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USF aims high, hires Charlie Strong as head coach

Charlie Strong’s three-year stint at Texas represents the only glaring smudge on an otherwise sparkling resume.
Charlie Strong’s three-year stint at Texas represents the only glaring smudge on an otherwise sparkling resume.
Published Dec. 12, 2016

TAMPA — Roughly a week ago, word got out that normally revered Tampa resident Tony Dungy had put in a good word for upwardly trending USF football coach Willie Taggart for the opening at the University of Oregon, and local teeth gnashed.

Then at dawn Wednesday, Taggart's hiring at Oregon was first reported, and local teeth gritted.

Late Sunday morning, USF confirmed it had hired former Texas and Louisville coach Charlie Strong as Taggart's replacement, and local teeth conjoined into a grin spanning from Fowler to Fletcher avenues.

All in all, it was possibly the most surreal, seismic and socially significant week in the 20-year history of USF football.

"It's been crazy," Bulls middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez said.

A 56-year-old father of three married to a Lakeland High alumnus, Strong reportedly agreed to a five-year contract, though financial details weren't immediately available.

Wife Vicki's desire to return closer to home is believed to have been the deal clincher in negotiations that included a 24-hour weekend visit to Tampa via a Learjet owned by a prominent Texas booster. An introductory press conference is expected for the middle of the week.

"I am humbled that we have a shared commitment to take this university and this football program to even greater heights," Strong said in a USF news release.

By most accounts, he will bring patriarchal tough love, defensive chops, a meticulous attention to detail and intricate Florida recruiting connections to the Bulls.

USF, meanwhile, becomes one of only a handful of program's in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision — and the first in Florida — to hire consecutive African-American head football coaches. Bowling Green and East Carolina are among the others.

Strong also becomes the first Bulls football coach with previous head coaching experience at a Power Five university.

"He combines a drive to win with great integrity and deep, longstanding connections in the state of Florida," USF athletic director Mark Harlan said in a school news release. "The future of USF football is very bright under his direction."

Strong's three-year stint at Texas represents the only glaring smudge on an otherwise sparkling resume spanning 34 years and nine schools. He had eight staff dismissals or demotions in three seasons with the Longhorns, and he was dismissed in November after his third consecutive seven-loss season.

But his initial head coaching job was a resounding success. In four seasons at Louisville, Strong compiled a 37-15 record, winning a share of two Big East Conference titles. His 2012 squad finished 11-2, capped by a 33-23 romp of heavily favored Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

Before that, he established himself as one of the sharpest defensive tacticians in the college game. In the last of his four separate stints at Florida, he served as defensive coordinator for the Gators' 2006 and 2008 national championship teams.

"I have great respect for him," said Bulls interim coach T.J. Weist, who has competed against Strong a handful of times. "He's not just a great coach, but a great man of character. A leader in our profession. I think he's a coach that coaches across the country really respect him."

It's that resume and reputation that have many believing USF might have come out ahead during this extraordinary week.

While Taggart, who won 17 of his last 21 games as USF coach in his four seasons, takes over an Oregon program that played in the College Football Playoff national title game only two seasons ago, USF gets a widely acclaimed coach who might elevate its cachet nationally.

"Pay close attention to the rise of that program!" SEC Network analyst and former LSU All-American Marcus Spears tweeted.

Which is to say, this USF hire had teeth.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.