Charlie Strong dismissed by USF

The Bulls’ third-year coach finishes his tenure with a 21-16 record.
USF coach Charlie Strong on the sideline during the loss to Memphis at Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 23.
USF coach Charlie Strong on the sideline during the loss to Memphis at Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 23. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Dec. 1, 2019|Updated Dec. 1, 2019

USF has dismissed third-year coach Charlie Strong, whose backsliding program lost 14 of its past 18 games on his watch.

Strong, 59, declined comment. The Tampa Bay Times has learned he met with second-year athletic director Michael Kelly on Saturday, during which time the two discussed the program going forward, then was informed by Kelly of his dismissal Sunday by phone around 2 p.m.

In a school news release, Kelly said a “national” search for Strong’s replacement is underway.

“I would like to thank Coach Strong and his staff for their hard work and contributions to our program,” Kelly said.

“I have tremendous respect for Coach Strong and his dedication to recruiting and developing young men of talent and character and leading them with integrity. He has represented USF with dignity and class and we wish Coach and his family the very best.

“I met with our student-athletes and staff today to inform them of my decision and to make clear USF’s commitment to a championship-caliber football program that recruits and develops student-athletes and provides the resources and support for them to achieve great success in competition, in the classroom and in the community.”

A news conference with Kelly is planned for 11:30 a.m. Monday.

The firing comes less than 48 hours after the Bulls’ season-ending 34-7 loss at UCF, its third in a row to its intrastate rival. USF (4-8, 2-6 American Athletic Conference) will miss a bowl for the first time since 2014.

Strong finishes 21-16 at USF. He was 0-6 vs. ranked opponents, defeating only three teams that finished a season with a winning record.

Exact buyout terms haven’t been specified. His standard state contract calls for USF to pay him 20 weeks of his $500,000 annual base salary if dismissed, but the school indicated last year other buyout terms are included in an agreement between Strong and the USF Foundation, the school’s private fundraising arm.

As a direct-support organization, USF Foundation records are confidential and exempt from disclosure under Florida law.

Strong, in Year 3 of a five-year deal, was set to make $5 million in 2019. Upon his hiring by former athletic director Mark Harlan, he was assured the school ultimately would furnish a football-exclusive facility to bolster recruiting. Plans for the USF Football Center were announced in November 2017, but ground still hasn’t been broken.

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Similarly, Strong provided no ground-breaking moments, such as a conference title. Sunday’s move seemed a foregone conclusion following a mostly embarrassing four-game skid to end the season.

In a 17-7 home loss to Temple on Nov. 7, when ESPN’s broadcast crew betrayed astonishment that Strong refused to use his last two timeouts on the Bulls’ final offensive possession, which began with 2:06 remaining.

“This is a ‘no mas’ situation for the USF Bulls at home, down 10,” ESPN analyst Pat McAfee said.

A week later, the Bulls nearly upset nationally ranked Cincinnati, missing four field goals. That was followed by a humiliating 49-10 home loss to Memphis, when the Bulls established single-game program records for fewest first downs (five) and passing yards (44).

Strong arrived at USF in December 2016, nine days after predecessor Willie Taggart bolted for Oregon. Despite an abysmal three-season tenure (2014-16) at Texas, during which the Longhorns went 16-21, his hiring by Harlan was widely applauded.

Strong’s defensive astuteness and deep-seated Florida recruiting connections, cultivated over four different tenures as a University of Florida assistant, seemed to make him a natural fit for the Bulls. But he was taken aback by USF’s lack of resources, such as a football-exclusive weight room. At least once or twice a month during the season, Strong even paid for catered meals for his team.

And for a time during his tenure, the Bulls ― 11-2 in Taggart’s final season ― barely missed a beat.

Inheriting a veteran roster from Taggart that included fringe Heisman candidate Quinton Flowers, Strong guided USF to a 10-2 record in 2017. Behind graduate-transfer quarterback Blake Barnett, the 2018 team started 7-0 against mostly feeble opposition, but needed fourth-quarter rallies in three of those games.

Then the bottom fell out.

USF lost its final six games, allowing 489.7 yards per contest while averaging only 21.8 points during that skid. Just before a 38-20 Gasparilla Bowl loss to Marshall at Raymond James Stadium, Strong dismissed 11 players. Four assistants were let go shortly thereafter.

Bent on revitalizing the program, Strong overhauled the Bulls’ strength-and-conditioning regimen, even giving raises to some lower-level strength and training staffers out of his own pocket. He also brought in former Gators quarterback Kerwin Bell, who coached Valdosta (Ga.) State to a Division II national title in 2018, to install a spread, pro-style offense.

But USF was humiliated, 49-0, by Wisconsin before an ESPN audience in the Aug. 30 season opener. After a 14-10 loss to rebuilding Georgia Tech the following week, Strong switched quarterbacks.

Its four victories this year came against three Division I-A teams that entered the weekend with a combined record of 13-20, and I-AA South Carolina State. Four times this year, the Bulls were shut out in the first half, and were held without a first-half touchdown in six contests.

“I fully support the decision to reorient our football program in a new direction,” new USF president Steven C. Currall said.

“We are committed to excellence across all aspects of the university, including USF Athletics. I am confident that our search will result in a new head coach who will lead our student-athletes to great achievements on and off the field.”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls