Charlie Strong's first season with the Louisville Cardinals got off to an inauspicious beginning.
In the season opener, Kentucky needed just two plays to score a touchdown. Strong remembers talking to defensive coordinator Vance Bedford over the headset and saying, "This is going to be a long season."
But the Cardinals kept improving and finished with a 6-6 record that most people didn't think was possible. They will be bowling for the first time since the 2006 season when they take on Southern Miss in the Dec. 21 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.
Strong has received a lot of credit, and was named Big East co-coach of the year along with Connecticut's Randy Edsall. But he says the team's seniors deserve the recognition.
"The reason we're in a bowl game is because our 25 seniors decided to lead this football team," he said. "We made tremendous strides because of the leadership of our seniors. I didn't set any goals in terms of wins or losses; I just wanted to put a product on the field everybody would be pleased and happy with. Each game we got better and better."
The turning point this season, Strong said, came in the third quarter of the third game at Oregon State. Louisville trailed 35-14, and Strong said he called the defense together on the sideline.
"Guys," he said, "we're not going to get embarrassed out here, so you'd better start playing."
After that, Oregon State didn't score again, and the Cardinals got two touchdowns to get back into the game. They failed to tie it up on the final drive, but they learned that day that they could be competitive.
"You could see it right then," Strong said. "I told them, from here out, there's no reason we can't go play."
Strong couldn't say enough about his seniors at a news conference on Monday, and he has to make a choice between two seniors as his starting quarterback for the bowl game.
He said Justin Burke, who started the final four games after Adam Froman injured a thigh muscle, is the starter. But Froman is practicing, and both should be available to play against Southern Miss. He said he is comfortable with either one, or junior Will Stein, who filled in for an injured Burke in the season finale at Rutgers.
This is the first season Strong has been a head coach, but it's not his first bowl game in that role. He was interim coach for Florida after Ron Zook got fired and Strong led the Gators in a Peach Bowl loss to Miami in 2004.
"That was a really tough bowl experience," he said.
Speaking of Florida and Miami, Strong's name popped up in the searches for new coaches at both those schools. While Strong didn't say whether he was contacted by either school, he said he wasn't interested in either job and that he was "locked into" Louisville.
"An AD hired me and gave me the keys to this program, and I owe him a lot," Strong said. "I will never, ever chase a job. I'm totally committed to this job here.
"I don't see myself walking out on a program in one year to go chase another job. I have a really good job here."
Strong has done a really good job in just one year at Louisville. It could be the start of something big.
"We said, let's just get to a bowl game this year," he said. "And from then on, we'll take the program each year and make it better and better."