Charlie Strong is not happy that U of L fans failed to fill the stadium for the Cards' final home game.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Given the opportunity to say that he would be coaching the University of Louisville football team next season, Charlie Strong passed. Or maybe I should say that Strong handed the question off to your imagination. He let you fill in the blanks.
Either way, Strong called an audible that is certain to temper the enthusiasm that Louisville fans feel about the program as the Cards cruise into a Sugar Bowl showdown against Florida on Jan. 2 in New Orleans.
Is Charlie Strong ready to say he will build on the Sugar Bowl momentum by returning for Year Four at U of L?
"I will say that at the right time," Strong said.
Some have argued that the last five days have been the greatest five-day stretch in U of L football history – on Wednesday the Cards accepted an invitation to the Atlantic Coast Conference; on Thursday they ignored a string of injuries to rally for a victory at Rutgers and on Sunday they accepted only the second Bowl Championship Series bid in school history.
A great day followed by a greater day followed by the greatest day in Strong's three seasons here as Mr. Fix-It. But even as a group, those three developments were not great enough to make Strong commit to Year Four. Not yet.
In fact, the longer Strong talked, the more agitated he became. He wondered why U of L fans were not as passionate as his coaching staff or his players have been. His evidence was a sparse crowd at the parking lot for the pre-game Card Walk that his players made into Papa John's Cardinal Stadium for Senior Day against Connecticut Nov. 24.
His annoyance percolated a second time when he walked into the stadium that day and noticed more than 9,000 empty seats. Charlie Strong has coached in the Southeastern Conference. He knows football obsession when he sees it. He does not see it here.
"We're 9-0 (actually 9-1) and we don't even pack the stadium," Strong asked. "What more do we need to do?"
Charlie's right, but he's also wrong. You expect more fans at every game. Every coach wants every seat filled. But Louisville is still building its fan base. Has been since Howard Schnellenberger got everybody serious about football. This is a program that was playing in a rundown minor-league baseball park 15 years ago.
The trend line is positive. Strong will get the expanded weight room that he wants. He might get a stadium expansion, too, now that Louisville is bound for the ACC and bringing Florida State, Miami, Clemson and even Notre Dame onto its schedule. U of L fans were not served many goodies on the home schedule this season.
Then came the one comment that Strong will regret, the one where he complimented Kentucky fans for the way that Big Blue Nation supports its football team. He said they go places and take over.
First of all, that's news to Joker Phillips and the 50,000 empty seats he saw in Commonwealth Stadium for the Vanderbilt game. Secondly, that's a comment I expect new Kentucky coach Mark Stoops to text message to every recruit in the universe, especially now that he is competing with Louisville for players.
One more thing, coach: Louisville averaged more home fans per game than Kentucky during the 2012 season (49,991 to 49,691).
Strong had a semi-legitimate point. He wants more buzz. He knows what more buzz is. He coached at Florida, South Carolina and Notre Dame. But that was a clumsy way of making his point. Mistake. Big mistake.
What's going on?
Just this: I believe Strong will be here next season. I do. His team could start next season ranked in the Top 15. The ACC tie gives U of L more juice.
But I also know that Strong is a coach who waited nearly three decades for his first head coaching opportunity. The man has leverage like he's never had before – and may never have again.
He wants the freedom to look around and see what opportunities are there. It's the same game that Nick Saban and Brian Kelly once played – and they're in the BCS championship game this season. It's the same dance that John L. Smith and Bobby Petrino once danced at U of L – and likely regretted it. Look where their careers are now, if you can find them.
It's business. Nothing more. Nothing less. Louisville fans should not take it personally, even though many will.
Strong said that he does not have a representative. Folks at U of L say that is true. Strong negotiates his own deals. Strong called the stories that he has spoken with representatives of Auburn and Tennessee "rumors." He has been promising recruits he will be here next season.
Could be. Too soon to tell. Strong needs to understand that he does not get the benefit of the doubt because of all the Pinocchio coaches who have come before him. Sorry, coach. That's the way it is.
I understand that it's all Job Flirtation 101. It happens every year. It simply hasn't happened at Louisville since the last time the Cardinals played in a Bowl Championship Series game six years ago.
Petrino left for the Atlanta Falcons about 20 seconds after he returned from the Orange Bowl. I don't believe Charlie Strong will follow that path, even after he said this wasn't the right time to say it.