|AD Tom Jurich says he'll make Charlie Strong the highest paid coach to keep him at Louisville. (US Presswire)|
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- After defeating Cincinnati 34-31 in overtime on Friday night, Louisville is 8-0 for the first time since Bobby Petrino scuttled on the sideline.
That's a great thing for Louisville -- and a scary thing for Louisville. The coach of an 8-0 football team is a hot commodity, and this particular 8-0 coach's name is Charlie Strong. While the surly Petrino did it with offensive smoke and mirrors, Strong does it with charm and determination, recruiting at rarely seen levels in the Big East -- raiding the talent-rich Sunshine State for roughly one-third of his roster -- and instilling blue-collar toughness in his Florida-fast team.
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The Cardinals beat Cincinnati on Friday night because they were tougher than Cincinnati. They started poorly, star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater strangely off his game. Third in the country in passing accuracy at 73.4 percent coming into the game, Bridgewater struggled to a 6-for-19 start. Receivers weren't helping Bridgewater, and it was raining, and on the other side of the ball the Louisville defense was letting Cincinnati run all over the field.
And then the crowd -- the home crowd -- started hooting. They were more frustrated than angry, but the noise they made was unsupportive, unproductive.
When the third quarter ended, Louisville's defensive players walked to the other end of the field. The Louisville sideline also was lethargic. Cincinnati, meanwhile, was going nuts. Cincinnati could sense something happening here, and the Bearcats' offensive players sprinted to the other end of the field. Cincinnati's sideline was animated, too.
Then the fourth quarter started, and Louisville was just ... tougher. The Cardinals forced a punt, then drove 93 yards for the tying touchdown. They held again, and drove 71 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Cincinnati scored to force overtime, but the Cardinals were done fooling around. They picked off Bearcats quarterback Munchie Legaux in the end zone, then won it on John Wallace's 30-yard field goal.
And so Louisville is 8-0 for the first time since Bobby Petrino used an 8-0 start in 2006 to take another job. And it's scary, because Charlie Strong is a son of the South -- a native of Arkansas who has worked at four SEC schools -- and three big-time SEC schools probably are about to have openings. One of them definitely is Arkansas. The others are likely to be Tennessee and Auburn.
And there's Charlie Strong. The hottest coach in the country. At Louisville.
It should be scary, but Louisville athletics director Tom Jurich doesn't look scared. He doesn't sound scared, either. This I know, because I asked him. I found Jurich before the game and asked him why Strong wouldn't leave Louisville after this season.
"One," Jurich said, "he has a great contract."
True enough. I'd heard Strong is one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in the country. I asked Jurich if that was true.
"It is," Jurich said. "And we'll make him No. 1 if we have to."
This is where I did something I never do. I asked Jurich to repeat what he just said, knowing full well he could change his answer. But the answer I heard -- We'll make him No. 1 if we have to -- didn't make sense. So, um, what did you say, Tom?
"I said we'll make him [number] one if we have to."
Jurich has other reasons to believe in Strong, who he doesn't see as a mercenary. He sees Strong as a family man whose children are embedded in local schools. And he sees Strong as a loyal man who knows Jurich gave him a BCS program to run when nobody else would.
"He likes it here, and he has a boss who values him," Jurich said. "I gave him his first chance. He was kicked in the teeth for 26 years."
That was before the game. During the game? Strong kicked Cincinnati in the teeth, stoking his players into a frenzy with fire and anger -- "I was pissed off," Strong said -- while trusting in Bridgewater, who rewarded Strong's faith with a sensational second half. After that 6-for-19 start, Bridgewater completed 18 of his last 22 passes for 290 yards. All told he threw for 416 yards, a career day for one of the best sophomore quarterbacks in the country.
Bridgewater had help getting those numbers. Damian Copeland stretched out for a 51-yard diving catch in the third quarter, and DeVante Parker turned a 15-yard pattern into a 65-yard touchdown with a hellacious move at midfield and then a whole lot of speed.
And then at the end Strong had help from Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, who became the latest coach to call a gotcha timeout an instant before a game-deciding field goal -- and have it backfire. Already this season two NFL teams (the Dolphins against the Jets in September, and the Raiders against Atlanta this month) have seen that move cost them games, and it happened Friday night to Jones when his timeout nullified Louisville's botched snap. Instead of going to a second overtime, Louisville got a second chance at the snap -- and this time, the snap was true. So was the kick. Wallace drilled the 30-yard field goal, and Louisville escaped.
And Louisville was 8-0. A great 8-0? No, not really. The Cardinals' first seven foes are 14-39. Only one of them, North Carolina (5-3), has a winning record. Louisville has won five games by a touchdown or less, meaning the Cardinals are just barely beating a bunch of mostly bad teams. But those are games they used to lose -- Strong entered this season 4-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less -- and the Cardinals are only going to get better. Just 12 players are seniors, and only three of them are starters playing a key role. The future isn't now for Louisville. This program will be better next year. And better the year after that.
If Charlie Strong stays, that is. What happens when Arkansas calls in a few months, as Arkansas surely will? What about Tennessee? Or Auburn? What if all three call, triggering a bidding war?
"We'll make him No. 1," Jurich said, "if we have to."