The ties that bind Charlie Strong to the University of Florida all began in a little office in the early 1980s in Arkadelphia, Ark., home to one of the better NAIA programs during that time.
Strong sat in front of Henderson State coach Sporty Carpenter, a mentor he had come to know during his own playing days at Central Arkansas, some 90 miles up the road. The phone rang. It was Dwight Adams, an assistant at Florida, looking for a graduate assistant.
"I have the guy for you," Carpenter told Adams. "He's right here in front of me."
Carpenter hung up the phone, looked at Strong and said, 'You're going to the University of Florida."
Strong had never been outside the state of Arkansas in his life. His first thought: "Where is Gainesville, Fla.?"
It would become a place where he worked under five different head coaches, met his wife, became one of the longest tenured defensive coordinators in school history and ultimately left to land his first head coaching opportunity at Louisville.
Strong spent 26 years as an assistant -- 17 of them at Florida, waiting for that opportunity. He took hold of the chance and made every program that turned him down look foolish in the process. Strong has led the Cardinals to consecutive Big East titles and their first BCS game since 2006, a matchup against his former Florida team in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.
That, of course, is the juiciest storyline in a game that many people believe will end in a Gators romp. Eight regular contributors on the Gators defense played for Strong; some 24 current players were on the roster when Strong left after the 2009 season. This game means something to all of them, even though Strong has done his best to downplay his role in all of this.
"I don't want to turn it into a bit about me," Strong said in an interview with ESPN.com. "I want it more for our program, because it would be great for our kids. With the history Florida's had, they've been to like 22 straight bowls, seven BCS games. We've only been to two BCS games. So just look at their history, look at what they've built and we're sitting here trying to catch up to them."
If there is anybody who knows what it takes to catch up with Florida, it is Strong, a man who was on staff for the rise of the program, the decline of the program, and the rise back up, working four different stints for one simple reason: He sensed the program was on the verge of becoming a force in college football.
And, well, he wanted to help get it there.
"I was there when some special players came through that program, and I always felt like it was sitting on the brink and at some point it would explode and once it exploded then everyone in college football better just step aside," Strong said. "It was almost one of those situations where people around the country had that fear that once the right person stepped into that position and changed that program, that they knew how electric it would become and how it could really take over college football."
Strong saw that firsthand under Steve Spurrier; but he also saw how incredibly difficult it can be to sustain success. He was defensive coordinator when Ron Zook was fired in 2004. There were some players who believed perhaps Strong would get a shot at becoming head coach. But Urban Meyer was hired, and Strong served as interim head coach in the Peach Bowl -- a 27-10 loss to Miami.
He was a big reason why I came to Florida.
--Florida DT Omar Hunter
"At that time, I didn't feel like because of the way we had played that year on defense that I was in any position to say, 'Hey, I think I deserve a chance at this job,'" Strong said. "Because we basically got fired."
Strong could have left to become defensive coordinator at Notre Dame under Charlie Weis, but Meyer convinced him to stay – even though Strong would have to share coordinator duties with Greg Mattison. He knew what he had in Gainesville; and he knew he had enough talent to win a national championship.
Perhaps he also knew that he would have his best chance at becoming a head coach if he remained at a program as strong as Florida's. His credentials grew stronger the longer he stayed, and yet, he waited years for an opportunity -- despite a sterling reputation among coaches, administrators and, above all else, players.
There is little doubt athletes chose the Gators in large measure because they wanted to play for Strong, a man who became a father figure to many, who refused to speak in platitudes and dealt only in the truth. You want love? You will get real, tough love from Strong.
"He definitely helped put the decision over the top for me," Florida defensive tackle Omar Hunter said in a phone interview. "He was a big reason why I came to Florida."
"I grew up at Miami Hurricane fan, I had them at the top of my list. Florida was maybe three or four, and then after building the relationship with Coach Strong, he helped groom me into becoming a Florida Gator," linebacker Lerentee McCray said in a phone interview.
Hunter recalled his first in-home visit with Strong: "It was the first time I had a coach in my house, and I didn't know what to expect," Hunter said. "He had a big smile on his face, and was talking trash to me. As soon as I got here, he was still talking trash to me. We always had a fun relationship, and I hit it off with him right away."
In the end, Strong had to leave to prove himself. But when the Florida job opened in 2010, Strong never really thought about whether he would get a chance to return as head coach, despite all the years he spent working there as an assistant, all the knowledge he has of the program, the university, the town and the state.
"I've never looked at it like that," he said. "I felt like at the time I left to come here, Urban was the head coach at Florida and I got my opportunity here at the University of Louisville. I got the chance to get a program and try to build a name for myself and build a foundation for a program that's been down."
The players he left behind were crushed. Three decided to transfer to Louisville. McCray entertained the possibility as well.
"That's the guy I wanted to play for," McCray said.
In the end, he decided to stick it out with the Gators. But he and his teammates who played for Strong knew it would only be a matter of time before they saw Louisville in the top 25.
"He pretty much was like the head coach with Coach Meyer when he was here," McCray said. "He was one of the reasons this team stayed together. You saw after he left what happened to the program."
Florida dipped, but the dips never last long. Strong will tell you that. Now he has Louisville on the verge of something special, too.
But to get there, he has to get past the program that made him who he is, that got him where he is. Strong knows exactly where Gainesville, Fla., is now. It is a part of him, today and always.