LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- The University of Louisville football coaching staff spent the past couple of days tearing each other apart.
No, it wasn't some kind of mixed martial arts team-builder. Cardinals head coach Charlie Strong assigned each coach to take another coach's personnel, break it down, scout it, and come back with a report on what he was impressed with, as well as what he thought he could attack.
It's a testament to how comfortable Strong is with the commitment of his staff that he'd run such an exercise -- which could easily make some coaches defensive -- but he has good reason to feel secure.
Heading into his third season, Strong still has seven of the original nine assistant coaches he hired. That's a marked change from his predecessor, Steve Kragthorpe, who entered Year No. 3 with only one of his original assistants. Before that, Bobby Petrino managed similar stability on his staff. He finished his four-year U of L career with six of his nine original assistants still in place.
Staff stability has been an important ingredient in building successful runs at U of L, but it also has been elusive. John L. Smith regularly had his staff raided by more traditional programs or by the NFL. The list of assistant coaches to pass through U of L is nearly as impressive as its list of former players.
And several current U of L assistants routinely receive offers to coach elsewhere.
"I know there are a lot of people who have tried to lure them away," U of L athletic director Tom Jurich said. ". . . But this was a staff Charlie hand-picked. When I was in his house interviewing him, I told him I didn't want him to feel hamstrung. I wanted him to go get who he wanted and not to worry about budget and other stuff, to let me take care of that."
Cardinals' running backs coach Kenny Carter credits Strong, himself a longtime assistant, for setting a collegial and creative tone.
"The fun is we all love ball, we love football, we study it, we challenge each other," Carter said. "Charlie is always telling us, with our level of expertise on our staff, the greatest resources we have is each other. And he finds different ways to facilitate that."
Strong de-emphasizes traveling to observe other coaching staffs, though U of L does do some of that. Instead he challenges his position coaches to sharpen each other. Linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary says it's not unusual for Smith to assign an assistant a topic then ask the coach to make a clinic-style presentation to the staff.
"It might be something he thinks your group is doing well," Jean-Mary said. "Or it could be an area where you're struggling. But he wants you to prepare that clinic, get up and teach for 30 minutes, then answer questions on it. It really forces you to think about what you believe, how you're teaching it, and you learn a lot from the other guys when they're up teaching."
College football assistants can lead a nomadic existence. Three years is a long time for any assistant to stay put, let alone one with an impressive resume.
U of L defensive coordinator Vance Bedford is entering his 19th season of college coaching, and he spent six seasons in the NFL. Offensive line coach Dave Borbely is beginning his 26th season as an assistant, and Carter is beginning his 20th, including stops at LSU, Pitt, Penn State, Vanderbilt and Florida.
"This is the best staff I've ever been on," Carter said. "There's no hidden agendas. . . . Like in this exercise we just did, guys are telling each other, 'This is what you do well and this is how we would attack you,' and nobody gets their feelings hurt. If you're in a program that's unstable and the people in that room don't get along with each other, you take it personally and you start to have division. With our staff it's like, I see that, how can I improve this, how can I motivate my guys?"
Off the field, Strong has made sure that families are included in all activities. During game weeks, the Thursday night dinner is open to wives and kids, with families joining the team for the meal.
Staff meetings, Carter said, occasionally begin with 15 minutes of discussion that has nothing to do with football.
"Charlie does a good job of letting everybody remember that there's more going on out there than football," he said.
But at the end of each practice, coaches will gather around a meal, and the practice video will go up.
Strong makes sure the entire staff gets the Kentucky Derby tickets it needs, and this year when he was co-host of the Julep Ball, every member of his staff was in attendance.
When it comes to other jobs, Strong tells his staff, "They say the grass is always greener, but you'd better look close at your own yard."
So far, Strong's assistants seem content in their yard over on Floyd Street.
"I think the community plays a part," Jean-Mary said. "The city embraced us and it's a great place to live. But the big thing, and I think all of us feel this way, we believe we're sitting on something very special. We've seen the changes the past couple of years. Everybody on this staff believes we have the makings of a championship-caliber program, and not just a one-year wonder."
Certainly, when it comes to hanging on to his coaches, Strong is about anything but one and done.
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