Last night, Charlie Strong rejected a job offer from Tennessee and decided to remain the head football coach at Louisville. This is bad for Tennessee and a black eye for the whole SEC.
Strong's roots are deep in SEC Country. He was born in Batesville, Arkansas and was a four-year letterman at the University of Central Arkansas. His first coaching experience was with the Gators back in 1984 and he eventually obtained a Master's degree from Florida. Strong was the first African American to become a coordinator in the SEC at South Carolina in 1999 and many thought he would be the first African American head coach in the SEC.
Strong spent his best coaching years at Florida, first being hired by Ron Zook and then being retained by Urban Meyer. In fact, Strong was the only coach that Meyer retained when he took over from Zook at the end of the 2004 season. Strong was briefly the head coach of Florida, being tapped to coach the 2004 Peach Bowl.
Now, despite his deep roots in the SEC, Strong has spurned a top-tier SEC job at Tennessee and is staying at Louisville, a Big East School with no real football tradition.
And that's a bitter pill to swallow not only for Vol fans, but for the entire SEC.
Strong is a deep South guy, through and through, a coach who seemed sent straight out of central casting to lead a SEC program. Tennessee was the perfect place for him to ascend. Tennessee has been playing football since 1891, has amassed nearly 800 wins over the decades and has the largest stadium in the SEC seating 102,455. Tennessee has won six national championship, sixteen conference titles and has produced 38 consensus all-American football players. Peyton Manning is Tennessee's most prominent ambassador and the Vols routinely send talent to the NFL.
By contrast, Louisville is a basketball school with a tiny football stadium named after a pizza chain, with substandard ancillary facilities and no football tradition. Louisville recently cracked 450 total wins. Respectable, but not up to SEC standards.
That's why Wednesday evening's news was so stunning. Coaches switch jobs all the time and are smart to take the next step up. One year you are a hot coaching commodity; the next your star QB goes down and you are not hot, but on the hot seat. Even a national championship guarantees nothing (e.g., Chizik). By winning 10 games this season, Strong has created some security at Louisville, but keep in mind that his Louisville teams have had at least two conference losses each year and he is only 24-15 in the Big East. His one game at Florida was also a loss. It is reasonable to question whether Strong has reached his zenith at Louisville. Typically, this is the situation when coaches move onto stronger, more tradition-rich programs. Yes, Tennessee has been down since Phil Fulmer "retired," but Tennessee has all the makings of an SEC Champion.
So this raises two obvious questions: Why would Strong stay at a basketball school in the Big East? And if the SEC can't lure away a Big East coach, in this situation, does it have any prayer of actually remaining at the top of the CFB world?
Tennessee isn't Alabama or Florida right now. It is a step behind the top SEC powers, but has a fan base that is passionate with top-tier facilities and decades of tradition. Louisville, meanwhile, is in the Big East -- let that sink in for a moment -- and when it transitions to the ACC, Louisville will be in the ACC -- let that sink in for a moment. Recent events in realignment have brought into question the long-term stability of the ACC. Why would Strong spurn the SEC for a job in the tottering ACC? Further, Tennessee is a destination job that, with the right coaching and recruits, could challenge for the SEC championship. But Louisville will only ever be a middling team in the ACC behind the likes of Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech. Maybe this is a sign that almost any job in the Big East/ACC is better than a top-tier job in the SEC.
At Tennessee, Strong would have had much more access to blue-chip talent (although also far more competition for it). At Louisville, Strong will have to scrape and scratch for every 3* player. And, yet, Strong is staying. This cannot be good for the SEC.
One would have thought that the biggest advantage the Volunteers offered was money. It has been reported that Tennessee was offering upwards of $4 million per year. However, early reports indicate that Louisville has given Strong $3.5 million a year and that was enough for Strong to stay.
The money angle is the most concerning for the SEC. Even though the conference ranks as the richest conference thanks to its TV contacts with ESPN and CBS, it was still outbid -- well, actually under-bid -- by a Big East school. Yes, Louisville is a Big East power and is a 2012 Big East Co-Champion. But still, one has to ask whether the luster has worn off the SEC when the riches of the SEC can't buy a Big East coach? It has also been reported that Tennessee couldn't lure Mike Grundy away from Oklahoma State. Is the SEC now a third-tier conference since it can't even beat the Big East or the Big XII for a coach?
Along with this year's on-field results, score this as another loss for the SEC, a disappointing upset. The SEC went a disastrous 0-3 against the Big East in 2012. With Strong staying at Louisville, make that 0-4.
If Charlie Strong's decision to stay at Louisville means anything, it seems the SEC's allure is fading, a conference in decline.
Ht: Brian Bennett for the template.