Last year's woes haven't haunted coordinator
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
It was a year ago today that Charlie Strong woke up with a headache and an empty feeling.
He had his chance even if he had no chance.
For a guy who wants to be a head coach, being a head coach for one game couldn't have turned out much worse. His team looked disorganized and soft. Miami thumped Florida 27-10 in the Peach Bowl despite the fact that Strong's defense played well.
Not much else went right. A blocked field goal where the holder knelt down a yard short of the usual mark. A penalty on a fourth-down conversion. A punt return for a touchdown.
It was ugly and it left Strong with an 0-1 record as a head coach. More than that, it left the perception in the people's minds that Strong had blown his chance.
"I know that's what a lot of people thought," he said. "And that's what I was thinking. You feel like you failed. It was just like I had a chance and didn't get it done. You wonder what people are going to think, that this guy had his chance and didn't do it.
"But people that know ball know that it's hard especially when the odds are stacked against you."
To blame Strong for Florida's poor play in the Peach Bowl would be like blaming your dog for getting out when you left the door open.
First, he had to deal with the bizarre way he ended up being the interim coach. When Ron Zook was fired, he was allowed to finish out the season and it was left to Zook to decide whether he would coach in the bowl game even though he was taking the job at Illinois.
Zook, maybe to get back at the Florida administration for firing him, left UF athletic director Jeremy Foley twisting in the wind. He wouldn't say either way until Foley finally made the decision for Zook.
Certainly, the Gator players were dazed and confused. Remember, these guys always talked about how much they loved Zook.
But it was more than that. Strong had to deal with a staff that was divided. Joe Wickline and Dan Disch knew they were going with Zook to Illinois (although Wickline eventually bolted for Oklahoma State). Wickline didn't even want to coach in the game until he was told he had to live up to his contract if he wanted his final paycheck.
Wickline went to practices wearing an Illinois shirt. He and Disch spent much of the time during practice talking on their cell phones.
Players see that. If they looked less than motivated, you can understand why.
The two units that performed the worst in that game were the offensive line coached by Wickline and the special teams which were Zook's area of expertise.
"It really wasn't a fair chance," Strong said. "I don't regret it. The players saw what was going on and it affected them. But I had a chance to do what I've always wanted to do. I was honored that the university selected me to be their coach."
If that game hurt Strong's chances to become a head coach - which obviously isn't easy because there are only four African-American head coaches in Division I-A - he simply went back to work to re-establish his credentials.
"After that game, you wonder if it's ever going to come back," he said of his name being connected to coaching openings. "But we had a new coach, new staff. And really, once we got back to work, it was forgotten."
Strong turned down chances to go elsewhere as a defensive coordinator to stay with Urban Meyer as co-defensive coordinator with Greg Mattison. The two formed a bond that led to Florida's defense - a question mark in the preseason - to become the strength of the team.
And it's back. There have been few head coach openings this year, but Strong's name has been associated with several. He was contacted by Middle Tennessee but wasn't interested.
"You've got to be patient and make sure it's a situation where you can be successful," he said. "And if nothing happens, I'm at the University of Florida which is really a good place to be."
There will be more chances for Strong. The coaching carousel didn't spin as wildly as it did a year ago but the ride is still plugged in.
It may have only taken him a few days to put the Peach Bowl debacle behind him, but it took a lot longer to turn Strong back into a head coaching candidate.
You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 374-5053.
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