TAMPA, Fla. -- The reasons Charlie Strong is back flow with brutal honesty.
“There’s so many factors,” Strong said recently from his office overlooking the practice fields at South Florida. “I had two weeks [after being fired by Texas]. I just had to step back and take a look at myself.
“‘What would you have done differently? Would you allow this to define who you really are?’ That’s why I didn’t sit out. I just wanted to get back into it.”
To recount, USF’s new coach barely blinked after being fired by Texas on Nov. 26. Nineteen days later, Strong was at South Florida. The rebound didn’t have a chance to hit the floor.
“I was like, ‘This damn job will take my mind away from [what happened],’” Strong said in a quiet moment. “’I’m not going to give Texas that pleasure.’”
Along with a new job here, there apparently is a newfound candor. While Strong was coachspeak perfect for three years at Texas, there is a bit of a willingness to let it rip now.
There is a new level of comfort. There is no shadow mafia of boosters out to get him. Perhaps it’s because he is back “home” in the state where Strong has spent 15 years of his coaching career.
Perhaps it’s the myriad of Florida’s high school coaches -- and their talent -- that he can tap into with a quick phone call. Perhaps it’s inheriting an 11-win team with a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback (Quinton Flowers).
This is no rebuild. It’s a rebirth.
South Florida AD Mark Harlan was convinced as much following Strong’s last weekly press conference at Texas.
“He walked off the stage basically into the arms of that team,” Harlan said. “That to me was all I needed to know about the Texas situation.”
Behind the scenes, there is another compelling need for Strong to be here at the moment. Yeah, he’s a coach who needed to scratch an itch. Yeah, he’s suddenly at a program that may be closer to a New Year’s Six bowl than Texas.
But 45 minutes north of here, well, the deal was sealed. The parents of Strong’s wife, Victoria, live close. Victoria’s mother was diagnosed with dementia about 14 years ago, Strong said.
“We were at South Carolina,” Strong recalled of his time with the Gamecocks from 1999-2002. “You could see it was happening then … It started then and we just didn’t know.”
It got worse, as these cases always do. Anyone who has a loved one affected by Alzheimer’s/dementia, it’s heart-rending to see their personality drift away along with their memory.
“She forgot where her car was,” Strong recalled. “I don’t know if we have found that car to this day. She doesn’t know where she left the car.
“It’s good we came back.”
Did we say candor? Strong has always been a bit on the reserved side. But in 2001 and again in 2009, he said the fact that Victoria is white hurt his chances of getting a head coaching job.
Now with seven years in as a head coach, Strong brought up the subject of race again. It matters to Strong that he was first black head coach of a men’s program at Texas. It matters to Strong that he is the second African-American FBS coach to get another head coaching job after being fired. Tyrone Willingham (Notre Dame to Washington) was the other.
“When you’re the first black coach at a place like that, there’s so many people counting on you. You want to see it happen,” Strong said.
“If I’m successful as a minority, [it’s going to help someone] who wants to go run and be the CEO of IBM or there’s a minority who wants to go run a hospital.”
Not only that, but in a sport known for its lack of coaching diversity, Harlan replaced one African-American head coach (Willie Taggart) with another.
“These [are] little things that didn’t even cross my mind,” Harlan said.
Strong remains successful despite departing with the worst winning percentage of any Texas coach. That may be a stain he can never wipe away. He won a couple of national championships as a defensive coordinator at Florida and guided Louisville to a Sugar Bowl win over … Florida.
His last two Texas recruiting classes were ranked in the top 10, leading Strong to say on his way out the door, “The cake has been baked. You just put the icing on it.” Your move,.
“His body of work far superseded any two or three years at any place,” Harlan said. “He’s been nothing but terrific.”
Whatever the right word is, it’s going to be easier here. Spring practice begins in a week. There are 15 starters back from that 11-win team. This may be as nationally relevant as USF has been since it rose to No. 2 in the polls in 2007.
The Bulls are a member of the American Athletic Conference, now largely considered the best of the Group of Five conferences. Strong is taking a step down. A College Football Playoff berth is virtually impossible because a championship shot by a Group of Five school has never occurred in the BCS era (since 1998).
All of it would suggest that, at age 56, this is a stepping-stone job for Strong.
“This is a big-time program,” Harlan contended. “I think he’s ready to roll. He’s got nothing to prove but I think he feels like he does.”
Even before Strong started at Texas, megabooster Red McCombs called the coach’s hiring “a kick in the face,” saying he was probably a good position coach. Three days later, McCombs apologized, but the damage was done.
Strong wouldn’t let it define him.
“If I sat out, I would have missed those relationships,” Strong said. “From the years in Gainesville to Notre Dame to South Carolina to being head coach at Louisville and Texas, it’s still about the young men.”
In those 19 days Strong was without a job, he owned the past few years -- the 16-21 record, the underachievement, the breakdown in special teams.
“I became a fan of Jerry Springer,” he said. “I was trying to find a way to laugh. It was hard in the beginning moving past it. You want to be successful so bad.”
“I get up in the morning,” Strong continued while discussing that interim period. “I go run. I just got out a legal pad and I started writing, trying to get my mind ticking again.”
Strong made himself obvious during the transition. He slipped into town as USF was getting ready for the Birmingham Bowl under an interim coach. He stood on the sidelines for the game. It was admittedly awkward.
So what? The coach, the school and the team can’t wait for the rebirth.
“It’s not like you’re walking into a situation,” Strong said, “where a guy got fired.”