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As swoon continues, time for USF fans to exhale

Bulls coach Charlie Strong's annual salary is set to escalate in 2019
USF coach Charlie Strong hopes to end a three-game losing streak Saturday at Temple. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published Nov. 15, 2018

USF's steely-eyed second-year football coach is navigating a meteorological maelstrom these days.

For the second weekend in a row, Charlie Strong is bracing his team for a road game in frigid weather, even as a mid-November depression swirls back home.

Strong is gonna be forced to shake up his staff. … The school can't afford to pay him going forward. … If he does stay, he'll have to renegotiate his deal.

With last weekend's 35-23 loss at Cincinnati, the Bulls (7-3, 3-3) were formally eliminated from American Athletic Conference title contention, the earliest they have been bounced since 2014.

A loss Saturday afternoon against Temple in south Philly would clinch the program's first four-game losing streak since Willie Taggart's woeful inaugural season a half-decade ago. Penalties and poor tackling have become chronic; the Bulls' lack of size and seasoning at critical spots have been exploited.

In other news, Lee Corso and Co. are camping out at UCF this weekend. Clearly, the Bulls can't afford to stay down this road.

But they can afford Strong for next season, despite the clamor you may be hearing to the contrary.

Upon hiring Strong in December 2016, shortly after his dismissal from Texas, USF administrators designed his deal so he'd still receive $9 million of the $10 million the Longhorns owed him for 2017 and '18.

As a result, the Bulls had to pay him only $1 million ($500,000 base salary, $500,000 in other compensation) the first two years.

RELATED: Strong's USF contract: 5 years, $9.8 million

But starting in 2019, Texas' financial obligation to Strong ceases, and his USF salary jumps to $2.5 million.

And while the athletic program isn't exactly swimming in money (the men's basketball team flew commercial out of Orlando for this week's Jamaica Classic), it can afford to pay Strong.

The designers of the deal, including former athletic director Mark Harlan, drew it up with eyes wide open, presuming Strong would be around in Year 3.

But few could've presumed in Year 2, a hearty chunk of the fan base would have graduated from disillusioned to disgusted.

"Frustration continues to build," Strong said Monday.

All of which calls for a collective deep breath, and an exhortation to step away from the steaming pile of speculation.

In the wake of consecutive seasons of double-digit victories, Bulls fans are rightfully disappointed with 7-3, not to mention USF's bleak bowl prospects. And Strong's recent suggestion that the Bulls lack depth comes off as flimsy, particularly considering how effectively Strong and Taggart recruited in recent years.

Additionally, his steady refrain of the Bulls not being ready to play in a given week falls on he and his staff. Such matters must, and will, be addressed.

Harlan's successor, Michael Kelly, will sit down with Strong at season's end — as he intends to do annually with all of his head coaches — to mutually evaluate the program and discuss improvements going forward.

With the season's bustle behind them, they'll go over the ebbs and flows of 2018: the youth, the injuries, the defensive frailties (121st in Division I-A against the run), the offensive inconsistency (34 total second-half points in the last three games).

Kelly might seek assurance that 2018 was a hiccup and not a harbinger. Suggestions may be floated, short-term goals may be established.

Then, if Strong believes a staff shakeup is needed, Strong himself will make the call. And the Bulls will begin working in earnest toward 2019, when he'll still be calling the shots.

Granted, a possible six-game skid to end the season is terrible optics, but the mere notion of canning a coach with 17 wins in two years is even worse.

Of the 31 Division I-A coaches fired or forced out in the last two years, only five were dismissed after posting winning records in their last season. And three of those (Baylor's Art Briles, Minnesota's Tracy Claeys, Arizona's Rich Rodriguez) were dismissed for incidents connected to allegations of sexual assault or harassment.

Tampa isn't Tuscaloosa; there are graduate students still walking USF's campus who would've relinquished their parking pass for a 7-6 record as freshmen. The current skid, and all the speculation accompanying it, is just a storm the Bulls must weather.

Break out the ponchos.

Put away the panic.

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

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