At his core, Charlie Strong remains unchanged

USF head coach Charlie Strong watches his team run drills during practice at the practice football field at USF in Tampa in July. [CHARLIE KAIJO   |   Times]
USF head coach Charlie Strong watches his team run drills during practice at the practice football field at USF in Tampa in July. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
Published Aug. 25, 2017

TAMPA — USF's newest creature of habit rises well before dawn and jogs the perimeter of the sprawling campus.

Typically, Charlie Strong starts at 52nd Street, on the school's eastern edge. He heads north to Fletcher Avenue, west to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, south to Fowler Avenue and back over to 50th. Sometimes, he'll just do 25 laps around the turf field of the Morsani Practice Complex.

The distance — 5 miles — is the common denominator.

"I've got some good routes," he said. "I just change it up, just so I don't get bored."

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Similarly, Strong's practice attire — pleated khaki shorts and long-sleeve white shirt — hasn't fluctuated once since spring drills commenced. And the preamble's likely to be amended before he'll back off any of the five core values that constitute his off-field philosophy.

"I just think it's consistency in who he is from day to day," Bulls running backs coach Shaun King said.

Yet replay some of the sound bites from Strong's recent day-long visit to the ESPN compound in Bristol, Conn., and a familiar refrain surfaces. Strong was asked repeatedly about his disappointing three-year tenure (16-21 record) at Texas. And each inquiry, regardless of how it was phrased, elicited a similar response.

"I benefited and I grew as a head coach from that experience," Strong told Trey Wingo and Mike Golic on Mike & Mike. "I'm a better football coach now."

RELATED: USF aims high, hires Charlie Strong as head coach

So what's his new constituency to make of that? Did the drubbings inflicted on his Longhorn defenses lead Strong to draft some schematic overhauls? Has the guy who cleaned house in Austin (nine player dismissals in his first eight months on the job) modified his disciplinary stance? Has he embraced short sleeves?

The answers: Probably not, no, and heck no.

"I knew how to coach before I went to Texas, so I was not gonna change who I was coming out of there," Strong said recently from his second-floor office in the Selmon Athletics Center.

"You have a certain way you coach, you have certain principles that you believe in, so don't let Texas change you. You've got to stay who you are."

Alas, this is the paradox surrounding 57-year-old Charles Rene Strong as he embarks on his first season at USF.

RELATED: Jones: Charlie Strong, football program need a cash commitment from USF

He insists he's a better coach, but at his core, he really hasn't changed.

"When you experience disappointment and failure, it causes you to do a self-inventory," said Cedric Golden, veteran columnist at the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman.

"Charlie's a very smart man, very astute, very bright. I'm sure he's looked at some of the things that did not work out here, and he's taken an inventory and figured out what he needs to do to win at South Florida."

• • •

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One can draw a few similarities between Strong's arrivals at USF and Texas, where he became the first African-American head coach of a major sport in that school's history.

At both stops, he naturally brought in his own staffers. He also quickly established his five core values: Be honest. Treat women with respect. No drugs or alcohol. No stealing. No weapons.

"He's really big on his core values," quarterback Quinton Flowers said.

During both his introductory news conferences, he publicly embraced the high school coaches in Texas and Florida, respectively.

And to varying degrees, he cleaned house at both places, sometimes bypassing what many consider due process.

Two of the nine players he dismissed early in his tenure at Texas — receiver Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander — were arrested on sexual assault charges in July 2014. Sanders was acquitted months later, while prosecutors dismissed the case against Meander. Still, neither played for the Longhorns again.

Similarly, Strong already has dismissed three Bulls players — safety Hassan Childs, defensive end Ladarrius Jackson and walk-on tight end Adrian Palmore — only days after their arrests on charges ranging from aggravated assault (Childs) to sexual battery (Jackson) to petit theft (Palmore).

"It's not so much that I didn't give them their due process, it's that when you're part of a team, and each day when you're told that these are standards, there has to be a standard you have to conform to," Strong said.

"They made a decision, so with them making that decision, then I think you have to act on it."

Yet neither core values nor quick discipline, neither recruiting nor racism, had any bearing on Strong's feeble winning percentage (.432) in Austin. His final two signing classes were ranked seventh and 10th, respectively, by 247Sports.

Associated Press

Then-Texas coach Charlie Strong, center, gives instruction to his players during the first half of a 2016 game against TCU in Austin, Texas.

Associated Press

Then-Texas coach Charlie Strong, center, gives instruction to his players during the first half of a 2016 game against TCU in Austin, Texas.

So what went wrong?

