the way he did throughout his career as a position coach and coordinator.
"It's the little things you have to stay on top of," Strong said. "It's all about dotting i's and crossing all the t's. It's your program, so you want to be involved in everything that goes on. Everything's delegated, but I want to make sure that I know what's going on."
Louisville had gone 12-1 in 2006 under Bobby Petrino, winning the Big East and beating Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl. But they struggled under coach Steve Kragthorpe, going 1-6 in Big East play in 2008 and 2009. Louisville was picked to finish last in the Big East in the league's preseason media poll this year, and Jurich said he had low expectations entering the season, just because of the transition to a new coach.
"I personally thought we would struggle, and I'm usually an optimistic guy," Jurich said. "We were in every game — Pitt was the only one that ran us out of the building a little bit. (Reaching a bowl) was an unrealistic goal for us, but we set it anyway. Our kids really hung their hat on that and fought and fought."
Of the 23 head coaches hired in the past offseason, Strong matched the best improvement of the lot, taking a 4-8 team to a 6-6 record. Of the 13 coaches who inherited teams that didn't go to bowls last year, only Strong reached a bowl.
"I'm a big believer in fit, and he's truly a tremendous fit at Louisville and in our community," Jurich said. "A lot of times, you do things and they don't work. This one worked."