Charlie makes a 'Strong' statement

Its been quite a month for Charlie Strong. The third-year head coach at the University of Louisville turned down the job at Tennessee and on Wednesday delivered a 33-23 win for the Cardinals over Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

New Orleans - Look at Charlie Strong now.

The third-year University of Louisville head football coach has had quite a month, turning down an offer to become the head coach at the University of Tennessee in early December, stating "loyalty" to the program that gave him his first job.

Strong is being rewarded for that loyalty with a new contract extension – that still hasn't been complete – and now he's led Cardinals to the school's biggest victory ever – a 33-23 win over Florida in the Jan. 2 Allstate Sugar Bowl.

"Wow," Strong said shaking his head as he walked out of the locker room in the Superdome into the news conference. "Wow!"

It's been a ‘Wow' month for Strong.

The former Florida assistant coach sure has stunned the college football world. And to think it all started with many Louisville fans thinking he wouldn't even be the head coach for the bowl game.

Within a few minutes off the return flight from Rutgers and the regular-season finale, Strong and athletic director Tom Jurich talked on the tarmac in Louisville about how Tennessee was going to come calling.

Three days later the Cardinals accepted the school's second BCS Bowl bid and the rumors of Strong to Tennessee were running wild.

Strong talked with Tennessee early the next week and speculation of planes coming to Louisville and offers being made were flying everywhere from between Knoxville, Tenn., and the Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex.

On Wednesday – just six days after beating Rutgers for the BCS berth – Strong held a players' only meeting where ne snuck into the football complex through a back door and all he told his players was to "trust me."

Strong told the world his decision on Thursday morning during an emotional four-minute opening statement where at one point he had to stop and take a deep breath. He was staying at U of L and he was "going to continue to build this thing."

"It was the toughest decision I have ever had to make," Strong said. "As I talked with my family, it became crystal clear that I needed to stay at Louisville."

Strong said he believed he can develop the U of L program into a championship team and his decision to turn down one of the best jobs in college football to remain with the Cardinals shocked the college football world.

He likely would have been making more money and would have a better chance of competing for a national title in the Southeastern Conference.

But Strong wanted to do it his way.

"My enthusiasm and my heart are at the University of Louisville," Strong would say at his new conference. "We haven't finished the job yet."

His staff immediately went on the road recruiting and started preparing for a game against Florida – his former team – in the Sugar Bowl.

Strong talked about his loyalties, his wanting to win big games for the U of L fans and program and Jurich, who was the first athletic director to take a chance and hire him after many had turned him down.

But he also talked about his players. The senior class this season was only 10 players, but Strong built a strong relationship with those guys and the younger kids who have been pressed into services at an early age.

"It's not me," Strong said after the Sugar Bowl. "I told our players that I love them so much and I respect them so much. And that's the reason I didn't go take that job because those guys, that football team, is behind me 100 percent.

"I'm in the position that 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. It's been nothing that I've done'."

But just ask Jurich about what Strong has done for the U of L program. After three years of the Steve Kragthorpe-era the U of L program had slipped into the cellar of the Big East Conference and out of the bowl picture.

Jurich gave him the chance, allowed him to hire a stellar staff and three years later the Cardinals have won two of three bowl games, including a shock-the-world moment in the Big Easy.

"He's the pied-piper of this program," Jurich said. "We're lucky that we have him and we're really lucky we were able to keep him."

Strong not only stayed but he proved to the college football world that he's going to be a problem in years to come for the powerhouse programs.

With his strong recruiting ties in Florida, U of L is in position to "take this thing to another level," senior center Mario Benavides said.

Not only will Strong return next season, but also so will sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who will be a top Heisman Trophy contender, along with 18 of 22 starters and several key players who were sitting out after transferring.

"We're not worried about just any bowl games anymore," defensive lineman Jamaine Brooks said. "With this program, it's BCS Bowl games of the national championship game from now on. That's just how (Strong) is."

It's a long way from a guy who was rumored out the door.

Jurich was grinning from ear-to-ear after the Sugar Bowl, while Strong almost seemed speechless after the surreal evening.

Strong, who was beloved in Gainesville, Fla., knew he could build a winner at Louisville. But even he wasn't sure it could happen in what has turned out to be one of the greatest months of his life after the Cardinals put the hurt on Florida.

But it happened. There he was with his family and the men who gave him his chance – Jurich and U of L President Dr. James Ramsey – standing by his side as the confetti stuck to his forehead and the crowd chanted his name.

"The stage was set for us," Strong said. "We were in a bowl game that has so much tradition and the Sugar Bowl committee set the state. They put Louisville against a No. 3 Florida team. So they set the stage and we were ready for it."

Now, Strong will stick around for more.

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