Strong sounds beholding to Louisville


LITTLE ROCK — Maybe cynicism has deteriorated with age, but Charlie Strong’s pledged allegiance to Louisvile rings true.

If so, scratch one of the coaches considered a leading contender for the Arkansas job.

Asked about the Arkansas rumors earlier this month, Strong, who grew up in Batesville and played football at the University of Central Arkansas, mentioned his indebtedness to Louisville for giving him first opportunity to be a head coach.

To appreciate his loyalty, some background will help.

An assistant coach for 24 years, Strong was hired at Louisville in December of 2009 at the age of 49. Months earlier, while preparing Florida’s defense for the BCS title game against Oklahoma, he agreed with a reporter who asked him if his interracial marriage played a part in him getting passed over for some jobs, including one at a Southern school.

“Everybody always said I didn’t get that job because my wife is white,” Strong said at media day in Miami. “If you think about it, a coach is standing up there representing the university. If you’re not strong enough to look through that (interracial marriage), then you have an issue.”

In the recent interview with Jim Rome, Strong said his name hadn’t been mentioned for the Louisville job when he was hired.

Rome said: “When you say to me these are the people that gave me the opportunity, that means something to you, right?”

“Oh, it does,” Strong said. “A lot of times we think the grass is greener on the other side, but you don’t just walk away when you are building a program. Then I look at the players I recruited here. I told them to come here for me and for this university and then all of the sudden I got a shot to go somewhere else and I walk away from them? I’m just not cut like that.”

Strong’s salary was recently bumped to $2.3 million, but ESPN 680 in Louisville reported that retention bonuses increased his package to about $12.6 million in the next four years. On top of that, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich has said he will “match anybody’s salary.”

With Strong out of the picture, there is even more reason to pay attention to upcoming games, including No. 22 Texas A&M vs. No. 23 Louisiana Tech in Shreveport on Saturday night.

Tech coach Sonny Dykes has been mentioned in the wide-ranging speculation about John L. Smith’s successor and his unbeaten Bulldogs are in a good spot to impress. For starters, they are averaging 53.2 points per game and quarterback Colby Cameron is completing 68 percent of his passes.

Maybe more important, the Aggies are ripe for a lull. A&M rallied in the fourth quarter to win at Oxford last week and LSU visits College Station next week in a game that will identify the challenger to Alabama in the Western Division. This was to be an open week, but Hurricane Isaac postponed the Tech game.

A Tech victory and the 42-year-old Dykes, who led Tech to its first WAC championship since 2001 in his second year, will zoom up the lists of coaching prospects.

Along those lines, don’t forget Cincinnati’s Butch Jones and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin.

Jones followed Brian Kelly to Central Michigan and then Cincinnati. Kelly was 11-3 and 12-1 with the Bearcats before moving on to Notre Dame. Jones was 10-3 in his first year at Cincinnati and the Bearcats are 4-0 this year. Coincidentally, Cincinnati plays Louisville later this month.

Enthusiasm for Franklin waned with Vanderbilt’s 2-3 start, but the Commodores will give Florida fits this week and, if Franklin can keep his team together, Vanderbilt is in position to win six straight. The Commodores have games against four teams that are 0-10 in the SEC, plus 0-6 UMass, and 3-3 Wake Forest.

Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is hking@arkansasnews.com.