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Zemek- sad If Charlie Strong’s head coaching career is done

Matt Zemek

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Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports
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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.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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    Chris

    December 1, 2019 at 12:29 am

    Your false equivalence of Herman and Strong is so weak it undermines the rest of this piece. CS has a losing record over three years and lost to KU. TH has a winning record and beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl just this January. If CS wins a NY6 bowl, he would have been given a longer leash too and you know it. Perhaps CS didn’t get the HC nod until later in his career bc people were afraid he didn’t know Offense – which appears to be true.

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USF Bulls

Dabo Swinney endorsement helped USF get Jeff Scott

Florida Football Insiders

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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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It’s often said in the job hiring process: “it’s not what you know, but whom you know” that can help you get the gig. And, when it came to USF looking to hire Clemson a co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, “the whom” was his boss, Dabo Swinney.

On Wednesday, Scott met the media and USF fanbase in a huge press conference setting on campus in Tampa, and in his opening remarks made it very clear that one of the big reasons he was so interested in taking over the Bulls was the endorsement of his boss:

“He (Swinney) said: great university, great location, great conference, great recruiting base right in your back yard…you can win there. And, they have a great athletic director in Michael Kelly.”

Kelly, who was formerly an associate commissioner of the ACC before joining the College Football Playoff, as COO, has been on the job at USF for about a year and a half. And, he used his previous dealings with Swinney through the conference and the CFP to help him get his hire.

Swinney would know about taking advantage of opportunities, as he was made the interim coach at Clemson 11 years ago and has now built them into a powerhouse in the ACC and the national college football landscape. The Tigers just entered the College Football Playoff for the fifth consecutive year and will be going for their third championship in four years later this month.

Scott, who agreed to a five year $12 million deal, has been part of that as co-offensive coordinator for the past five seasons. And, he agreed to leave that post to come to USF to resurrect a program that as recently as three seasons ago, was in the top tier of the American Conference.

But, it will be a challenge to get USF back on track, as the Bulls lost 14 of their last 18 games over the last season and a half under Charlie Strong. And, the losing has seen fan base dwindle to fewer than 15,000 people at any of their home games at the end of this past season.

Scott, who’s had the chance to work with All American QB Trevor Lawrence and previously in his assistant career with the Tigers helped develop Clemson’s receivers. That includes previously working with the likes of DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, and Mike Williams who all have gone on to NFL success.

And, that definitely brings  some credibility on Scott’s resume.

Still, when Bulls Kelly that phone call reaching out for both Swinney’s opinion and help in hiring Scott, that probably set it all to the new Bulls boss.

And four days after their ACC Title Game win, he was standing at a podium in Tampa.

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USF Bulls

USF officially hires Clemson coordinator Jeff Scott

Florida Football Insiders

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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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The USF Bulls coaching search to replace Charlie Strong lasted only eight days and his replacement has a National Championship pedigree.

The school announced late Monday afternoon that they have hired Clemson offensive coordinator, Jeff Scott, to become their fifth head coach in program history:

Scott, who actually shares the offensive leadership with Tony Elliott, will receive a five year deal to leave the Tigers and come to West Central Florida.

Bulls atheltic director Michael Kelly said in their statement about the hiring of Scott,

“Jeff is a very bright, enthusiastic and driven leader for our program and we are thrilled to welcome him to USF and back to Florida, where he was born and where he has recruited so well for Clemson for many years,” Kelly said.”

“He is a young and extremely gifted offensive mind, a developer of high-level talent and an elite national recruiter who brings the experience of having played an integral role from the beginning in helping to build one of the most successful programs in college football.

“We are thrilled that he and his wife, Sara, and their daughter, Savannah, are joining our Bulls family and will be part of the exciting future of USF football.”

As we wrote last night, Scott is Clemson through and through, as he played for the Tigers in the early 2000s for three years and returned to become a coach for the Tigers in 2008. Since then, he has been a receiver’s coach, recruiting coordinator, and now to co-offensive coordinator.

The Tigers, behind All-American QB Trevor Lawrence, just rolled through a second straight unbeaten season and a Saturday night 62-17 blowout win over Virginia in the ACC Title Game. The Tigers will play Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on December 28th in one  of the College Football playoff semi-finals.

Scott will reportedly stay and coach the Tigers in the CFP Playoff bid, as they attempt to repeat as National Champions.

Further, there’s some more that USF fans can be excited about: Scott’s successes with wide receivers. He has helped develop some great NFL prospects like DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, and Mike Williams. He currently has one of the best groups in the country.

After years of the inconsistent offense, it appears that the Bulls leaders felt a change in philosphy was needed.

Scott tweeted this photo Monday evening with his daughter showing him signing an agreement with USF:

Scott will bring knowledge of coaching from Clemson, as well as his stint as a high school coach. His father Brad, was also a coach in college, spending time as an offensive coordinator himself at Florida State, then onto South Carolina, and settling at Clemson.

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