Charlie Strong is changing the view of University of Louisville football.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Until Thursday, this is the fearsome image that Tennessee football flashed in the state of Kentucky:
A program that bloodied the University of Kentucky's nose 27 of the last 28 times the programs have played. A program where Peyton Manning played quarterback and Reggie White played defensive end.
A program that has wedged more than 109,000 people into Neyland Stadium. A program that plays Alabama on the third Saturday of every October. A program that Howard Schnellenberger said has been around longer than the church.
A program that in this state seemed untouchable and unbeatable in any way.
Louisville's only victory over Tennessee was getting the Vols to agree to play a game here in 1993. Some victory. The Vols won – by five touchdowns. Big deal. The Vols crunched UK by five touchdowns over and over and over.
"I haven't forgotten," Schnellenberger said.
Now, he can forget. Charlie Strong stays at Louisville, the Tennessee coaching job stays vacant. Smelling salts are not optional.
Louisville just defeated Tennessee as many times as Kentucky has beaten the Volunteers since 1985.
When Louisville plays Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl Jan. 2, Strong figures to be making more money than Will Muschamp, the guy coaching Florida – and the Gators have won two national championships in the last seven seasons.
Jaw meet floor. Image meet rewrite. When athletic director Tom Jurich says that he considers the Louisville football job one of the Ten Best Jobs in America it's more than some of that old-fashioned Howard Hyperbole.
The Cards are going to the Sugar Bowl. The Cards have a quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) who will be a Heisman Trophy candidate next season. The Cards are headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference. And the Cards have kept their coach from going to the Southeastern Conference.
Wisconsin won the Big Ten, and the Badgers couldn't keep their coach from jumping to Arkansas, an SEC job that isn't nearly as storied as the one that Charlie Strong just turned down in Knoxville.
Schnellenberger envisioned Louisville football winning a national championship, but even a man with his lively imagination never envisioned this day. Three times I asked him if he ever thought he would see a day when a U of L football coach would turn down the job at Tennessee to remain at the program Schnellenberger saved from a fading minor-league baseball park.
"No, I didn't," Schnellenberger said. "No."
Nor did I. Nor did you, Kreskin.
Let's not forget one thing: Lane Kiffin deserves some credit for this.
Kiffin is the guy who trashed and then fled the Tennessee program four years ago, leaving just one season after he was hired to replace Phil Fulmer. Charlie Strong isn't the first guy to turn down the Tennessee job. He's at least the seventh coach to wave the Vols away since 2009. Tennessee needs players, a coach and a massive marketing campaign.
But this is more than Tennessee falling and not being able to get up.
This is about the sweat equity that Schnellenberger put into this program for a decade, starting in 1985. This is about Tom Jurich arriving in 1997 and hiring John L. Smith to fix what Ron Cooper had broken. This is about Bobby Petrino winning 41 of 50 games and playing football as entertaining as the game can be played.
This is about a fan base that averaged 10,531 in 1974, 27,663 in 1985, 40,646 in 2002 and 49,991 this season. (Would somebody please share those numbers with Charlie Strong?)
And this is about Charlie Strong taking a deep breath and understanding that he can become to the Louisville program what Frank Beamer is to Virginia Tech, what Bill Snyder is to Kansas State or Chris Petersen is to Boise State – a guy who changes the culture as well as the way a program is viewed.
"Circumstances have created a different era," said Roman Oben, a former U of L offensive lineman who played at the end of the Schnellenberger Era.
"Sometimes there has to be a feeling of accomplishment before it becomes that next natural step. Coach Strong can really establish a program. He has some business left to finish."
It is business that Strong will finish at Louisville – and not at Tennessee.