The Grass Isn’t Greener

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Charlie Strong’s time at Texas is coming to an end. That much appears clear.

The former UofL head coach who left the Derby City at the beginning of 2014 to try his hand at leading one of the richest and most powerful programs in college football has gone just 14-18 in two-and-a-half seasons in Austin, and is in danger of failing to lead Texas to a bowl game for a second straight year. Reports have been swirling for weeks now that the Longhorn brass already has a plan to fire Strong at the end of the season and replace him with Houston coach Tom Herman.

While Louisville fans will forever be indebted to Strong for the job he did getting the Cardinals back on their feet following the disaster that was the Steve Kragthorpe era, there is an “I told you so” element to the saga we’re all watching unfold in Austin. It’s not just because Strong seemed like an odd fit for a job that comes with more media demands and scrutiny than any other in the country, but because we’ve seen this happen before. A few times.

Life has been unkind over the last handful of decades to the coaches who have enjoyed success at Louisville but seen the program as a stepping stone to something bigger and better. Strong himself addressed the phenomenon in December 2011 when his name was being linked to a number of coaching vacancies. At a press conference leading up to the Cardinals’ Belk Bowl game against NC State, Strong recalled a talk he’d had with former UofL head coach John L. Smith years earlier.

“I remember having a conversation with Coach Smith when I found out that Tom [Jurich] was considering me, and he told me that leaving Louisville was the biggest mistake he ever made,” Strong said. “He told me, ‘If you get that job, don’t ever leave.’”

Smith was speaking from experience.

In the middle of Louisville’s 2002 GMAC Bowl loss to Marshall, word leaked that Smith would soon be accepting the head coaching job at Michigan State. The buzz was so loud that Jurich had to hold a bizarre press conference at halftime of the game just to address it.

Life as a head coach never got better for Smith, who was fired after producing a losing record in three of his four seasons in East Lansing. Six years later, he went 4-8 while serving as the interim head coach at Arkansas (ironically, filling in for an abruptly fired Bobby Petrino) and has since moved from Fort Lewis College to the head coaching job at Kentucky State. Louisville fans have more or less forgiven Smith, but his 2003 comment that Cardinal fans needed to “know their place on the college football food chain” seems even more foolish now than it did 13 years ago.

One coach who didn’t burn any bridges after leaving Louisville was Howard Schnellenberger, who took the program to once unthinkable heights before bolting for Oklahoma following the 1994 season. He was fired after one 5-5-1 season in Norman and didn’t get another shot as a head coach until starting the program at Florida Atlantic in 2001.

Schnellenberger remembered the move with regret earlier this year on 93.9 The Ville.

“I divorced them when I took that job at Oklahoma, and it was the biggest mistake of my life,” he said. “But when I came back to my hometown as a lost son, they turned me into a prodigal son. From the bottom of my heart, I thank Louisville fans for that. They never turned their backs on me, even though it may have seemed like I turned my back on them.”

With Petrino back at the helm after his own unceremonious exit a decade ago, forgiveness is a trait that is once again serving Louisville football fans well. Without it, the Cardinals might not be a top five team chasing a national championship.

Sometimes the grass on the other side of the fence only looks greener because you haven’t taken enough time recently to pay attention to the beauty of your own yard. It’s a brutal lesson that Strong is in the process of learning, but one that history should have already taught him. VT