- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- The moment Charlie Strong decided he wasn't taking his talents to Knoxville, Tenn., many people around the college football world were stunned by his decision to spurn the SEC and remain at Louisville.
He'd be making more money and would have a heck of a better chance at competing for a national championship in the sport's best conference.
But Strong, who has now completed three seasons as the Cardinals' head coach, chose a different path.
Loyalties aside, Strong wanted to win big games and take Louisville on a special journey. Part of him stayed for moments like Wednesday, when he was showered with red and black confetti before hoisting the Allstate Sugar Bowl trophy over his head and roaring like a lion toward a throng of Louisville fans after the Cardinals defeated No. 3 Florida 33-23.
But he also did it because he wanted to go the distance for his players, who pushed him just as much as he pushed them.
"It's not so much me. I told our players I love them so much and I respect them so much, and the reason why I did not go take that job, because I know I have a football team that is behind me 100 percent," Strong said.
"I'm in the position I'm in right now because of what they did, and I told them that. I said, 'Guys, people are calling me just because of what you've done -- nothing I've done.'"
Strong has done so much for Louisville's program. He was revered as one of the game's best defensive coordinators before leaving Florida after the 2009 season, which coincidentally ended with a win in the Sugar Bowl. In his first season at Louisville, he helped lead the Cardinals to their first bowl game since 2007. Three years later, his team topped the No. 3 team in the country and gutted the nation's No.
He did it by getting rid of the bad attitudes, and instilling a tougher persona. He came in with the goal of winning games like this, not just competing for bowl berths. The look and feel of Louisville is light-years ahead of where he found it.
"This is the first step to springboard us into having a great tradition and building a powerhouse," offensive lineman Jake Smith said. "It means everything for a program.
"I don't know how many Louisville teams have gone 11-2, but I feel like this is going to be a recurring thing."
Wednesday night's beatdown of Florida made it the fourth time in school history that Louisville has won 11 games.
Weeks ago, there was a good chance that Strong wouldn't even be here after being courted by Tennessee. Strong fit Tennessee's needs, and he had once admitted that he always dreamed of being a head coach in the SEC. This was his chance, but at the last minute, he chose to stay.
He might not have as much money today, but he's a richer man for it.
"Luckily, we've got one of the good guys on our side and he stayed with us," Smith said. "He's going to stay with us for quite a while.
"I'm not going to be as nervous next time."
Added cornerback Adrian Bushell, who was with Strong for two years at Florida before transferring to Louisville: "He told us he wasn't going to leave us hanging, and he came through."
Want to measure the respect Strong has earned? Look at the seven or so Florida players who beelined toward him after the game to hug and congratulate him. Florida linebacker Lerentee McCray even interrupted his live postgame TV interview in order to sneak in some love.
At one time, there were rumblings that Strong was a candidate for the Florida job after Urban Meyer left in 2010, but he never made it far in the process. On Wednesday, despite far less overall talent, he completely outcoached Will Muschamp, who won the job.
"There's no question that if they were more talented than us, then we were a much tougher team than them," Smith said. "The film will prove it. I'd say we're a pretty damn tough team."
Strong knew he could build a real winner at Louisville and he proved it Wednesday. A team that failed to deliver any sort of real punches all year smacked one of the toughest teams in the country square in the jaw and just kept landing haymakers.
It was only fitting that one of the greatest boxers ever, Muhammad Ali, was draped in Louisville apparel and was there for the ceremonial pregame coin flip.
Watching Florida players swarm Strong, seemingly ignoring the color clash, you couldn't help wondering if some were thinking "What if?" But you could sure see the love and admiration they had for him.
Strong was once referred to as the "Mayor of Gainesville," and he retained that title inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"You can't ask for a better head coach," Bushell said.
22hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
1dAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna