Charlie Strong has been receiving heavy criticism since his team went on a six game losing streak to conclude the 2018 season. Since then, he’s managed to only win an easy rout of South Carolina State in the past 10 games the Bulls have played in.
Saturday was supposed to be a day where Strong demonstrated, off a bye week, that his team could rebound and would take advantage of a fresh start to the season, as conference play began.
Unfortunately for Strong and the Bulls, just like their season-opening wipeout loss at home to Wisconsin, his team was blown away, again, this time 48-21 by the SMU Mustangs.
However, the third year head coach doesn’t seem to believe he’s at the point where he’s coaching for his job, yet.
In his Monday press conference, Strong was asked how critical is this next game is, not only for the morale of the team, but for Charlie and his staff, he said that they are “not concerned.”
“We gotta go play well and that’s for every game. And for myself and the staff, we’re not concerned. We know what we gotta get done, but we know that it’s a conference game. We gotta go play well in this game. Cant worry about what anyone else thinks, we know what we gotta go get done and just get our team ready to play.”
SMU absolutely routed the Bulls defense with five first-half touchdowns, including three TD passes by Strong’s former quarterback at Texas, Shane Buechele, as the Ponies built a 34 – 0 lead.
When Buechele, who sat last year as a transfer and SMU got the ball for the first time in the third quarter, they marched a quick 50 yards for another score. It was 41 – zip and SMU had emptied out Raymond James Stadium.
Yes, they had to play the last quarter and a half and the Bulls (now 1-3) inserted veteran backup Blake Barnett, because freshman starter Jordan McCloud had an injured wrist. And, Barnett got the team in the end zone during “garbage time” with three touchdowns.
But, make no mistake, USF was awful most of Saturday.
And now, the larger questions that will keep coming are: has Strong essentially given up coaching and motivating his team? And if not, how are they this bad all of a sudden?
Remember that they won 10 games and a bowl game in Strong’s first season. That was with former coach Willie Taggart’s players.
The struggles now, date back to a 7 – 0 start a year ago, where USF then lost the last five games in the regular season and next, their bowl game.
That was eyebrow-raising enough, but when the Bulls opened with the Big Ten powerhouse Badgers and were destroyed 49 – 0 to start the year, whispers became loud voices that Strong wasn’t cut out to turn things around.
It is no secret that Strong has complained for two years about everything from how USF travels, to not having an indoor practice facility, to not having an on-campus football stadium and having to play at the 65,000 seat Raymond James Stadium. That’s where at least half of the seats are empty for most of their games.
As for why the Bulls are averaging just over 80 yards in penalties a game? Strong explained that rather than it being a discipline issue, it’s that the refs in the American are quicker to throw flags.
“I don’t ever wanna blame the officiating but a lot of those guys are trying to move up so we get thrown a lot of flags in this conference and it’s what we gotta take a look at.”
It’s also no secret that this is the first year where USF is completely on the hook to pay Strong and that he had to take a pay cut from the $4 million plus per year that Texas was still paying him the first two years of his USF deal.
The Bulls followed up the awful debut with Wisconsin by losing to a bad Georgia Tech Team in Atlanta in game two. Then, the freshman McCloud gave some spark and optimism with how he played two weeks ago against FCS, Savannah State.
However, off the off week, the Bulls had no answers on offense in the first half of this game with SMU, while being held scoreless.
Yes, the Ponies are a great story, as they improved to 5 – 0 for the first time since Eric Dickerson and the “Pony Express” backfield of 1983.
But, the larger story is how big of a problem does USF now have with a coach that either isn’t interested, or in some combination, doesn’t know how to, get their season turned around in his third year?
And unlike Strong, we at F.F.I. believe the clock is ticking, and every game from here on out is a career make or break, if it already isn’t broken past repair in Tampa.
USF fires head coach Charlie Strong
It’s official… Charlie Strong has coached his final game as the USF head football coach. The news comes just two days after the Bulls humiliating 34-7 loss to rival UCF in the War on I-4 on Friday.
BREAKING: Staff members at USF being informed Charlie Strong is out, per source.
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) December 1, 2019
Confirmed: Charlie Strong out at #USF
— Joey Knight (@TBTimes_Bulls) December 1, 2019
Strong was hired in December of 2016 after being let go from Texas. In his first year in Tampa, he went 10-2 in year one after inheriting a star-studded roster from former head coach Willie Taggart.
Since then, the Strong era has been anything but strong for the past season and a half. Their most recent loss to rival UCF was their fourth straight to end the year and Strong’s team limped to the finish line at 4 – 8.
Strong entered the year with lots of speculation and it only grew worse when they opened the season with a humiliating 49 – 0 loss to Wisconsin. That led to a road loss at lowly Georgia Tech and being wiped out by SMU and Navy previously. Then, they were blown out at home by AAC west division champion, Memphis, 49-10 on senior day. And, that led to UCF ending their season with another rout Friday.
When you combine this season with losing the remaining six games a year ago, that’s 14 losses in the last 18 games played for Strong’s teams. Friday night was also the fifth loss by 27 points or more for USF this season.
After the game, Strong was asked whether he believed he would be back for a fourth year, to which he responded, “I have no idea.”
Since then, the media has been waiting to see if USF Athletic Director Michael Kelly, who was hired last year, would get rid of the former Texas and Louisville coach or give him one final shot to turn it around in 2020? It looks like he’s decided it would be better to start fresh and give fans something to be hopeful for heading into the off season.
Strong is reportedly owed at least $5 million for the remaining two years on his five-year deal that he agreed to in December of 2016.
