LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Charlie Strong said it seems like just yesterday that he was Florida's defensive coordinator getting ready to play a Big East Conference upstart in Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl.
The result wasn't pretty. Florida jolted a Cincinnati team that had lost head coach Brian Kelly 51-24 in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. That Cincinnati team was unbeaten and ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings. But when he arrived at U of L, Strong told his players in his first speech that he knew what good football was, and if they couldn't play with that Cincinnati team, they were nowhere close to good football.
Charlie Strong knows what good football is. And on Jan. 2, he'll be standing on that sideline opposite the Florida Gators. Sunday night after the BCS pairings were announced, he said this, "This is a (Florida) team that was one game away from playing for a national title and we are nowhere near that right now."
If a commentator on ESPN had said that, U of L fans would be howling about disrespect. But Strong knows where you have to be to be considered a legitimate big-time team. And he has no delusions when asked to handicap this game.
"We are playing a better football team," he said.
There are two parts to this, and should be taken separately. First, that Strong is in this position at all just three years after leaving Florida is fairly remarkable.
It's easy to forget where the program was when he arrived. It had become one of the least effective in any BCS conference. Its final game in the season Cincinnati played Florida in the Sugar Bowl was a 34-14 loss to Rutgers before a crowd of 23,422 in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. It lost to Cincinnati that season 41-10.
Football is not a quick-turnaround game. But to go from that to BCS Bowl in three years -- even against a depleted Big East -- is an accomplishment that shouldn't be passed over.
It's because of that success that Strong finds himself under consideration for jobs here and there. Strong straightened out the culture, improved the program in the classroom and on the field, brought in an experienced staff -- a couple of whom are veteran coaches who were on that Florida staff -- and most of all, began to bring in talent.
Teddy Bridgewater could play quarterback at any school in the SEC. U of L has receivers that any SEC school would like to have.
But there's more to the game than that.
"When you look at the Southeastern Conference, it is a very difficult league," Strong said. "And if you watch that (SEC championship) game last night, and Alabama goes to rush 360 yards, the game has to be won at the line of scrimmage; and that's where you play the game, at the line of scrimmage. They have enough athletes where they can win the one-on-one battles if you load the box. So it's going to be an interesting matchup for us, because they play that way the whole season. When it came down to where they need to go win games, they lined up and they were able to knock people off the ball."
U of L is not at that place. In its past two games, it has rushed for a combined 69 net yards -- against Rutgers and Connecticut. A great deal will be said and written about the challenge ahead for U of L.
But here's the other side of things -- the opportunity side.
The time has come for U of L to play a game like this. Strong might say that the game is coming a bit early. But the very process of preparing for an opponent of this caliber should be a positive for this team.
If the Cardinals can be competitive with Florida, it pre-validates their team heading into next season. Depending on what their conference home is next season, that could be a major step. A big performance by Bridgewater puts him into Heisman contention.
You want respect? Games like this one is where it is earned.
Strong has brought it this far. This Florida game, win or lose, is the first step of the next step.
"I don't look so much at what I've done; it's the players," Strong said. "When you get a program, like everything is a process and it's going to be rebuilding years and you have to get the right players in your program and you have to do it the right way. That's what we have been able to do, get an outstanding coaching staff . . . our offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, has done an outstanding job; our defensive coordinator, Vance Bedford. But I've been able to surround myself with some really outstanding coaches, and they understand the process and what we had to do to build a program. It's been step by step and each year we try to make this program better and better with the direction of our athletic director, Tom Jurich. That's what has happened here."
"Now we have established ourselves... we have laid some foundation and there is more foundation than can be laid; and once that happens -- this program can become a program like the University of Florida."
Three years, two sidelines. Strong knows what he's facing. But having been on that Florida sideline, he also knows where his U of L program needs to go, and games like this one are instrumental in getting there.