LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- The coaching carousel is very much like one of those rides at the fair. Just shaky enough that you never trust it, briefly thrilling and ultimately nauseating.
The important thing about the coaching carousel is not its motion, but where it stops. And the other important thing about the coaching carousel is not what people say, but what they do.
Charlie Strong took people for a ride this week, and I don't mean on a Tennessee booster's plane. In the end, Strong stayed. That's the important thing. But before he did, the storyline had more turns than a Tilt-a-Whirl.
Strong said he had no representative but Charlie Strong. He told reporters on Monday that he hadn't spoken with Tennessee. He said University of Louisville fans needed to be more like their Big Blue counterparts.
Try not to get dizzy. The first of those, actually, was likely true. Strong doesn't have an agent taking calls from schools. He does, however, have a representative come in for contract negotiations. The second on that list, according even to Strong, was not true. He said he talked to Tennessee beginning on Friday of last week. And the third, well, it was just plain unwise.
When Strong did finally decide to return to U of L sometime Wednesday evening, word got to Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel before it got to anyone else. U of L athletic director Tom Jurich said he saw the story -- then got word from Strong about 20 minutes later. Awkward.
The themes from Strong and Jurich on Thursday were loyalty, integrity, and mutual commitment. Both men said they hadn't even talked at all about money. Even as he said it, Jurich acknowledged that none of us would believe him.
All day, this has been a feel-good story, and it absolutely should be. But it also, at least for me, has been a feel-weird story.
Doesn't matter. What does matter is not where the carousel spins but where it stops. What matters is not what people say, but what they do.
And Charlie Strong stayed. Tom Jurich kept Strong's hands and feet inside the program until the ride came to a complete stop.
If you're cynical, you can say that Strong played it like a Cover-2, wound up with more money, and proved himself desirable to a major SEC program without going to a job that he didn't want passionately. I get that reasoning, but I don't buy it entirely.
Charlie Strong stared $4 million per year right in the eye. The end zone checkerboard. Rocky Top, 100,000-plus screaming fans on a Saturday afternoon, a training facility considered perhaps the best in all of college football.
Let he who has walked away from anything comparable throw out the first cynical barb.
This was no easy process for Strong to go through. In fact, he called it "the toughest decision I've ever had to make in my 29 years of coaching." He wrestled with it. He turned his phone off on Tuesday. Jurich's willingness and, in fact, commitment, to taking care of Strong financially made it easier for Strong to stay. But that doesn't mean it was easy.
Perhaps the most important symbolic action Strong took in announcing his return on Thursday was not in what he said, but how he said it. Strong realized the importance of what he was going to say Thursday morning, and instead of standing up and speaking from the gut as he usually does, he prepared, or had someone assist him in preparing, a statement.
It was some speech. There was some of the usual coachspeak in it, yes. But it was more than that. Midway through, Tennessee called. They accepted Strong's decision, but wanted to hire his speechwriter. It flowed from key topic to key topic, even giving shout-outs to other sports, State of the Union style. The last time I heard a speech that well-crafted, Wolf Blitzer came on when it was finished to ask how it would play among undecideds.
Strong struck some powerful chords. He said whenever he thought seriously about leaving, he returned to the faith Jurich showed in hiring him, and in offering him an extension when his record at the school was 9-10.
"He gave me my first chance to be a head football coach after being an assistant for 27 years," Strong said.
He said he has preached trust and loyalty to his players,
"I didn't want this to be an emotional decision," Strong said. "Or one based on my ego, or my family's egos, or the players' egos. Leading, to me, isn't about telling people what to do. It's about serving others. . . . When I thought about leaving, I kept going back -- we haven't finished the job yet."
"As I talked with my family, it became crystal clear to me that I needed to stay here. Louisville has a special place in our heart."
He teared up while reading this Stephen Covey quote: "You can buy a person a lot, but you can't buy his heart."
After his prepared remarks, Strong was no less forceful.
"It's about relationships," he said, and related sitting in his office alone and thinking, "Wake up. How do you walk away from someone who really trusts and believes in you. . . . I know some of you are sitting here saying, how do you not go to the Southeastern Conference? It's about relationships."
Strong then turned his comments to his players. Again, his words were forceful. "I hate what I put our players through," he said of the days of uncertainty leading up to final exam week for his team. ". . . I told our players, we said to them, when we talk to you we talk about trust and being committed. And I said this to them. A lot of you guys grew up without a father figure and there's been a lot of people to walk out of your life. Now all of a sudden, you're looking at me saying, coach, you're getting ready to do the same thing. And I just could not do that."
Now, it's not what a person says, it's what they do that is important in these situations. But in each of those instances where Strong discussed loyalty, he didn't just discuss it. He demonstrated it by staying.
Nor did he back off of his fan comments. "Some people don't like hearing the truth," Strong said, when asked about his complaints over poorly attended Senior Day festivities.
Jurich later said that those comments were fueled by disappointment some of his players had expressed after a sparsely attended pregame "Card March" on Senior Day. Strong, according to accounts, acknowledged it to players when he got into the locker room and promised them, "This (expletive) is going to change next season." His prodding of the fan base is the beginning of keeping that promise, popular or not.
In the end, Strong gets credit for doing what he said. And Jurich gets credit for making it feasible for him to do that.
In general, I shy away from talk of "integrity" in these situations. Strong could've switched jobs and still demonstrated integrity.
But let's not allow cynicism over the process to obscure a significant decision. Strong turned away from college football's Promised Land to stay in what he sees as a land of promise. And he did it while giving strong consideration to a group rarely thought about in these cases -- the players.
On Tuesday, via Twitter, I remarked that whatever the outcome, to have two programs bidding over him so highly must have felt overwhelming to Strong.
A minute later, senior quarterback Will Stein responded to my post with his own: "You forgot about us too!"
A lot of us often do when these situations come up. Before Jurich's news conference in U of L's Yum! Center facility, TV stations propped open security doors to run cables into the press room. The resulting "Security alert. Shut the door," warning blared repeatedly and constantly. In a study room, point guard Peyton Siva wrestled with his work in a computer station, security alerts and all. People forget about the players. Charlie Strong did not.
If Strong listened to advice and delivered a prepared statement in this situation, perhaps he'll yield to advice moving forward. One curse of U of L coaches -- Jurich finds them, supports them, and they experience great success -- then decide they don't need help anymore. If Strong will let himself be coached from time to time -- show up at Cardinal Caravan events, appear in university promotional videos and materials if asked, it would serve him well.
He has some mild fence-mending to do. But he already has taken the biggest step, and not by what he said, but by what he did.
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