After posting a 21-16 mark as the University of South Florida’s head football coach over three seasons, USF Athletic Director Michael Kelly said he made the “difficult” decision to fire Charlie Strong shortly after the Bulls’ 34-7 season-ending loss Saturday to Central Florida.
That loss was the Bulls’ fourth straight and capped off a 4-8 season that ended the team’s streak of playing in a bowl game at four seasons, prompting Kelly to “go in a different direction” and start an immediate search for a new football coach.
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“I have great respect for (Strong), particularly in the way in which he cares for his players and develops them as not only players in football, but men for life, and he does such a great job of that,” Kelly said during a Monday morning news conference. “I just want to wish him and his family the very best in their future.”
Kelly said he will expedite the search for a new coach, and defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary will be installed as the interim coach. Strong’s assistant coaches are still under contract and remain “extremely professional” while reaching out to verbal commitments and fulfilling their off-season recruiting obligations during the search.
“We will move forward with the necessary urgency that we need to, but a favorite quote of mine from (former UCLA basketball coach) John Wooden was to be quick but don’t hurry,” said Kelly, who added he will not employ a search firm to assist in the hiring. “We’re going to work with the speed we need to, but we’re going to do whatever it takes to find the best fit for the next chapter of USF football.”
The university laid down a “considerable” amount of money to buy out Strong’s contract, but Kelly said that will not deter him from being able to land a quality head coach – whether it's one with previous head-coaching experience or an up-and-coming talent.
“It’s (Strong's buy-out) not something paid out as a lump sum but it is something we have to make budget decisions for and raise additional private funding for going forward,” Kelly said. “We’ve made those sacrifices and commitments to be able to live up to our contractual obligations.”
Strong signed a five-year, $9.8 million deal with USF in December 2016 following his firing as head coach at the University of Texas. He made $5 million this season, including a $2.5 million retention bonus, and was set to make $2.6 million in the fourth year of the contract and $2.7 million in the fifth year.
That made him the 16th-highest-paid coach in Division I-A and the highest-paid coach in the Group of Five conferences, according to USA Today.
The Bulls started the 2018 season 7-0 before going 4-14 in Strong's last 18 games. He was 0-6 versus ranked teams in his three years at USF.
Kelly said he is prepared to conduct a wide-ranging search and won’t limit it to a certain coaching profile.
““We’ll be open-minded to a lot of different levels of experience, so I don’t have a profile in mind as it relates to whether it’s a coordinator vs. head coach,” Kelly said. “What I am most committed to is someone who embraces the USF football opportunity, who wants to make their mark here, who can best align with my vision for the future of USF football.
“But there’s so many great coaches at different levels of experience who can be a great fit.”
The new hire will come in at a time when USF is pushing to upgrade its football facilities, including an indoor practice facility. The school recently announced it has raised just over $21 million toward the estimated $40 million cost of construction.
When asked if the university had promised Strong it would upgrade the facilities upon his hiring to be able to lure top recruits, or if the lack of adequate facilities ultimately led to his less-than-stellar record, Kelly said it “was a factor but was not the only factor.”
“I wasn’t here to be fully aware of promises, but clearly a commitment opened up shortly after (Strong’s) arrival to focus on buildings and operations, and we’re working toward that and will continue to work toward that,” said Kelly, who was hired in June 2018. His predecessor, Mark Harlan, signed Strong in Dec. 2016.
“We do have some great things here in terms of assets we have but there’s no doubt we need to continue to add and increase the profile of what we have available to our football team.”
Strong was the program’s fourth full-time head coach, and in his first season, the Bulls went 10-2 and were ranked in the Top 25 the entire 2017 season – including a Birmingham Bowl win over Texas Tech.
Last season, the Bulls started 7-0, but dropped its last six games, including a loss to Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl.
Kelly pointed to the university’s pre-eminent status and Tampa’s quality of life as additional factors that could lure a top-shelf coach.
“I’m very energized about the future of this program. We have a young and exciting program, we’ve only played the sport for 23 years yet we won 150 games faster than any program in this state,” Kelly said.
“We have a passionate and growing fan base that frankly needs to unite behind a unified vision to become what we want to be in terms of the standard of excellence that we want. All of us have a role to play in terms of making USF football what we want it to be.
“So despite all of these accomplishments, and all these assets that we have, I truly believe that the best is yet to come and this next process will lead us into that stage."