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On Charlie Strong: Coaches come and go, but fans are forever

by Mark Coomes


Coach Charlie Strong in happier times

It was a weekend of worry in our fair city, spent fretting over the arrival of icy cold and the departure of Charlie Strong.

While denuding store shelves of milk, bread and driveway salt, we stewed over whether the University of Louisville’s football coach would soon be the University of Texas football coach.

It was such a pressing, pandemic concern that WHBE-AM, aka ESPN 680, aired an impromptu call-in show in a time slot normally reserved for barflies and insomniacs.

From midnight to 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, the phone lines glowed like a Christmas tree. They stayed lit until 4:30 Sunday afternoon, when Drew Deener and his rolling cast of co-hosts, having prattled for 16 of the past 40 hours, dragged their raspy larynxes back home.

The rest of the media thumbed tweets, milked sources and filed stories for 72 hours straight. When Strong confirmed late Saturday night that he was taking his talents to Austin, the Fourth Estate switched to speculating about his replacement without blinking a bloodshot eye.

And to think that Strong believed his program suffered from attention-deficit disorder. O Charlie, we barely knew ye.

And vice versa.

But the Strongathon wasn’t really about Cardinals and Longhorns. It was about scorpions and frogs.

You know the story. Scorpion asks Frog for a lift across the river. Frog warily complies. Scorpion stings Frog, who can’t believe his passenger would do such a stupid, ungrateful thing.

“I can’t help it,” Scorpion said. “It’s my nature.”

So it is with coaches and fans.

And college administrators too.

Though they display abundant smarts in other areas of life, when it comes to coaches, fans, athletics directors and university presidents are inclined to be pathologically co-dependent, forever entering into one-sided relationships where their affection and loyalty are not returned.

Despite being stung by Coach A and Coach B, they believe Coach C when he says he’s here to stay, and that he wouldn’t abandon his own recruits if he “got a shot to go somewhere else … (because) I’m just not cut like that.”

YouTube clip of Strong’s (in)famous interview with Jim Rome:

A guy told me last week that Strong would spurn the advances of Texas, the Gisele Bündchen of college football, because his daughters love Mercy Academy and he wouldn’t disrupt their schooling there.

“Charlie’s just not that kind of guy,” the fellow said.

But of course he is. That’s his nature. He’s a fiercely ambitious college football coach, loyal first and foremost to himself.

He is a scorpion. So is Bobby Petrino, Rich Rodriguez and most of the other men whose names you’ll hear tossed around in days to come. They got to where they are by hopping on the backs of gullible frogs and riding them until a bigger, better frog comes along.

Or until they fall off and drown, victims of their own hubris and drive.

The moral of the story of the scorpion and the frog is to never expect someone to be something other than what he is. Expecting otherwise is a fool’s play that exposes trusting souls to predictable (yet avoidable) pain.

I don’t blame Charlie Strong for going to Texas any more than I’d blame a shark for chomping a swimmer. You can’t succeed in a cutthroat ecosystem like College Sports Inc. without being relentlessly driven to climb higher and achieve more.

It’s that drive that earned Strong a shot at Louisville in the first place. It’s what turned a fading, slapdash program into a top-20 contender in only four years.

Charlie Strong, Clint Hurtt

Coaches Charlie Strong (right) and Clint Hurtt

The Cardinals went from 4-8 in 2009 to 12-1 in 2013. You can’t make that omelet without breaking a few eggs. Do you really think the chef won’t break a few hearts and promises to climb the next rung up the ladder?

This doesn’t give Strong carte blanche for bad behavior, especially if he lied to players or was less than forthright with his employer. (There are indications that he did both.) But neither party has a right to be surprised.

Reasonable people don’t permit wishful thinking to trump common sense. Once it was learned that Strong interviewed with Texas, only Pollyannas dared dream that he wouldn’t take the job if it was offered. For a football coach, that’s the chance of a lifetime. Fate doesn’t issue many rainchecks for those.

As for the frogs, if they can’t wise up they can at least take solace in the fact that this fable has a different ending. The scorpion’s sting isn’t fatal.

Coaches come and go, rise and fall. Fans are forever.

U of L fans survived being embarrassed by Ron Cooper and Steve Kragthorpe. They survived being jilted by Petrino and John L. Smith. They will survive Strong’s rebuff as well.

There’s a decent chance that local frogs will be asked to give another lift to none other than Robert P. Petrino, who repeatedly jabbed U of L before sticking it to the Atlanta Falcons and scurrying off to Arkansas, where he nearly died of a self-inflicted wound.

Petrino is a serial stinger whose toxic reputation has made the world forget that he is among the best college coaches on the planet. Some folks will never forgive him. I can’t blame them. But I also can’t share their eternal grudge.

It’s up to Louisville AD Tom Jurich to discern whether Petrino’s calamitous fall from grace has changed his nature. If it hasn’t, Jurich will quickly move to other candidates – if he hasn’t done so already.

I suspect Jurich is shopping only for head coaches this time. His football program is stable, well-stocked and in need of an experienced hand for the move to the Atlantic Coast Conference. This is no time to teach a hotshot coordinator how to take the helm.

Despite his best efforts, Jurich might hire another scorpion. Better that than a millipede. Cooper and Kragthorpe were 2-4 against Kentucky and failed to earn a single bowl bid.

Petrino and Strong showed the way to Miami and New Orleans and five top 20 finishes in 10 years. They beat UK seven times in eight tries.

The pain passes. Bowl trophies, stadium expansions and bragging rights remain.

One way or another, a new coach will be hired soon. He will, of course, say he is here to say. And who knows? Maybe he will.

But don’t count on it. This time, just sit back and enjoy the ride.


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