From the day the participants in the 2013 Sugar Bowl were announced, a major story heading into the game has been No. 21 Louisville Cardinals head coach Charlie Strong going up against the No. 3 Florida Gators, a team he coached in one position or another for 16 of the 30 years in which he has been a coach.
After graduating from Central Arkansas, Strong took a graduate assistant job at Florida from 1983-84. He moved on to two other stops and returned to Gainesville, FL as an outside linebackers coach from 1988-89. He returned two years later to serve as assistant head coach and defensive tackles coach from 1991-94. Strong then spent seven years away before returning to UF as defensive coordinator (and assistant head coach) from 2002-09.
Central Arkansas may be his alma mater, but Florida is undoubtedly a second collegiate home to Strong. Yet while fans and the media are focused on the back story, Strong has spent little time thinking about the Gators that way. That’s not to say he will not be touched by the moment at some point before the game begins.
“Well, see, I guess [it] really hasn’t hit me yet because I haven’t seen many of the players. So probably when I walk into the stadium for the first time [Wednesday] night and look across the sideline, you see a lot of those players you were able to recruit. Then it kind of hits you,” he said on Tuesday. “Once you hear the band rev up and play the different songs that you’re so familiar with … it will be something special. I mean, you kind of sit there, I’ll probably be in a daze for a second, but I still got to get refocused and get my team going also.”
Strong knows he has to be focused because his Cardinals are going up against a formidable opponent. He did not waste much time before praising UF as he lauded his former school as part of his opening statement on Tuesday.
“We know it’s time to lock down and focus playing an outstanding team in University of Florida. Coach [Will] Muschamp has done an outstanding job,” he said. “You look at that football team, they’re one game away from playing for a national championship, and I think about just the speed and the quickness and just how aggressive that football team is.
“They got them on offense. [Jeff] Driskel an outstanding football player. A lot of those guys I recruited a lot of them there. Defensively you look at [Matt] Elam and at them up front big and physical and having to control the line of scrimmage and outstanding defense, a trademark at University of Florida always play outstanding defense there.”
Looking at Florida’s defensive unit this year, Strong said he is reminded of two of the better defenses he coached in Gainesville – the 2006 and 2008 national title teams.
“You look at defense now you think about it you look at [Jon] Bostic and you think of [Brandon] Spikes and you look at Elam you think of Major Wright and you look at those guys up front and it’s just an outstanding football team,” he said. “And just defensively, pass efficiency, they were number one or number two in the country and it’s all categories they led. They’re just a really good team defensively.”
The Gators may be back on top now, but the first two years following Strong’s departure for the Louisville job saw Florida looking like a shell of their former selves.
Strong, tasked with turning around the Cardinals program, said he did not spend much time worrying about the Gators from 2010-11, adding that he was confident the team would be able to turn things around sooner than later.
“I had a hard time myself now. I was 7-6 and 7-6. So I didn’t worry about them. I was struggling myself,” he said with a smile. “Those guys were all young at that time, but I knew … eventually once these players grew up they were going to be really good players and it’s happened.”
His time spent reminiscing about Florida now over, Strong remains focused on giving Louisville the best possible chance to pull off a major upset in the team’s first BCS bowl game in six seasons.