Matchup brings back memories for Strong

Every once in a while, the phone will ring. When he answers, there's always a smile on the face of Louisville head coach Charlie Strong. Many of the Florida players that Strong recruited to Gainesville have called him in recent years to congratulate him on what the 52-yard old head coach has done with the Cardinals. Strong is now preparing to coach against the program that jumpstarted his career.

"Every now and then you get a call from a Lerentee (McCray) or a (Jon) Bostic," Charlie Strong said. "(They say), ‘hey, coach, I'm excited for you, happy to see you guys playing the way you're playing.'

"I recruited a lot of those guys. Anyone that you've ever recruited wherever you are, you like to watch them and just watch their success and see how well they are doing. That's why I pay so much attention to that program."

The upperclassmen on the Florida team are all familiar to Strong because they were on the team when he was the defensive coordinator. His final game as defensive coordinator came in the Sugar Bowl win against Cincinnati at the end of the 2009 season, a game he said "seems like it was yesterday."

Players that were on that team anchor the current Florida defense. McCray and Bostic played on those teams, but Strong also has a close relationship after being heavily involved in recruiting both players. Safety Josh Evans and wide receiver Frankie Hammond were also players Strong singled out that remain on the team.

He even remembered Florida kicker Caleb Sturgis, who will kick in his final game at Florida against Louisville.

"I thought my man was done but he's still kicking here," Strong said with a laugh.

He estimated coaching or recruiting "a large amount" of the players on the Gators this year.

It's easy to hear the memories floating through Strong's mind as he recalls his time in Gainesville. There were four different times that he coached at Florida, having titles that included graduate assistant, linebackers coach, defensive line coach, interim head coach and defensive coordinator.

No matter the head coach when Strong was on staff, his time at Florida shaped him into the head coach he has become at Louisville. And it didn't take long for that to happen. In 2010, Strong took over a team that went 4-8 in the previous season and led them to a 7-6 record and their first bowl appearance in four years. After another 7-6 season last year, Strong has the Cardinals in their first BCS game since 2006 when Bobby Petrino was the head coach.

Even the current Florida coaching staff understands how important Strong has been to the Gators.

"Charlie Strong was a huge part of two national championships here at the University of Florida in 2006 and 2008," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "He was an outstanding defensive coordinator and a good friend."

The two first met in the early 2000s when Muschamp was the defensive coordinator at LSU and Strong held the same title at Florida. A mutual admiration developed, and as Muschamp watched Strong succeed at Florida, the two got to know each other more while coaching against each other or seeing each other away from the field.

They'll now face off on January 2 at 8:30 p.m. EST in the Sugar Bowl.

"You see guys and their resumé on the field and what they do, and everywhere (Strong has) been, they have been good on defense and they played hard and they play physical," Muschamp said. "He does it the right way. I've just got a lot of respect for him, and a guy that in this profession is one of the good guys in this profession."

While Strong continues to earn more respect nationally as a head coach and have his name thrown into talks about most big jobs opening this offseason, he'll always have a special place in his heart for Gainesville and what his defenses accomplished in Gainesville.

"You look at a program that's been consistent year-in and year-out, and they are going to compete on a national level," Strong said. "It's a program of excellence, and I really enjoyed my time there. Every time you look back, you always look at the programs that you follow and I watch the program every week."

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