Louisville has newfound passion under Strong

Charlie Strong had never been a head coach before accepting the Louisville job in December. But the first-year leader of the Cardinals has been involved in plenty of BCS contests as defensive coordinator at Florida for seven seasons, which is why bringing a Big East championship back to Louisville is the ultimate goal for Strong and his staff — no matter how far the program may have fallen under the departed Steve Kragthorpe.

The 49-year-old Strong inherits a program that is coming off a disappointing three-year run under Kragthorpe in which the Cardinals went 15-21 — including a disastrous 4-8 mark in 2009. U of L has not been to the postseason since 2006 when the team won the Big East championship and earned a berth to the Orange Bowl under Bobby Petrino. It was the school’s first and only trip to a BCS game.

Strong hopes to make BCS appearances a common occurrence during his stay with the Cardinals.

He knows that a commitment to recruiting is the biggest component to assembling a major-conference contender. He was an accomplished recruiter at Florida and still has ties to high schools — particularly in southern states — that should be able to net attractive recruits to Louisville.

He also knows that he must make better inroads to Cincinnati-area high schools — especially because of the proximity to Louisville and the fact that former UC head coaches Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly did such a good job of getting talent from their own backyards when they were coaching the Bearcats.

Strong, who owns two national championship rings from his days in Gainesville, already was able to snag a prospect from UC in this year's recruiting class — quarterback Dominique Brown.

Of course, getting the best high school players from the city of Louisville will be essential, as well, especially since rival Kentucky started to make a dent in that area under former head coach Rich Brooks.

It’s no coincidence that the Cardinals’ biggest rivals are the Bearcats and Wildcats. And the pressure is only intensified for a head coach at Louisville with Cincinnati winning back-to-back Big East titles.

With the intense atmosphere cultivated by sports-crazed Louisville residents and fans craving for a consistent winner, have they embraced Strong since his arrival on campus?

That seems to be the case, as there’s a newfound energy in the city and rejuvenated hope following a season in which Louisville recorded the two smallest crowds in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium history: 21,497 against Arkansas State and 23,422 for Rutgers. Those numbers certainly didn’t bode well for Kragthorpe considering that the stadium will be expanded from 42,000 to 56,000 before this season’s opener against Kentucky.

Strong, who waited 27 years to become a head coach, knows the importance of the off-the-field duties a program-builder must carry out in trying to market his product. He learned from one of the best in that area: Urban Meyer. So, Strong opened his spring practices up to the public and let fans see what he hopes is a fun and exciting brand of football.

Because the talent level at Louisville has dropped since Petrino sped off to the NFL — and right back to the college game — Strong may be in for a trying first season. The Cardinals allowed 26.2 points per game in ‘09, were second-to-last in the conference in total defense and last in rushing defense. The defensive line seems to lack an impact defensive end and looks small inside at tackle. The good news is that Strong will build that unit back up quickly. After all, he remains a defensive coach at heart.

From every indication, athletic director Tom Jurich hired the perfect coach to turn around the Louisville program. Throughout spring practice, the Cardinals seemed to have a newfound passion — determined to reclaim a winning culture and compete in a conference that also welcomes new head coaches Skip Holtz at South Florida and Butch Jones at Cincinnati.

When the season kicks off against rival Kentucky, who has beaten Louisville the last three seasons, Cardinals fans will officially be able to put the Kragthorpe years behind them and officially embrace a new era — where only the Strong will survive.

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