Rearview Mirror: Charlie Strong
The Charlie Strong era at the University of South Florida has ended. The fourth head coach in USF football program history ends his career with the Bulls in the same was as two of his predecessors, termination. While all concerned will keep an eye on what is happening next, it is a useful exercise to take a moment and reflect on the experience of the last few years.
Strong was hired at USF with the hopes of getting the program to the next level. He had experience as a national championship winning assistant coach at Florida, which gave many the impression that he’d be well-equipped to recruit the state. As head coach of the Louisville Cardinals, Strong had won the Big East conference in consecutive years and finished second in the inaugural season of the American Athletic Conference. His staff at Louisville successfully recruited the state of Florida, which some expected to continue if he was hired at USF. A big part of that success was the recruitment of Teddy Bridgewater of Miami Northwestern.
The old adage is that hindsight is 20/20, but there were warning flags for USF’s administration, with none being bigger than what happened in the years after Strong and his staff left Louisville. He was hired by the University of Texas to turnaround their program, which had once been a powerhouse program, but was in decline. Mack Brown, who preceded Strong at Texas, had a 158-48 record with the Longhorns dating back to 1998. However, the final five years of his tenure the program struggled, with a 30-21 record.
After Brown resigned, Strong was hired to replace him at Texas. Under Strong’s leadership, the team posted records of 6-7 in 2014, and 5-7 in 2015 and 2016. The Longhorns’ legacy has always made them a recruiting leader, and that continued under Strong. They ranked 20th in 2014, 24th in 2015, and 20th in 2016. But, even that was a drop-off from the final years of Brown, when their classes ranked 3rd in 2010, 3rd in 2011, 2nd in 2012, and 24th in 2013. The level of talent recruited by Strong’s staff at Texas was very good, but the talent they inherited was elite.
Brown’s reasons for stepping down were that he hoped that wanted Texas to “get back to the top” and his belief that “new energy” could do that. For the sake of perspective, Brown had just one losing season in his 16 years at Texas. In that final four year stretch as head coach where they posted the worst records of his tenure, they had two eight-win seasons and one nine-win season.
Strong’s career at Texas represents one of the worst periods in the program’s history and is the worst in more than 25 years.
For the first time in program history, USF found themselves in a position to replace a coach they did not fire. While their motives and math will likely never be revealed, they wasted no time getting Strong to Tampa for interviews. The first coach to depart USF without being fired was replaced by the first USF coach to be hired after being fired elsewhere.
The Bulls were stacked with talent in 2017 and were favorites to represent their division in the conference championship game. They were coming off an 11 win season, led by all-time great quarterback, Quinton Flowers. Strong’s first run with the Bulls was a 10 win season, but was seen by many as a big letdown as they did not play for a championship game that season. They would win just seven games in 2018, ending the season on a six game skid. In 2019, they would walk away winners just four times.
Recruiting has also been in decline since Strong arrived in Tampa. His best class, 2018, was ranked 58th by Rivals. Over his three year tenure, his average class rank was 64th, worse than all other USF coaches. Of the Bulls worst-ever recruiting rankings, two of the three worst belong to Strong (2017, 2019). His next class, if it sticks together, is currently ranked 60th.
When a coach is fired, there’s always a lot of potential reasons for their failures. Strong made a lot of changes to try and improve his situation at USF. As many as 14 players were removed from the program. An offensive coordinator was replaced. Several other assistants were removed and replaced. The results were an increased rate of decline, which culminated in his termination this week.
History will record Strong’s tenure as a loser. The reality is more complex. He is a man of high character who was beloved by many of his players. During his time at USF, many players have graduated, GPAs have increased, and the program hasn’t been dragged through the media mud because of players being arrested, which has been a problem in the past.