Charlie Strong and Florida Gators defense are terms that go hand-in-hand, except this time Strong will not be leading one of the best units in the country onto the field but rather trying to figure out a way to score on it.
All of that will occur in one month when Florida and Strong’s Louisville Cardinals square off in the 2013 Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 in New Orleans, LA.
It will be one day short of exactly three years from the last time he donned orange and blue and coached the Gators’ defense against Cincinnati in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. Florida allowed just three points in the first half and cruised to an impressive victory.
“We are so excited here at the University of Louisville to be playing an opponent like the University of Florida,” said Strong on Sunday after the game was announced. “I spent so many years there and I just think back; it seems like it yesterday we were in the Sugar Bowl playing Cincinnati for the last time being at the University of Florida.”
Though he is years removed from the program, Strong praised the Gators’ defense and said he watches Florida play each and every week. In fact, he still communicates with some of the players he helped recruit, most of whom are in their final seasons at UF.
“You look at the defense and you’re so familiar with the guys there, when you think about those guys,” he said. “Lerentee [McCray], he has been there forever, Omar [Hunter] and [Jelani] Jenkins, all those players, Frankie Hammond at wide receiver; and Caleb Sturgis, I thought my man was done but he’s still kicking there. You look at [Jon] Bostic and how well he’s played. Then you look at the quarterback position with [Jeff] Driskel being a dual threat where he can run and throw the ball.
“That’s an outstanding program; a program that’s built with toughness, offensive and defensive line, a very tough program. So it’s going to be an exciting matchup.”
Strong certainly seemed enthused on Sunday. His passion for the Florida program sounded as genuine as it was when he was a coordinator. He also took some time to praise the school’s administration, head coach Will Muschamp and what the Gators have accomplished so far this season.
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“[I’m obviously] very familiar with that program, and Coach Will has done an outstanding job. He’s a really good friend of mind. And I know when he took over that program, I told him, if there was anything I could do, I would be more than willing to help, even though I was moving on to Louisville,” he said.
“They didn’t get the job done in Jacksonville but this is a team that was one game away from playing for a national title and we are nowhere near that right now. But it’s an outstanding football team.”
He continued, “I spent a number of years there, and their athletic director, Jeremy Foley, is an outstanding leader for their program. You just look at a program that’s been consistent year in and year out and they are going to compete on a national level. It’s a program of excellence, and I really enjoyed my time there and there’s so many memories there.”
Muschamp, in turn, paid Strong a big-time compliment, noting that the two have known each other for years but grown closer recently.
“He does it the right way. I just got a lot of respect for him. [He] is one of the good guys in this profession,” Muschamp said.
Strong flat-out called Florida “a better football team” and noted that his Louisville players “know how good that program is” so there is no need for extra motivation heading into the game because “the respect is already there” as it pertains to what UF has already accomplished in 2012.
What he is most concerned about is giving the Cardinals a fighting chance against the Gators and allowing the players, coaches and staff that worked so hard for this opportunity to enjoy it one month from now.
“I’m just happy for this program to get to a BCS bowl game. I think that’s more important than [the team] we play,” he said. “I love the University of Florida, but I’m just so happy for our players.”
For Strong, who once thought he may never have the opportunity to become a head coach, leading this team into a BCS bowl against his former school is certainly a dream come true, a well-deserved one for one of college football’s true good guys.
Photo Credit: The Independent Florida Alligator