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Jones: Hiring Charlie Strong is USF AD Mark Harlan's biggest decision; will it be his best?

USF football coach Charlie Strong smiles and points to a member of the media during a news conference Thursday at the Marshall Student Center. [ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times]
USF football coach Charlie Strong smiles and points to a member of the media during a news conference Thursday at the Marshall Student Center. [ANDRES LEIVA | Times]
Published Dec. 16, 2016

TAMPA — Thursday was a big day for the University of South Florida. It introduced a head football coach, a hire that will have a profound impact on the school for years to come.

But Thursday was also a really big deal for someone else: USF athletic director Mark Harlan. His future at the school might hinge on this hire, too.

You see, this was Harlan's first really big hire as an AD.

He helped UCLA hire a football coach (Jim Mora Jr.) and a basketball coach (Steve Alford). And, yes, he hired a men's basketball coach at USF. Then again, that was messy, and we're still not sure what the Bulls have in Orlando Antigua.

All that was nothing compared to this one.

First, it's football. Furthermore, Harlan is the man now. The boss. This was his call. And he had to a hire a football coach to replace a very good football coach at a critical time for the program.

How did Harlan do?

Check back in two years.

But give him credit. He had an opening. He had what he believed was an ideal candidate. And he acted quickly, hiring Charlie Strong before anyone else could. And someone would have.

"It's terrific,'' Harlan said. "We targeted him from the very beginning. Got a chance to get him very early. We realized his passion for the university was very high. Obviously very, very excited to have Coach Strong here.''

Former coach Willie Taggart had barely traded in his USF green for Oregon green before Harlan zeroed in on Strong.

Harlan used a search committee but just to make sure he wasn't overlooking anything. And, as any good athletic director does, he always has a short list of coaching replacements.

But Harlan's official list for this opening was a list of one. He wouldn't say whether he talked to other candidates, but you get the sense Strong was the lone target. That's why Harlan better be right.

MORE: No reason USF can't compete for championships every year, Charlie Strong says.

"These things always take a life of their own,'' Harlan said. "I would say that we were really laser-focused from the moment Willie told me he was taking the job at Oregon, (and) I figured that was a possibility. So we had a plan. We executed the plan, but we're just thrilled where we are today.''

You can debate whether Strong will be good at USF. His time at Louisville (37-15) suggests yes. His time at Texas (16-21) raises doubt.

Strong appears to have the right priorities. As far as we know, he runs a clean program and places more emphasis on the classroom and study hall than the football field and film room.

"(He) cares about the person, which is the DNA of our department,'' Harlan said.

For Harlan, he has a list of traits he wants in a head coach, and Strong checked off on each.

"It was a perfect alignment of both,'' Harlan said. "And when that happens and you can get that guy, that's when you can feel good about it.''

Harlan also gets a ton of credit for making it work financially. He worked out a deal that has Texas, Strong's former employer, paying a good chunk of Strong's salary for now.

Plus, knowing the possibility exists that Strong could use USF as a stepping-stone to a bigger job in a couple of years, Harlan loaded up incentives in Strong's five-year, $9.8 million contract to entice him into staying. For instance, there's a $2.5 million guarantee from the USF Foundation, a school fundraising arm, if Strong sticks around for a third year.

Smart.

"At the end,'' Harlan said, "we reached a place that was good for both parties.''

There are plenty of things Harlan needs to sort out in the next couple of years. The men's basketball program needs to be fixed. There are still hopes of getting into a Power Five conference. And Strong heated up talk Thursday of an on-campus football stadium. Plus, there is all kinds of behind-the-scenes stuff that an athletic director does when he oversees 19 teams.

But make no mistake, Thursday was the biggest day in the career of Mark Harlan.