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Strong still awaiting chance to be head coach

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - If ever there was a fine football name to front a college football program, Charlie Strong has one. He also happens to have a quarter-century of experience, a resume with a national championship and the unequivocal endorsement of his boss.

“Do I think Charlie Strong would be a great head coach?” Urban Meyer said this week as Florida prepared for its Bowl Championship Series showdown with Oklahoma on Thursday night. “No question about it. Do I think he's deserving? No question about it.”

Strong, the Gators' 48-year-old defensive coordinator, said he wouldn't hold his breath or stamp his feet if he retired someday with a 0-1 head-coaching record after losing the 2004 Peach Bowl as Florida's interim man between the abruptly departed Ron Zook and the incoming Meyer.

One and done, how's that for a fair chance for the first black coordinator in the history of the Southeastern Conference, who has seemingly done everything necessary to merit the chance to be a head coach?

“Some of the guys who ask me have been reporting as long as I've been coaching,” Strong said when questioned why a man with his credentials and connections was still waiting for a career coronation. “So y'all just write about it instead of asking me about it. Y'all know the answer.”

What we know is the dim statistical reality - something akin to wanting to grow up to become an astronaut - for an African-American with head-coaching aspirations in the 119-member Football Bowl Subdivision. Currently, there are seven, but only Miami's Randy Shannon holds a job in a leading conference, positioned to succeed on the BCS stage.

When Auburn recently hired Gene Chizik over Turner Gill, an African-American who this season put Buffalo on the competitive map, college football's deplorable record on minority head coaches was again widely denounced. At least Gill was hired as a head man, even if it took an African-American athletic director, Warde Manuel, to do so.

If Gill keeps winning, he will have offers, plenty of options. But a better poster coach or cause would be the all-too-common case of Charlie Strong, who has been, as he said, “working his way up” for 25 years while men like Meyer passed him by in half the time.

Let me say that I had never met Strong until Monday, but found him to be refreshingly candid while charmingly calm. His teasing of reporters to “just write about it” was as playful as it was purposeful. He got the joke when a reporter responded to his admission that he never expected to see an African-American president in his lifetime by saying that he doesn't expect to see Strong at the helm of a college program in his lifetime.

In addition to working at Southern Illinois, South Carolina and Notre Dame, he has been hired four times at Florida, beginning as a graduate assistant in 1983. He apparently has a knack for making a lasting impression, and must be an excellent defensive coordinator for a fast-track climber like Meyer to have retained him on arrival.

Through the years, Strong has heard all the rationalizations, the standard questions about interviewing skills. The holder of two master's degrees, he said that when he worked for the loquacious Lou Holtz at South Carolina and began landing the occasional interview, they would sit for hours, “grind out the process.”

He did his homework, covered himself there - but what about high-profile references? Well, he worked for Holtz, Steve Spurrier and now Meyer. “I mean, who else is out there for me to work for?” he said.

Who knows what people really say behind closed doors or in those dark corners of the Internet, where there has been some speculation that Strong has not been offered a head-coaching job because his wife, Vicki, is white? In a 2001 interview with The State newspaper he said, “I had always felt it would be a hindrance,” and he said on Monday that he still felt that way.

Yes, substantial progress came in the election of a president, but as Strong said: “Who voted for that president? What age groups?”

Not the one, he believes, that counts as its constituents those who run most university athletic departments, that well-entrenched old-boy network stuck in its time warp and comfort zone, choosing coaches who evoke images of the past, men named Bear and Knute.

“I'm disappointed as much as anybody when I see the numbers,” Meyer said. “I think it's shocking, but I also have to worry about what I can worry about.”

Oklahoma, first and foremost, with its hurry-up offense that posted a modern-record 702 points and 97 touchdowns, produced 18 scoring drives of less than a minute and scored 55 points against Kansas State in one half.

And what if Florida should succeed in slowing down the Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and the Sooners, just enough, in a year when Big 12 offenses left opponents and the nation breathless? Would Strong finally get his share of acclaim the way countless assistants have, in the form of a helping hand to the highest rung on the coaching ladder?

At the end of the day, he said, “You can only control what you can control.” And let the records - his and college football's - speak for themselves.