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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

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

New Bulls coach Scott eagerly embracing new challenge

Florida Football Insiders

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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off a runner-up finish in Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game loss to LSU, former Clemson co-offensive coordinator, and new USF head coach, Jeff Scott is now going full throttle in his first few days back in Tampa with his new program.

Scott posted on social media Friday morning that one of his top priorities is to reconnect with all of the jigh school coaches in and around the Tampa area:

This is not unfamiliar for the first-time head coach, as this was part of his role was procuring players for Dabo Swinney’s Tigers out of West Central Florida.

Scott also gave access to the Tampa Bay Times and beat writer Joey Knight on his inaugural meeting with his new team Thursday at the USF facility.

And, Scott began by prioritizing his team in the meeting room having the seniors sit in the front with the juniors behind and then, the underclassmen behind them.

It will be a challenge over the next season or two for Scott to revitalize a program that essentially went “off the cliff in the middle of the 2018 season.” That’s when the Bulls under Charlie Strong lost their remaining six games, including their bowl game and then, were blown out twice early in the 2019 season to drop to 1-3.

USF regained their footing in the middle of the year wining against lesser American Athletic Conference competition in a couple of games, but promptly lost out, including their final 4 games to finish 4-8. That resulted in Strong’s firing.

The 39 year old Scott had Clemson through and through, as he played for the Tigers in the early 2000s for three years and returned to become an assistant coach for the Tigers in 2008. Since then, he has been a receiver’s coach, recruiting coordinator, and then, co-offensive coordinator for the last three years.

The Tigers, behind All-American QB Trevor Lawrence,  rolled through a second straight unbeaten season and then, a 62-17 blowout win over Virginia in the ACC Title Game. In a bid to repeat as National Champs, the Tigers defeated Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on December 28th in one of the College Football playoff semi-finals.

Alas, the “fairy tale” did end well, as LSU behind Heisman winning QB Joe Burrow, defeated them 42-25 Monday night in New Orleans.

There’s some more that USF fans can be excited about and Scott’s successes with wide receivers. He has helped develop some great NFL prospects like DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, and Mike Williams. His  current Clemson group likely has at least two more NFL wideouts, too.

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

And Scott, the son of former FSU and Clemson offensive coordinator Brad Scott, appears to be the guy to change it all.

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USF Bulls

Coordinator musical chairs all related to Willie Taggart

Florida Football Insiders

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Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Now that head coaching hires have been made at the prominent jobs in the state and around college football, the musical chairs of assistants and specifically coordinators is also fascinating. And in the case of FSU, USF and FAU they are all interrelated to former USF and FSU-now FAU, boss, Willie Taggart.

In Boca Raton, the new FAU coach has announced his first coordinator hire and it’s none other than his former defensive consultant at Florida State, his former defensive coordinator at Oregon and the former USF head coach, Jim Leavitt:

Taggart had brought Leavitt on board, as the season began to unfold in Tallahassee, initially, to consult, but eventually as a defensive coach on the field.

The tandem came together in Eugene, Oregon three years ago, when Taggart left USF and was hired by the Ducks. He then brought Leavitt with him from being the defensive coordinator at Colorado.

However, Leavitt did not follow Taggart to Florida State in 2018, as had been reported that he would. He stayed behind for one more season, in Eugene.

Meanwhile, Taggart had a disastrous 5-7 first season with FSU after having hired former Michigan State defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett to run his defense. Meanwhile, Leavitt was fired after the 2018 season by Oregon coach Mario Cristobal and then, was available to come join Taggart this year.

However it was to no avail , as Taggart was fired himself, on November 3rd after just nine games into his second season.

Continuing, Taggart had hired Kendal Briles to run his offense in 2019 from Houston, but Briles had previously been at, wait for it… Florida Atlantic as the OC. And now, there’s word of where Briles is headed, and, that’s to the University of Arkansas, as their new offensive coordinator.

The Hogs made a surprising coaching hire of former Georgia offensive line coach, Stan Pittman, who has never been a head coach at the college level before. Desperate to improve in the SEC West, Briles up tempo offense did help the Florida State in terms of increases of  yardage per game and points per game output this past season.

Meanwhile, back at USF, new coach Jeff Scott had already announced on Sunday that former FAU defensive coordinator and head coach for their bowl game, Glenn Spencer, is his new defensive coordinator in Tampa.

Spencer has extensive experience, especially as a defensive assistant and coordinator for over a decade at Oklahoma State.

Staying with the “musical chairs” connected to his current and former jobs:

On Monday evening Scott also announced that Charlie Weis Jr., the son of the former Notre Dame coach and Patriots offensive coordinator, would be joining his staff with the Bulls.

Weis had most recently been the offensive coordinator for…..you guessed it again, the last two years at Florida Atlantic taking over for Briles with Lane Kiffin. But, Kiffin did not take Weis with him, when he left FAU for Ole Miss two weeks ago. And, Taggart did not retain Weis.

Still with us?

At 27 years of age Weis is still the youngest coordinator in FBS football.

So, to recap: Taggart and Leavitt are back together for the third time in four seasons in the third different location.

Spencer and Weis, who were the coordinators at Florida Atlantic for Kiffin, weren’t kept by Taggart, but are now are now both at USF, where Taggart and Leavitt used to be head coaches.

And Briles, who coached for Taggart and for part of the year with Leavitt in Tallahassee is now on his way to the SEC with the Hogs.

It’s never dull with a coaching carousel.

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