NEW ORLEANS -- When Charlie Strong announced his decision to remain at Louisville instead of taking the Tennessee job, his players, and Cardinals fans, were relieved.
ACC teams, however, should be getting nervous.
In just three seasons, Strong has turned a sub-.500 team into a conference champion playing in a BCS bowl. And with his long-term commitment to the program, there's no reason the Cardinals can't become an annual contender in the ACC and a part of the national championship race throughout his tenure.
"Charlie Strong made a commitment to the University of Louisville. What he's saying to everybody in this country is that this program is a top program in the country," Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said this week as the No. 21 Cardinals (10-2) prepare for Wednesday's Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup against No. 3 Florida (11-1). "As an assistant coach on his staff, I couldn't be happier right now. I couldn't because it's a bright future."
The pieces are certainly in place: a head coach with a national championship pedigree who's a good recruiter, a young and talented roster, and an elite quarterback. That was good enough to help the Cardinals win the Big East title, produce just the fifth 10-win season in school history and make a BCS bowl for just the second time. After another season in the Big East, the Cardinals will move into the ACC, where the competition should (theoretically) be better.
But Strong already has proved he can handle high-level competition. He was Florida's defensive coordinator when the Gators won national titles in 2006 and 2008, and his defenses delivered smothering performances in the title games. UF held Ohio State to just 82 yards in a 41-14 victory and held Oklahoma, which averaged 54.0 points per game and had scored a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 702 points, to just 14 points in a 24-14 victory.
But what Strong has done off the field is mostly responsible for Louisville's turnaround from three consecutive non-winning seasons under Steve Kragthorpe from 2007-09. There was a serious attitude problem among the players, senior center Mario Benavides said, but Strong fixed that pretty quickly and installed some much-needed discipline.
"In college football, it's mainly about attitude and building a tradition," Benavides said. "I feel like that's what separates most programs from others, because everyone has talent. We've always had the talent, but when we got here, he instilled this certain attitude, not taking anything from anyone. He never made any empty threats, which some coaches do where they are like, 'If you do this, this is going to happen. If you do that, this is going to happen.' And nothing would happen, so players would immediately lose respect for coaches. If [Strong] says something and you do it, he's going to punish you, and he's going to do it tenfold if you do it again.
"When he got here, he laid it on the table: 'We don't need you. I'd rather have 10 guys who do it the way I want rather than 11 guys with one of them not doing it the way I want.' So guys learned quickly we were very easily replaceable, so guys got their attitude right."
The changes occurred on the field and in the classroom. When Strong got to Louisville, there were 50 players with a GPA lower than 2.0. He told the players the team GPA needed to be a minimum of 2.75. By this past spring, it was 2.78.
Strong also had to dismiss several players -- notably cornerback Darius Ashley after a pair of DUI arrests -- and suspended several others, including defensive end Greg Scruggs. Scruggs was suspended for last year's Belk Bowl after being arrested and charged with DUI. He's now with the Seattle Seahawks.
"We expect things to be done a certain way," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "There's a certain style that we want. We challenge our kids to chase perfection, and we know along the way we'll catch excellence. That's just the way we've managed our team the entire time I've been with them."
Strong also has added an infusion of talent and used his prowess as a recruiter to mine the state of Florida for players. There are 34 players from the Sunshine State on the Cardinals' roster. Strong recruited 27 of them, including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. In fact, 15 players on the two-deep depth chart on offense and defense are from Florida.
Strong and his staff have assembled young talent, too. Sophomores or freshmen compose 26 of the 44 spots on the two-deep depth charts on offense and defense. Bridgewater highlights that list. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound sophomore was the Big East's Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 3,452 yards and 25 touchdowns. He ended the regular season ranked eighth nationally in pass efficiency.
"We have the young talent," Bedford said. "We're a junior/sophomore team. On defense we have only one senior that's starting. On offense we have three seniors that are starting. So the future's ahead of us. The thing is, if you stay healthy and we do a tremendous job coaching -- and we have a long way to go as far as coaches -- and keep guys healthy, I think the future here is going to be outstanding."
All because Strong spurned Rocky Top. Unless you talk to Strong.
"It all started three years ago when we started building a foundation," said Strong, who is 24-14 at Louisville. "It's all about the players and how they played. I talk to them all the time about trust and commitment to the program. When I went to recruit them, I stressed the process and commitment and that they just had to stay with me. So when I had the opportunity to leave, I just couldn't walk out on them like that.
"… We are really excited about the direction this program is headed in."