It has been a crazy forty-eight hours in Austin, Texas, but the craziness now looks to be complete, as ESPN’s Joe Schad has reported that Louisville head coach Charlie Strong has indeed accepted the offer to replace Mack Brown as Longhorns head coach.
A defensive coordinator at South Carolina (1999-2001) and Florida (2002-2009) for eleven seasons, Strong took the Louisville head coaching job in 2010 and did a great job with a Cardinals program that had fallen on hard times, recording the school’s first winning season since 2006 in his first year on the job. The Cardinals played the role of spoilers in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, pushing the Florida Gators around in a 33-23 victory that highlighted an outstanding 11-2 season for the team.
Louisville’s most successful season came in 2013, when the Cardinals, led by star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, were in contention to finish the season undefeated before ultimately going 12-1 with their only loss coming at the hands of eventual AAC Champion and Fiesta Bowl winner UCF. The Cardinals finished the season with a dominating 36-9 victory over the Miami Hurricanes in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Strong was believed to be the top assistant coach in the Southeastern Conference as well as all of college football for many seasons, and he lived up to his potential with Louisville, compiling a 37-15 record in four seasons with the team. Now Strong moves on to Texas, a job that comes with a tremendous amount of pressure to win but also provides the head coach with an outstanding amount of resources.
Many feel like Strong’s hire is an odd fit for the Longhorns considering the amount of media that the fifty-three year old is set to deal with in a daily basis. Texas’ Longhorn Network will want to feature Strong as much as possible, a prospect that may be something that Strong is not comfortable with. While he may not “win press conferences” like Les Miles, the fact of the matter is that Strong is a proven winner, something that the Longhorns had to bring into the program following Mack Brown’s resignation. Will “The Charlie Strong Show” provide massive rating numbers for LHN? More than likely not, but what he has to say will be indifferent if his players make big plays each and every Saturday.
While the focus is on the Texas Longhorns at this point in time, do not forget about the job that just became vacant in Louisville. The Cardinals have shown time and time again that they can win given the right head coach (see: Strong and Bobby Petrino), and the team’s move to the ACC makes this one very attractive job. Far removed from being a “fly in the ointment” in its days in Conference USA, there will be no shortage of big-time candidates who apply for this job.
So, who should Louisville pursue to replace Charlie Strong? Here are the five candidates I think Louisville should strongly consider:
Chad Morris, Clemson OC – Arguably the hottest name amongst assistant coaches, Morris can afford to be picky about which head coaching job he chooses thanks to the success of the Tigers, who have gone 32-8 in the three seasons that he has been with the team. Currently receiving a salary of $1.3 million a year, could the prospect of leading his own ACC school finally convince Morris to leave Dabo and Clemson?
Jim McElwain, Colorado State HC – An assistant at Louisville from 2000 to 2002 under John L. Smith, McElwain has a great résumé, which includes serving as the Alabama offensive coordinator with two national championships and leading the Colorado State Rams to a 7-6 record this season. Now fifty-one years old, McElwain’s time spent coaching under Nick Saban would entice any athletic director, and although he only has two years as a head coach under his belt, it probably will not hurt his chances of landing this job.
Shawn Watson, Louisville OC – Watson joined the Cardinals coaching staff in 2011 after his ouster as Nebraska’s offensive coordinator and was part of a Louisville coaching staff that led the team to 30 victories and a Big East championship last season, leaving some to ponder if he will simply be promoted to try to establish stability within a program that had never produced back-to-back seasons of ten-wins or more. Watson has not been a head coach since his three-year run at Southern Illinois that ended in 1996, but being in charge of an offense that produced 461 yards per game keeps his chances with the Cards alive.
Rhett Lashlee, Auburn OC – Although not the play-caller for the Tigers, Lashlee has been part of a coaching staff that completely turned things around in Auburn, winning twelve games in his first season on the job with a National Championship game left to be played. The Tigers offense has been phenomenal this season, averaging 505 yards and 40 points per game, leading many to speculate that Lashlee will soon become a hot commodity in the coaching ranks. Although landing an ACC head coaching gig just one year in may be far-fetched, it would not be the first time Louisville pursued an Auburn offensive coordinator (see below) and could prove to help the Cardinals establish their success despite the exits of Strong and Bridgewater.
Bobby Petrino, Western Kentucky HC – The head coach for the Cardinals from 2003 to 2006, Petrino took a run-of-the-mill C-USA squad and turned them into BCS busters, posting a 41-9 record in four seasons with an Orange Bowl victory in his last game with the team. Western Kentucky started slow in 2013 but eventually got the ball rolling, winning four straight games to end the season with an 8-4 record that just missed giving the Hilltoppers its second bowl berth in school history. Petrino has been noted for his propensity to swap jobs whenever the opportunity arises, and while Louisville may be hesitant to turn to Petrino once again, it could be an outstanding hire that keeps the Cardinals competitive in an improved Atlantic Coastal Conference.