Some of his staff hirings never panned out, nor did some of his quarterbacks (Tyrone Swoopes, Jerrod Heard). He occasionally struggled as a game manager.

Chronic breakdowns on special teams were lowlighted in 2016, when Texas allowed blocked PATs to be returned for two-point scores twice in the first four games.

That 24-21 overtime loss at Kansas last November — ending the Jayhawks' 19-game Big 12 losing streak — didn't exactly help.

And at a nationally prominent program such as Texas, every flaw was magnified.

"Everything is a fishbowl," said Lee Hensley, a two-way lineman on Texas' 1963 national title team.

"We had this Longhorn Network, I don't know if that's a plus or a minus. Television's in the dressing rooms, you've got to interview the coach every day, and he's gotta be on TV and this, that and the other.

"It would've helped (Strong) if he could've just coached and hadn't had to be the PR guy that everybody expects you to be over here."

Strong had four offensive coordinators in three seasons at UT, and watched his first two Longhorns teams finish 110th and 92nd in the nation, respectively, in total offense. He also demoted defensive coordinator Vance Bedford last October after the Longhorns gave up 47 points three times in a four-game stretch.

Both Bedford and Shawn Watson, Strong's first Longhorns offensive coordinator, had arrived with him from Louisville. Bedford had been with Strong since 2010, Watson since 2011. Co-offensive coordinator Joe Wickline, demoted with Watson early last season, had worked with Strong at Florida roughly a decade before.

"I thought that (Strong) may have catered too much to his friends," Golden said.

"The Shawn Watson hire was one that really I think kind of set him back, because Shawn was more of a stationary-quarterback … coach. Not as astute with the dual-threat quarterback."

Octavio Jones | Times

Brian Jean-Mary, who was on Charlie Strong's staff at Texas, is with him at USF as the defensive coordinator.

Octavio Jones | Times

Brian Jean-Mary, who was on Charlie Strong's staff at Texas, is with him at USF as the defensive coordinator.

The turnover in faces — and philosophies — ran deeper than the coordinators. By the time Strong was dismissed, only one of his original Texas assistants — Brian Jean-Mary — remained on staff. Jean-Mary now is USF's defensive coordinator.

"One of the biggest things was that (Strong) didn't know where he wanted to go on offense, or he didn't have the right offense," said Chip Brown, an Austin radio host who covers UT for

"In bringing Shawn Watson, and then sticking with Shawn Watson into Year 2, and then demoting him one game into Year 2, it just set everything back."

Strong's UT epilogue has been well-chronicled. Following his dismissal, he worked out, watched Jerry Springer and spent hours absorbed in self-evaluation.

When USF athletic director Mark Harlan began his full-court press on Strong last December, the married dad of three followed his own advice.

"You really learn along the way that things may not always go the way you want 'em to go. But at Texas I said to our players, 'You can't be afraid to go back to the chalkboard,' " Strong said days after his Dec. 11 hiring at USF.

"A lot of times when you're in elementary school, you're afraid when that teacher calls your name to go to that chalkboard because you didn't know what she was gonna ask you. Everybody's looking at you, you're all nervous … but you can't be afraid to go to the chalkboard."

• • •

The ensuing weeks — starting with Saturday night's season opener at San Jose State — will determine whether the coach Bulls fans got from Texas truly has been refurbished or recycled. But some early indicators suggest the former.

For one, there's no longer a question of offensive direction. Strong has embraced Gilbert's veer-and-shoot offense, behind which Texas averaged 491.3 yards (16th nationally) last season. The overwhelming media scrutiny also is gone; Strong even has questioned why USF doesn't attract more reporters to its practices.

And for the litany of Texas' defensive struggles in the Strong era, the unit actually improved when Strong essentially became his own coordinator last October. Only one of its last eight opponents scored more than 40 points.

By all accounts, he has continued with a hands-on defensive role at USF, putting a team that struggled miserably on that side last season (482.0 ypg) through a rigorous 21-practice preseason.

"We did a lot of hitting and stuff," senior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez said. "But, yeah, definitely the most physical and probably the longest camp I've been a part of."

And so a new season commences, and the zealous runner tries to re-gain his stride. In these parts, the hype and humidity never have seemed greater.

More so than ever before, Strong seems conditioned for both.

"When you just think about just the enormous spotlight that you were in at Texas, and then you think about just all the external … atmosphere that you had to deal with, you had to know how to really manage that," Strong said.

"Because there was so much you had to manage — and then you had to go coach. So it made you a better coach because it was just everything that you went through, you sat there like, 'Wow.' So there's nothing that could happen that I'm not familiar with or I haven't been through."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.