Thursday, December 31, 2009

Eye Black Challenger - Charlie Strong

You might say that Charlie Strong is the oldest or longest of Gator coaches. Charlie Strong coached under Galen Hall, Gary Darnell, Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook and Urban Meyer. After 27 long years, he has finally earned a long over due head coaching job.

What few seem to realize about Coach Strong is he is and has been a "pioneer" in the world of college football. Ben Volin has the story.

Charlie Strong doesn't want to be known as an African American head football coach.

He doesn't want to be considered a ground-breaker.

All he wants is to be called Coach, like everyone else in the NCAA.

"What you want to do is never put pressure on yourself to be like, 'Hey, you have to be a pioneer,'" Strong said Tuesday.

It took Strong 27 years, but he finally reached the peak of his profession.

The long-time Florida defensive coordinator was hired as Louisville's head coach three weeks ago, ending a frustrating decade of missed opportunities and rumors that his race and interracial marriage prevented him from earning a head coaching job.

Strong spoke Tuesday from New Orleans, where he will coach the No. 5 Gators (12-1) one last time, this Friday, when they play No. 4 Cincinnati (12-0) in the Sugar Bowl.

Several times Strong, 49, has been a finalist — for jobs at Kansas, California and Mississippi State, among others — but every time he walked away empty-handed.

When he took the podium for the first time as a head coach three weeks ago, he broke into tears and had to stop to compose himself several times.

"You're an assistant for so long, you're so close, you're so close, and then bam, it's finally happened," Strong said Tuesday. "You got to pinch yourself, like, 'is this really happening?'" But Strong is not the only African American coach finally receiving a shot to prove himself.

Strong is one of five African Americans to be hired as head coach of an NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision school since Thanksgiving. Virginia hired Mike London, Kansas hired Turner Gill, Memphis hired Larry Porter and Western Kentucky hired Willie Taggart.

There are now 11 African American head coaches among the 120 FBS schools, up from just three in 2003.

And for the first time this season, three head coaches of color have led their teams to bowl games — Randy Shannon (Miami), Kevin Sumlin (Houston) and Ken Niumatalolo (Navy).

The association of Black Coaches & Administrators called it a "remarkable" period for African American coaches on its Web site, and that "we are experiencing a watershed of success after a sordid history of disappointments."

"At least we are seeing some evidence of a breakthrough," Floyd Keith, executive director of the association, told "I commend the athletic directors and presidents for being attentive and being inclusive and giving opportunities, which hasn't always been the case."

Before Strong was hired, former NFL coach Tony Dungy railed publicly against NCAA athletic directors for not hiring enough African American head coaches, especially at BCS schools.

"I'm hoping this is a signal," Dungy said of the recent hires. "But … the BCS schools, that's the place we have to look, because that's where you have a chance to win a national championship."

To Strong, it's simply a matter of college football finally reflecting the changes being made in society.

"Look at the new president of the United States," he said.

Of course, some coaches resent the notion that race played any factor in their job search. Gill, formerly the coach at Buffalo, was asked at his introductory press conference three weeks ago if race was a reason it took him so long to earn a job at a BCS school.

"No," he said. "It's all about what's the best fit. Each institution has to do their evaluation process, do it diligently and then find out who is the best guy for that environment and that particular time period. I don't believe in that situation at all."

Florida cornerback Joe Haden said he was happy that Strong finally got the opportunity, but not because of his skin color.

"I'm just proud because Coach Strong is a great coach and because he's a good person," Haden said. "If he was African American, white, black, Chinese — I feel Coach Strong would be a good head coach anywhere."

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