LOUISVILLE — Kentucky may be known as a basketball state. But when it comes to diversity among college football coaches, the Bluegrass State has become the state.
Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong was introduced as the new head coach at Louisville on Wednesday, making him just the 10th minority coach at a Football Bowl Subdivision program. Strong is just the third African-American coach of a BCS program, joining Miami's Randy Shannon and Virginia's Mike London, who was hired this week.
The state of Kentucky now has an impressive pedigree of minority hires. Western Kentucky recently hired Willie Taggart to replace David Elson, and Joker Phillips has been named coach-in-waiting at Kentucky when Rich Brooks decides to step down.
Strong has been highly regarded as a defensive coordinator for years, having served under Lou Holtz at South Carolina before helping the Gators win two national championships. But despite interviewing at Kentucky, Tulsa, California, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt, this will be the 49-year-old Strong's first head coaching job.
Strong's five-year contract will pay him a base salary of $1.6 million annually.
Strong cited the ability to win a national championship and U of L Athletics Director Tom Jurich's desire to build "the best program in the country" as his reasons for accepting Jurich's offer.
"It was an easy decision because I know Tom, and watching this program and the success it's had in the past, I know I can come in and be successful," Strong said.
"You look at Cincinnati, and they were a second away from playing for a national championship. This is a program you can win a national championship at."
Strong choked up when he was asked about finally getting his opportunity to lead a program.
"When we were offered this job, my wife (Victoria) and I just looked at each other, and it was so emotional," he said. "You just kind of break down, because you just never thought it was going to happen.
"But I stopped letting it consume me. If you let it consume you, it's probably never going to happen. I was at the point to where if I was going to interview, I was going to interview. If not, so what. I have a good job. If somebody wants to hire me, they know where I'm at. I was even at the point to where I didn't want to interview anymore."
But when Jurich pulled the plug on the Steve Kragthorpe era shortly after the Cards' regular-season finale against Rutgers, Strong was at the top of his wish list. Jurich said he talked with former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, Florida Coach Urban Meyer and Florida Athletics Director Jeremy Foley about Strong, and they all gave glowing recommendations.
"It was unanimous," Jurich said. "The character and integrity is there. His coaching ability is unparalleled. He's hungry and humble. This is a blue-collar job, and he's the perfect individual to coach this team and lead this team and be a true ambassador for the university. It was a constant. I got so tired of listening how great Charlie was that I went to (Dungy) and said, 'Tony, you've got to be able to find me one negative about this guy.' Tony couldn't."
Seth Hancock, a University of Kentucky graduate and president of Claiborne Farm, became friends with Strong in 2001 and endorsed him for the UK opening in 2002 before Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart hired Brooks.
"I pushed as hard as a human being could push," Hancock said. "And I asked Mitch, 'You didn't get Bill Parcells, you didn't get (current Oregon State coach) Mike Riley. What's the deal? I know you interviewed him.' Mitch said, 'He was great, he knows how to recruit the job, he knows how to staff the job, and we checked with the NCAA and he was clean as a pin.'
I said, 'Well what are you waiting for?' Mitch said, 'I think he needs a little more time at a bigger job before he's ready.' And he probably was right. But it's all worked out for great for Charlie."
Strong and UK's Phillips were assistants together at South Carolina under Lou Holtz in 2002.
"Charlie and I have been friends for a long time, and I'm happy to see him get his chance to lead a program." Phillips said.
Strong's first game at U of L will be against the Wildcats on Sept. 4 at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, but Phillips may or may not be the head coach at UK. Brooks isn't expected to announce a decision on his future until after the Music City Bowl.
"Joker and I have a great relationship, but I don't know if we're going to have that relationship now," Strong said with a laugh. "We're good friends and have been good friends for a long time. To see him get his position as coach-in-waiting was great, but it's a big rivalry game, and I understand that."
Strong has his work cut out for him trying to rebuild a Louisville program that underwent a stunning free fall under Kragthorpe after winning the 2007 Orange Bowl and finishing fifth in the nation under Bobby Petrino. U of L was 4-8 this fall and will not play in a bowl game for the third year in a row.
When asked what he plans to tell the current players, Strong said, "We're going to start over."
But Strong said he's going to have to find a way to win games while going through the rebuilding process.
"What you have to understand is that it's a process, but everybody wants a winner," Strong said. "All of you want winners. At the end of the day you have to go win. You can say rebuild, rebuild, whatever, but you still want to win.
Strong is hoping to use his recruiting ties in Florida and other parts of the South to draw talent to Louisville. He said he'll soon start putting together his staff but will coach the Gators defense in the Sugar Bowl against Cincinnati.
Cards coaches since 1985
Howard Schnellenberger (1985-94: 54-56-2)
1985 2-9 1990 10-1-1
1986 3-8 1991 2-9
1987 3-7-1 1992 5-6
1988 8-3 1993 9-3
1989 6-5 1994 6-5
Ron Cooper(1995-97, 13-20)
John L. Smith (1998-2002, 41-21)
1998 7-5 2001 11-2
1999 7-5 2002 7-6
Bobby Petrino(2003-06, 41-9)
2003 9-4 2005 9-3
2004 11-1 2006 12-1
Steve Kragthorpe (2007-09, 15-21)