On Wednesday, Louisville head coach Charlie Strong received a contract extension of eight years, worth $3.7 million a season. Strong is coming off winning a share of his second Big East Conference championship in as many seasons. His Cardinals capped an 11-win, 2012 season with a 33-23 Sugar Bowl defeat of his former employer, Florida, that frankly was more lopsided than the final score.
Strong’s new deal puts him among college football’s highest paid head coaches in what is a landmark moment for the ongoing struggle with coaching diversity.
It’s worth noting Strong’s new wages match those typically reserved for coaches with national championships to their credit. Of the top eight, only Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz has yet to win one.
But a necessary tag to that point is that Nick Saban, Mack Brown, Les Miles, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer all won titles at programs that were not their first head coaching gigs.
Only Bob Stoops deviates from this trend. Stoops moved into his first head coaching job at Oklahoma after a stint as an SEC defensive coordinator — coincidentally at Florida, like Strong. Stoops spent five seasons at Kansas State before that.
Strong spent eight seasons in Gainesville in the same role, after a three-season run as defensive coordinator at South Carolina.
The lone interruption to his decade-long stint as a defensive coordinator came in the 2004 Peach Bowl, when Strong was the interim head coach following fired Ron Zook. Strong was retained as defensive coordinator after the hire of the aforementioned Meyer.
So Strong wasn’t hired to one of the most prominent positions in college football for his first job. But then, UF wasn’t the first vacancy for which Strong was overlooked. It certainly wasn’t the last, either.
In 2002 after coordinating the nation’s No. 5 scoring defense, Strong interviewed at Cal. The Golden Bears opted for Jeff Tedford. A season later, Strong was passed for positions at East Carolina and Tulsa. The Tulsa opening went to then-Buffalo Bills quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe who, coincidentally, Strong would replace after a 4-8 campaign at Louisville in 2009.
After a 2006 season in which the Gators allowed just 13.5 points per game en route to a BCS championship, Strong was considered at Minnesota. UM reportedly sought a proven recruiter; Strong was and still is that. He also would have been just the fourth black head coach in Big Ten history, and the conference’s first since Michigan State fired Bobby Williams in 2002.
Minnesota instead hired Tim Brewster, a name sure to make the hair on the backs of Golden Gopher fans’ necks stand up, and the Big Ten went another decade without cracking its glass ceiling. Purdue finally bucked the trend last month, when it hired Darrell Hazell.
Whether race impacted Strong’s job search for the near-decade he was a head coaching candidate, only the athletic directors responsible for those hires know. But his career path becoming a treadmill shed much needed light on the issue.
Before the 2009 BCS championship, Strong told reporters: “Everybody always said I didn’t get that job because my wife is white,” Strong said at media day Monday, as the Gators prepare to face Oklahoma in the FedEx BCS National Championship Game. “If you think about it, a coach is standing up there representing the university. If you’re not strong enough to look through that [interracial marriage], then you have an issue.”
Race and coaching is a hot button issue at present, as multiple NFL franchises sought to fill head coaching vacancies in recent months. The Rooney Rule was established in 2003 to give minorities more opportunity in the notoriously homogenized profession. Since its implementation, 13 minority candidates were hired to head coaching positions. Still, the rule has its critics from both ends of the spectrum. Some believe further measures can be taken.
No matter how rudimentary, it’s more substantive than anything the NCAA currently has. Here’s one compelling case for a similar venture in the college ranks.
Big-time college and thus professional football is played largely by black men. Over 55 percent of current FBS level players are black, yet 13 percent of FBS coaches are black. There may be disparity in the number of black people and white people that enter into coaching, but there is also noticeable disparity in how the former is treated on the job market.
Jon Embree noted after his firing at Colorado that black coaches are not afforded second chances in the FBS. In fact, Tyrone Willingham is the sole black coach to land a second FBS job.
Strong receiving a level of recognition that puts him in a category with the Nick Sabans and Urban Meyers is a major milestone, and other black coaches are helping to blaze a historic trail. Strong’s contract extension comes shortly after Stanford rewarded Pac-12 and Rose Bowl winning David Shaw with his own extension, for example. Kevin Sumlin led Texas A&M to 11 wins in his first season as its head coach.
Their successes should create more opportunities for other minority head coaching candidates.
That progress has to come from such precedent is somewhat absurd. The qualifications of Mack Brown at Texas weren’t judged via John Mackovic’s failings because the two were the same race. Alas, that’s seemingly where football culture is at when it comes to black head coaches.