Urban Meyer (right) says that Charlie Strong is the best coach in college football.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Nick Saban has been beaten only seven times during his last five seasons at Alabama. Nobody predicted that kind of dominance when Saban lost 13 times during his first 35 games as a college head coach.
Ditto for Les Miles. He's averaged 11 wins his last three seasons at Louisiana State. Miles averaged seven wins over his first three years as a head coach at Oklahoma State.
There are other examples, including guys considered the best in the game. Bill Snyder went 13-20 in his first three seasons. Brian Kelly started 19-16 at Central Michigan. The great Steve Spurrier had reason to throw a visor, going 20-13-1, at Duke.
Obvious question: How do Charlie Strong's first three seasons compare with guys considered Top 10 coaches?
Strong has gone 25-14 (with two bowl wins) for a Louisville program that went 9-15 in two seasons before he arrived.
His winning percentage (64.1) over his first three seasons is better than Saban (61.4), Miles (56.8) or Kelly (54.2), but not as dazzling as Chris Petersen (89.7), Bobby Petrino (78.4) or Urban Meyer (77.1).
It is not surprising that Strong is drawing recognition as one of the next stars in the college game. One coach who always makes the Top 10 lists – Urban Meyer of Ohio State – said he considers Strong the best.
"He's arguably the finest coach in the country," Meyer told me during Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. "And an even better person … I'm not surprised at all by what he's done at Louisville."
Full disclaimer: Meyer and Strong have been close since Meyer joined Strong on Lou Holtz's staff to coach the Notre Dame receivers in 1996.
Strong and his wife, Vicki, insisted that Meyer live with them for nearly three months while the Meyers built a home in South Bend, even though they barely knew Meyer.
"We really had a good time because at that time I didn't really know who he was," Strong said. "We developed a relationship."
Strong left Notre Dame in 1999, moving to South Carolina with Holtz. They wanted Meyer to come, too. He declined, staying at Notre Dame. But they continued to talk, even after Meyer jumped to Bowling Green for his first head coaching opportunity and then moved to Utah.
When Meyer was summoned to Florida to replace Ron Zook as the Gators' head coach in 2005, Strong was primed to leave Gainesville to return to Notre Dame as defensive coordinator for Charlie Weis. Meyer delivered his best recruiting pitch, telling Strong that he would run the Gators' defense and that Meyer needed him.
"Urban said, 'I need you to stay with me,'" Strong recalled. "I said, 'Let me think about it.'
"At the time, I was going to Notre Dame. Good thing I didn't, huh?"
From there, the friendship soared. They celebrated five remarkable seasons with the Gators, winning national championships in 2006 and 2008. The only frustration that Meyer remembers was his inability to convince an athletic director to give Strong a chance to run a program – until Tom Jurich hired Strong at Louisville after the 2009 season.
"Charlie's not a good friend," Meyer said. "He's a great friend. I would actually get angry when Charlie would not get jobs.
"I would think, ‘What else? What else?' People who really know Charlie aren't surprised by what he's done."
"He's a really good friend," Strong said. "We talk a lot. We can help one another. He's had the success that he's had because of the relationship with the players. That's what it's all about."
Here is the most substantive proof the friendship is solid: The Strong/Meyer relationship survived the fierce competition during the recruiting of former Trinity High School receiver James Quick.
Meyer was convinced Quick was a perfect fit in his spread offense as well as a constant threat as a return guy. Strong was just as certain Quick would benefit from playing with Teddy Bridgewater for adoring hometown fans.
"When he was down here recruiting I said to him, ‘Now listen Urban, I can't come to Columbus and get a player, so why am I going to allow you to come into Louisville and get one?' " Strong said.
"He said, ‘Well, we really want him.'
"I said, 'Oh, like I don't want him?' I said, 'I know you are The Ohio State University and you're going to get whoever you want, but we're going to recruit our butt off. We've got to get this kid because he's at home and we need to get him in our program.'"
Strong won that one. Quick will play at Louisville this season. The Urban Meyer/Charlie Strong friendship survived that tug of war. The two coaches still talk nearly every week.
Go ahead and ask Urban Meyer. He will tell you why Charlie Strong is as good as any coach in the college game.