It is quite amazing what the right head coach can do for a program.
Take a look at Louisville.
In three years, Charlie Strong has got the Cardinals ready to soar into the national spotlight again. With a share of a Big East championship already under its belt, Louisville is expected to be the preseason choice to win the league -- with the potential to be ranked in the Top 25 when the season begins.
The turnaround is rather remarkable, when you consider the Steve Kragthorpe era took a BCS-winning program down to the basement of the Big East.
Wrong head coach.
Strong succeeded him in December 2009, and it became almost instantly clear that he was the right head coach -- in fact, the only man athletic director Tom Jurich interviewed for the job.
"I did an immense amount of homework on this," Jurich recounted in a recent phone interview. "I talked to so many people about Charlie. I really wanted this one to work perfectly. I knew what I was getting before I sat down with him, and everything I heard about him is true. He's a man of high character, and it shows through in everything."
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"He's a tremendous recruiter, he's a wonderful motivator, he's an exceptional leader," Jurich said. "A lot of guys can talk it, but Charlie can walk it. That's the biggest difference I see between him and other coaches. He's assembled a fabulous staff. They're all people he's known and had great ties with. They have great loyalty to each other. It's been great to watch."
It is an understatement to say that Strong surprised people in Year 1, when he took a team that went 4-8 the season before and got it to a bowl-winning 7-6 season. He followed that up with another surprise year in 2011, when most thought the Cardinals would be down because they lost so many starters.
But Strong coaxed the most out of his team. Louisville won a share of the Big East championship and returns 17 starters this year, including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, making the Cardinals the hot team for 2012.
That also makes Strong among the hottest coaching names in the country. Jurich rewarded Strong for his efforts this past offseason with a seven-year contract extension that pays a base salary of $2.3 million. Though Strong has professed his loyalty to the Cardinals, there are those skeptics who wonder whether he will be in it for the long haul.
"You can't worry about that. What you have to do is be prepared," Jurich said. "I have a lot of high-profile coaches here. To me that's a compliment to the coaches we have, a compliment to Charlie and what he's able to do. I will do everything in my power to keep him here, and he knows that. We have a great friendship, and we have a great deal of respect for each other. Money's not going to be an issue, but the great thing about him is he's not chasing money. He likes what he's building here. He loves these coaches, he loves these kids. And we live in an outstanding community."
The return of the football program coincides with an incredible renaissance for the Louisville athletic department as a whole. Football was one of a school-record 10 teams that won at least a share of a Big East championship in 2011-12. Since the Cardinals joined the Big East in 2005, they have won 50 Big East titles -- second only to Notre Dame.
With the newly reconfigured Big East taking shape, it is easy to see why many believe Louisville is a rising power. ESPN Insider Travis Haney even writes that Louisville is one of a handful of schools with untapped potential. There is young talent on this team, and pipelines are being built into rich recruiting bases in Florida. Add in an $8 million facility expansion and upgrade, and everything is in place for Louisville to make some noise nationally.
In fact, Louisville may be better off today than it was when it had all its success in its first years in the Big East.
"We'll have a much more solid foundation because Charlie is really focused on foundation," Jurich said. "Foundation that doesn't show up in the newspaper. People that have been around it every day, we see what foundation means. What are they doing academically, in the community? He's made this whole thing do a 180 and that's been so impressive. From a talent standpoint, we'll be there or exceed it. I'm not worried about that.
"The sky's the limit for this program. When we do arrive, it's going to be fun. But it's been a fun ride the last two years, too, because nobody expected a thing."