Charlie Strong spoke passionately, emotionally, beautifully, honestly and confidently Thursday morning, a man so determined to be a real leader he made a choice just about every leader in college football would not have made.
For the love of his players.
For the love of his community.
For the love of his family.
We have become so accustomed to coaches bolting for the next available opportunity at bigger, richer programs, that most everybody expected Strong to leave, too. But Strong's decision to stay at Louisville served as a reminder that sometimes the best opportunity you have is the one staring you in the face.
Strong could have easily gone to Tennessee, and everybody outside Louisville would have congratulated him for landing a job at an SEC power, after toiling nearly all his life as an assistant in that very same conference.
When the job offer came Tuesday, Strong had to weigh his options. And think. He remembered meeting with Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich back in 2009 during his job interview, recalling how a person he barely knew put all his trust and faith in him, after so many athletic directors slammed the door in his face.
"He gave me my first chance to be a head football coach," Strong said at his news conference, tearing up during his opening remarks. "I was always on everybody's short list. But Tom let me know from the very beginning I was the only one on his list."
Strong woke up Wednesday and went on his customary morning run, already leaning toward staying. “How do you walk away from someone who really trusts and believes in you?” he thought.
Many folks close to Strong have always believed his intense sense of loyalty to Jurich would give Louisville the advantage against just about any other job offer. Jurich gave Strong his first head coaching job, after 26 previous years as an assistant got him nothing but empty handshakes and plastic smiles.
But this particular offer at Tennessee felt different -- if only because it was the best available opening he had been connected to, and was an SEC behemoth ready to give him whatever he wanted.
AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli
Coach Charlie Strong, who turned down Tennessee's offer this week, says he's staying at Louisville.
Strong, however, is not built like most coaches. He is not a career opportunist, not somebody to game the system, work schools against each other to get a better, more lucrative contract. Strong is a humble guy who comes from humble origins, who refused to let his ego make this decision for him.
He believes in loyalty, faith and trust -- buzzwords coaches constantly use when they urge their players to give ‘em everything they’ve got. But most of the time, loyalty, faith and trust get trampled on the way out the door.
“You think, ‘I can go in that conference, I can go beat this team, I can go beat this team, you let your ego get in the way,’” Strong said. “But it's not about that. It's about people, and it's about how you affect their lives.”
Strong is a coach genuinely committed to making his players better, his program better, and himself better. The lure of the SEC is tremendously great. We saw that earlier this week when Bret Bielema left a good job at Wisconsin for Arkansas. When it became known that Strong was the No. 1 target at Tennessee, a great sense of unease took over Louisville, because fans have seen this story play out all too recently.
Bobby Petrino walked out the door, too, after leading his team to a BCS game.
But there is a huge gulf between a man like Petrino and a man like Strong.
When Strong met with his players Wednesday afternoon, he told them he had a decision to make. Openly. Honestly.
He looked around the room, and saw many young men who grew up without fathers, or loved ones who walked out on them.
"Now you're getting ready to do the same thing," Strong said. "I just could not do that to this football team."
Would he have left if Tennessee had been in better academic standing, or if the program was in better position than it is now? That is irrelevant now.
Does this mean Strong will stay in Louisville forever? Maybe. Maybe not. There are never guarantees in college football, not even when a smaller football program triumphs over a much larger one. "I hope it's not something to come up every year," Strong said.
He did enough for today to end the speculation, at least for another season. And quite honestly, the focus on today should be the way Louisville won and the way Strong won. This was a triumph for the little guys.