LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- At times, the high-stakes competition between the University of Tennessee and the University of Louisville for the services of football coach Charlie Strong felt more like it was about the two schools than about the coach.
In many ways, it was.
Strong, the coach who nobody wanted for more than a decade, found himself in the middle of the perfect storm. And by all accounts, it was raining money.
U of L still, as of 10 p.m. Louisville time, has not confirmed what many outlets now are reporting: That Strong has told U of L he will return as coach. U of L did, however, late Wednesday night announce that Strong will hold a news conference on campus at 8 a.m. Thursday.
Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated broke the story just after 7 p.m. Wednesday, reporting that Strong had rejected multiple offers from Tennessee for a renegotiated U of L deal that represented a significant commitment in dollars and years. Later, Jason Higdon of FoxSportsNext and one of the few media members whom Strong speaks with privately, said that Strong personally told him that he is returning to Louisville.
Tennessee had lost multiple candidates before hiring Derek Dooley, and had been turned down by one or two more before zeroing in on Strong. It could not afford another high-profile rejection, and at least once, would not take no for an answer. Losing Strong is a blow to its athletic administration and further erodes the confidence of the fan base.
But for U of L, there was potentially more at stake than that. Not only does U of L athletic director Tom Jurich retain a popular coach, but makes the kind of statement about his program that no amount of marketing can buy.
Former U of L football coach Howard Schnellenberger, in many ways the father of U of L's program, sat in the WDRB sports department this afternoon even as Strong was holding a meeting with his players. When asked if he ever thought he'd see the day when a coach turned down Tennessee to stay at Louisville, he laughed out loud.
"No," he said, shaking his head.
Even for the author of the famous "collision course" line, this development came as a jolt. Strong's staying says something about U of L's program, or at least, that's what U of L officials are banking on. Literally.
Here's what Jurich has bought for his reported considerable investment:
-- He now has, in a very public way, struck a major blow in shedding the "stepping stone" status for his program. A coach at U of L has been courted by a significant SEC program with superior resources and support, and stayed in the Derby City. That alone casts U of L in a new light.
-- It reaffirms the commitment U of L has made to football. Papa John's Cardinal Stadium already was under construction when Jurich arrived. But he has built an indoor practice facility, new practice fields, renovated training facilities and an $82 million expansion around it. On the drawing board are further renovations to the football facility and an academic center built into the stadium's south end. Add a top-10 national coach's salary to those, and the school has put down serious money, which it hopes leads to being taken seriously.
-- He keeps the momentum from the move to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Of the past six coaches to lead Big East teams to a BCS bid, only one went on to coach in the Big East Conference the next season -- Brian Kelly of Cincinnati. Dana Holgorsen stayed at WVU after reaching the Orange Bowl, but the Mountaineers were moving to the Big 12. Now Strong is staying, and whether U of L exits to the ACC next season or returns for one final year in the Big East, Jurich has avoided the public relations hit of losing yet another coach to greener pastures, and losing steam from the ACC move. In fact, if gaining ACC membership raised U of L's profile in one way, being chosen over a heavily interested Tennessee program by its head coach, in football circles, sends a message nearly as important.
-- He provides continuity for a group of players the administration believes could be special. Jurich could no doubt have gotten a high-level coach, particularly given the recent move to the ACC and the stature of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. But this group of players has a rapport with Strong and his staff, were recruited by them, and clearly has a great deal of respect and affinity for them. On the verge of what could be a groundbreaking season for the program in 2013, Jurich has kept the pieces in place to finish what was started this season.
-- Finally, Jurich provides a new narrative for the program. Had Strong been lured away, the storyline heading into the Sugar Bowl would have been of "beleaguered Louisville," without its coach, facing overwhelming opposition and uncertainty despite its conference move. Now, while still a heavy underdog in the Sugar Bowl, Strong assumes a central role in the storyline, the coach who turned down Tennessee, the coach who hopes to have the Cards in top 10 contention next season. It's a sizable shift.
The retention of Strong, of course, means other things. It means a great deal to Strong, who has a bit of fence mending to do with his fan base after controversial comments on Monday, but who likely began that process in a big way by turning his back on the SEC. There will be more time to evaluate what the decision means for Strong, once he has spoken.
And it even further cemented the status of Jurich, who finishes one of the great weeks in the history of U of L sports on an upswing instead of a down note.
A week ago, U of L was a football program stranded in the Big East with an injured quarterback who couldn't practice, an underdog to Rutgers coming off a loss to Connecticut with a BCS opportunity that looked to be slipping away and a coach rumored to have been interviewing with an SEC school during game week (a report he strongly denied.)
Seven days later, U of L is a member of the ACC, preparing for a Sugar Bowl matchup with Florida, ironing out a contract for Strong after he turned down Tennessee to stay.
In university terms, it was a two-minute drill, and Jurich is looking like Elway.
Copyright 2012 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.
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