Commentary

Strong's struggle for respect ends

Originally Published: December 10, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The pause lasted 12 seconds.

It was an extraordinary delay by public speaking standards -- but when a man's career had been on pause for as long as Charlie Strong's, it's understandable.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeCharlie Strong takes over a Louisville team that hasn't had a winning season since 2006.

"Me and my wife [Vicki] looked at each other, and it was so emotional," Strong said when asked how it felt to finally have his first head-coaching job after 26 years in the college football business.

That's when his voice caught. His head bowed. The new coach of the Louisville Cardinals snapped his fingers and then tapped them on the podium, trying to find the composure he didn't feel.

Finally, he went on.

"Because you just never thought it was going to happen," he said, biting his lip as tears filled his eyes.

Across 20 years of covering introductory coaching news conferences, I've seen a lot of insincerity and heard a lot of manufactured lines. This might have been the most authentic moment I've experienced at one of these events.

Here was a 49-year-old man with a compelling defensive coordinator résumé finally receiving an opportunity that had been criminally overdue. Suddenly, his struggle for respect was over. The knowledge arrived with a powerful rush: His race -- and his interracial marriage -- could not hold Strong back any longer in his chosen profession.

In a flourish, Louisville righted the biggest ongoing wrong in college football.

It gave Charlie a chance.

And the honest emotion poured out.

"That," said the man who hired him, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, "was a top-five moment in my career."

In a telephone interview earlier Wednesday, no less a voice of coaching authority than Tony Dungy said of Strong, "When they see what he can do, you're probably going to have a lot of people disappointed they didn't hire him sooner."

From Louisville to Charlottesville to Memphis and beyond, this may be the winter when college football drags itself out of the plantation era and joins the 21st century. One year removed from eradicating 75 percent of the African-American head coaches from the "big six" conferences, the sport is improving its diversity.

Four FBS coaching vacancies have been filled by African-Americans: Western Kentucky hired Stanford assistant and WKU alumnus Willie Taggart, Memphis hired LSU assistant Larry Porter, Virginia hired Richmond coach Mike London and now Louisville has hired Florida defensive coordinator Strong.

On this rare occasion, black coaches actually are being hired at places with a chance to succeed. Memphis should be one of the better programs in Conference USA and sits on fertile recruiting ground. Same could be said for Virginia and the ACC. And Louisville is one of the more committed football schools in the Big East.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIStrong was a defensive coordinator in the SEC since 1999.

"Since I've become involved with this in 1987, I don't ever remember a year in the hiring cycle that has gone this way," said a visibly overjoyed Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association, at the Strong news conference.

Those four hires almost double the number of black coaches in the 120-school FBS. Last season that number was seven -- and of those seven, one was in a big six conference (Randy Shannon at Miami). That would be funny if it weren't so pathetic.

Last year black coaches got dead-end jobs at New Mexico State, New Mexico, Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio) at a historic low ebb. Meanwhile, on the big six level, Clemson, Syracuse, Mississippi State, Washington, Purdue and Iowa State all hired white coaches with no FBS head-coaching experience. Some of them didn't even have offensive or defensive coordinator experience.

"I've had a lot of meetings with people from the NCAA and with athletic directors," Dungy said. "I've asked that question myself: What's different from college basketball and the NFL, where the numbers are much better?

"In college football, a lot of people get into the mix of hiring a coach. There are alums, boosters and board of trustees who want to get involved. I think presidents have to step forward and say, 'We've got to do what's right and hire the best people for the job and not worry about outside influences.'

"I'm from the Big Ten [Dungy played at Minnesota], and I watch the Big Ten commercial and see 11 white head coaches. In 2009, what's wrong with that picture? This is the Big Ten, not the Southeastern Conference."

In its 76-year history, the SEC has had one black head coach: Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State.

Fact is, the Big Ten hasn't had a black head coach since Bobby Williams was run out at Michigan State in 2002. And only two schools to date have crossed the color line. (Northwestern had Francis Peay and Dennis Green.) In the meantime, Illinois could not pass up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hire (and obstinately retain) Ron Zook.

Meanwhile, a state with a troubled racial history now stands at the vanguard of football coaching integration. In addition to Strong at Louisville and Taggart at Western Kentucky, black offensive coordinator Joker Phillips is the coach-in-waiting at Kentucky -- and current coach Rich Brooks could retire as soon as after the Music City Bowl on Dec. 27.

This has the potential to be a larger trend, as evidenced by what has happened at Virginia and Memphis. But on a blustery Wednesday afternoon in Louisville, the fact that Charlie Strong was being given a chance to run his own program was a celebratory moment in its own right.

After the news conference, Keith unhurriedly made his way over to Strong, who was surrounded by reporters. When he finally got a moment, Keith wrapped both arms around Strong and said just one word in his ear.

"Finally."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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