LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- "I'm just not cut like that."
Those were Charlie Strong's words at the end of a radio discussion with Jim Rome on how he'd handle calls from schools interested in luring him away from the University of Louisville, and on his feelings toward his current U of L players.
It's not an iron-clad statement of intent. Doesn't matter. Those don't mean anything anyway (See: Tuberville, Tommy, Ole Miss, "They'll have to carry me out of here in a pine box"). But it is an unusually forceful statement of philosophy.
Rome was asking Strong, a native of Batesville, Ark., if he'd feel compelled to listen if the University of Arkansas came calling. No coach will say a flat, "No." Nor, frankly, should he be expected to. But Strong did tell Rome that U of L gave him his first chance to be a head coach, and he felt, "I owe it to them to uphold what we're talking about." He said, "I know I'm going to hear that question but I am fine where I'm at."
And when Rome followed up on the loyalty and gratitude implicit in Strong's comments, the coach reiterated that U of L giving him that first chance after so many years of waiting means a lot to him.
"Oh it does," Strong said. "You don't just walk away. A lot of times we think the grass is greener on the other side, but you don't just walk away when you are building a program. And then I look at all the players I recruited here. I told them to come here for me and for this university, and then all of a sudden I get a shot to go somewhere else and I walk away from them? I'm just not cut like that."
It's all pretty boilerplate reaction to such questions, except for that final line.
To be honest, we still are finding out in Louisville exactly how Charlie Strong is cut. He is not an open book. In fact, many of the things that might shed more light on him are done away from the spotlight, intentionally so. I remember soon after arriving at U of L, he showed up at a popular picnic in Louisville's West End. He didn't show up with team officials or sports information folks in tow. He just showed up, and people started to congregate, and he signed autographs. He didn't just take pictures with people. Those who were present told me he also took his time to talk and listen to them.
A couple of months ago, Strong allowed a rare glimpse into something he does behind the scenes. He let The Courier-Journal's C.L. Brown follow along on one of the occasional trips he makes down to Kosair Children's Hospital to drop in on patients. This isn't some official practice he undertakes. He just does it, gets into his own truck, drives down there with nobody paying attention, and does it because he knows it means a lot to people.
One thing that impressed me about Strong this year was something that a friend of Owsley Brown Frazier told me. Strong got word that Frazier was in the hospital and things were looking bad. Strong didn't wait around. He got himself straight down to the hospital to see Frazier, the great Louisville philanthropist. While he was there visiting, he told Frazier that as soon as he got out of that hospital bed, he needed to get himself down to practice to see this football team he was putting together at U of L.
Not many days later, there was Frazier in his wheelchair, watching the Cardinals practice. It turned out to be one of Frazier's final outings. He passed away not long after that.
Now you might say this was just being good to a big booster. But Strong didn't need to do that. There was nothing in that for him. He'd gotten to know Frazier and respected him.
You don't get to see these images of Strong very often. There's a kind of a veil covering much of what he does. Occasionally a light will flicker and you'll see an outline.
Allowing Brown to accompany him to the hospital might've been the first time in three years Strong has granted that kind of personal access. Dealing with the media, in general, doesn't appear to be a part of the job Strong enjoys. You can probably count the number of local media outlets who have had any kind of substantive one-on-one interviews with Strong on one hand. And I'm not one of them. There are murmurs that taping his weekly television show isn't his favorite hour of the week. Word is that he once begged off of a university promotional video shoot with little notice -- not something one generally does when the university president needs it. Yet I don't get the feeling that it's ego -- or at least, all ego -- that leads to that. Promotion -- self or otherwise -- just isn't his thing. Howard Schnellenberger, he isn't.
Yet, when you're around Strong in a social setting or with him in a small group, he's interesting and engaging.
Those of us in journalism want everyone to live publicly and speak quotably. But I've learned over the years you don't have to do those things to be a good football coach. And you certainly don't have to do them to be a good person.
I don't just think Strong is a good coach, but I believe he's a good person. And more than that, he's been a good person for this city. It's not an easy judgment to make from arm's length. But I know how a lot of faculty and staff members at U of L feel about him. And I know how his assistant coaches and players feel about him. I see the academic numbers and you hear from the players themselves.
After practice today, Strong was asked to elaborate on his comments to Rome. In some ways, it's an unfair question. A coach can't answer it candidly (though John L. Smith at Louisville always gave it a run, saying he would answer every call, because he felt he owed that to himself, but wasn't out looking to leave. That's fair). A coach, realistically, has to shoot down any speculation just to keep from throwing gasoline on a fire.
"We're five games into the season," Strong said when asked to elaborate on the Rome conversation. "He asked me that question, I answered it. But we're five games into it. My focus is this football team. That's the only thing I'm ever concerned about, what I have right now."
That's probably the most accurate way to say it. None of us knows what the future will bring. If Strong says he's "not cut like that," that he won't leave a team heading into a season he's been building for, he deserves the chance to live up to those words. At this point, I don't think anyone will begrudge him any decision.
It won't be a matter of money. If Strong wants to stay, U of L athletic director Tom Jurich will make sure he doesn't have to work for less to do that. And if Strong decides to leave because he can't do his best work, can't lure the best recruits because of U of L's conference situation or anything else, that's certainly his right. Fans won't like it, but I think they'd have to understand it.
It's a bit silly, talking about whether a coach will be back when he still has more than half a season -- an unbeaten season so far -- to coach. Things change. John L. Smith told Michigan State he wasn't interested some time ago, then something changed, I'm not sure what, and he became interested. The next thing you knew news was breaking during a U of L bowl game telecast.
"I'm just not cut like that," Strong said, when talking about his players. If he's not, Charlie Strong is rare in his profession, and most professions. And listening to him, you don't feel like you're being fed a line. Strong doesn't say a lot in the media, but in his time here, there's no indication that he hasn't meant what he has said.
Coaching searches and speculation are, perhaps, sports journalism at its worst. Somebody throws out a name, and other news outlets feel compelled to ask a question they know they're not going to get a straight answer to, and so the story is fed, without anyone knowing whether there's merit to the original speculation. On ESPN's College GameDay last week, Kirk Herbstreit flat-out said Arkansas needs to call Charlie Strong. Just put it right out there. Call him now. National audience. And here we go.
It's a particular preoccupation at U of L, which has lost so many coaches it liked to bigger jobs.
Strong says he's different. He'll have a chance to prove it. I'm not so sure he'll have a chance to coach these last seven games in peace, no matter what he says. And that's unfortunate.