Zemek- sad If Charlie Strong’s head coaching career is done
Charlie Strong very likely coached his last game as a major college football head coach on Friday night. South Florida was easily handled by the UCF Knights, concluding another bowl-less season in Tampa. South Florida’s defense played quite respectably.
USF’s offense had very little to offer, a microcosm of a season in which USF’s defense delivered very competent performances against the elite teams in the American Athletic Conference.
USF contained Temple. It stymied Cincinnati. It didn’t let Memphis run wild, though the Tigers – in line to be the champions of the Group of Five, a very strong team in 2019 – eventually figured things out on offense.
On Friday, USF fans privately worried that UCF would hang 50 or more points and humiliate the Bulls. That did not happen. Holding UCF to 34 points in Orlando is a decent showing not just for USF, but any UCF opponent. Ask Memphis from the past two AAC Championship Games.
Charlie Strong hasn’t lost his touch coaching defense, but when fielding an offense, he struggles profoundly, which explains why his head coaching career has likely ended. A decision hasn’t yet been made on his job status at the time this article is being written – Saturday morning, Nov. 30 – but it figures to be in the near future.
When the head coaching career of Charlie Strong is viewed in full, the first chapter will contain this fundamental thesis: If Strong didn’t have a great quarterback to cover the limitations of his offensive staff, he struggled. That is the most central reality of Strong’s existence as a head coach, when he had to be accountable for his offense, not just his defense.
Teddy Bridgewater enabled Strong’s Louisville tenure to be a success. Bridgewater made so many spectacular plays and rescued UL in its most urgent moments that Strong felt he could bring offensive coordinator Shawn Watson to Texas. We could all see that Bridgewater thrived in spite of Watson at Louisville, instead of Watson doing unique things to unlock Teddy’s talents. This is why Strong didn’t thrive at Texas (in addition to having a problem with the locker room culture he inherited from Mack Brown).
Strong’s most embarrassing moment at Texas was a forced march to Tulsa to beg and plead for the services of Sterlin Gilbert, then on the Golden Hurricane’s staff, to make him the new offensive coordinator after Watson and Jay Norvell didn’t work out. Gilbert did improve Strong’s Texas offense, enough to warrant a retained job when Strong moved to South Florida.
Yet, in the bigger picture, the same refrain remained true: The quarterbacks, more than the offensive coordinators, enabled Strong’s offenses to become great on the rare occasions Strong fielded a formidable offense.
It was clear in 2017 that Quinton Flowers was the main reason USF’s offense was special. Those Bulls – which Strong inherited from Willie Taggart – were loaded at the skill positions. Elite quarterback, running back, and wide receiver play mattered more than any scheme or design.
Why can we say this so confidently, you might ask?
When, in 2018, Sterlin Gilbert took over an offense without the 2017 stable of talent in Tampa, he flopped. Gilbert never understood how to adjust to changing circumstances. Late in the 2018 season – against a UCF team which lost star quarterback McKenzie Milton in the first half – South Florida had a real chance to win if its offense could make timely plays in big situations.
Gilbert’s third-down and red-zone play-calling, however, were shockingly conservative and unimaginative Gilbert’s worst game of the 2018 season came in the most high-profile moment against the opponent USF fans wanted to beat more than any other.
Strong was once again shopping for a new offensive coordinator before his third year at a program, just like Texas. Kerwin Bell was his choice. Clearly, as we have seen in 2019, the former Florida Gator quarterback could not turn the tide in Tampa.
We are left with a basic reality that Strong knows how to coach defense, but can’t find the right formula on offense. This does not make Strong unique.
What is sad about the likely end of Charlie Strong’s head coaching career is that it started so late. For reasons not related to football (let’s put it that way), Strong wasn’t able to be a head coach until age 50, despite decades (plural) as an accomplished position coach and defensive coordinator. He didn’t coach his first game as a head coach – with Louisville in the late summer of 2010 – until he was 50.
That was – and is, and will remain – an outrage.
Imagine if Strong had gotten his first head coaching job at age 40 instead of 50. He would be 49 right now, not 59. He could go to a Sun Belt or Conference USA program and start over. Three or four years of good work might put him in the mix for an AAC job in his mid-50s. However, because he was allowed inside the head coaching game at a later age, it is hard to see an athletic director picking up the phone.
I could be wrong, but a lot of people inside the industry doubt this.
Yes, being a great defensive coordinator – Strong will have his choice of job if he wants back into the coordinator game – is a good life. There is no shame in being a mediocre head coach and a great coordinator. However, Charlie Strong wasn’t given the same chances to succeed in head coaching that others were. Race was undeniably an element of his story, and that is a black mark on college football, in more ways than one.
If you think race has nothing to do with Strong’s story, let me offer with this very simple concluding note: On the same day that Strong very likely coached his last college game as a head coach, Tom Herman ended a hugely disappointing 7-5 season at the University of Texas, Strong’s previous employer.
Herman completed his third season at Texas in humiliating fashion. Herman has been better than Strong, but hardly by a large and significant margin. Herman will get the fourth season in Austin Strong never received.
Does this mean Strong shouldn’t have been fired? One can make a reasonable argument that Texas had to let Strong go after the Longhorns lost to Kansas. Herman merely allowed 48 points to Kansas this season, winning 50-48. Yes, Herman was and is better… but not by much. He, however, gets the benefit of the doubt. Not Strong.
One can simultaneously say that Charlie Strong didn’t measure up as a head coach, that he was wronged by the industry in which he has worked, and that he can still make a very good life as a defensive coordinator in the years ahead.
This story isn’t a happy one, and yet it is also a story of first-world problems. It is a story which is immensely complicated. Charlie Strong didn’t seek out these complications; they found him, more than anything else.
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