While preparing for the Birmingham Bowl on Thursday, University of South Florida football players received their first introduction to head coach Charlie Strong.
A giant smile crept across the new head coach’s face at the Bulls’ practice, USF offensive lineman Brooks Larkin said.
“I think he liked how we do things,” said Larkin, who starred at Manatee High School before heading to South Florida. “I don’t think he’s going to change much from a practice standpoint.”
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Strong, who was fired by Texas last month and accepted the USF job over the weekend, spent Thursday meeting with Bulls’ coaches and players before a news conference in Tampa. Strong detailed the conversations he has had since taking the new job, including meetings with current players and assistant coaches, plus a one-on-one chat with former head coach Willie Taggart, a Palmetto native who left last week to take the head football coaching job at Oregon.
“I had this conversation with Willie and I knew that when he took the Oregon job there were many opportunities there,” Strong said during his press conference at Marshall Student Center. “I said to him, ‘I want to be the head coach at South Florida because I know this: A foundation has been laid and it’s a program that’s only going to get better.”
The Bulls’ current coaching staff will try to guide No. 25 USF to its 11th victory of the season in the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 29. In the meantime, Strong will have a chance to observe and evaluate.
He’ll need to figure out which assistant coaches he’ll retain, including defensive coordinator Raymond Woodie, a Palmetto native, and senior offensive consultant Joe Kinnan, who is the former head coach of Manatee High School. He’ll need to work on his pitch for the Bulls’ incoming recruiting class, which currently has nine three-star prospects orally committed, according to 247sports.com’s composite rankings. And he’ll have to leave an impression on current players with the aim of keeping them in the program as he takes the reins heading into 2017.
The meeting with current players came at 9 a.m. on Thursday as Strong was preparing for his 10:30 press conference. It was largely informal — a chance for Strong to introduce himself and his family — and lasted about half an hour.
Larkin and Strong both picked the same story from their meeting to share later during the day.
“Don’t ever feel like (Taggart) walked out on you,” Strong recalled telling his new players, “because he did not walk out on you.”
Strong went through a similar transition to Taggart when he left Louisville for the Longhorns after leading the Cardinals to a 12-win season. He, like Taggart, had become a father figure to many of his players, which made leaving for the higher-profile job a challenge. He wanted to be sure to share this with his new group.
“He talked about how coach Taggart was like a father figure to a lot of players, and he said he has those same characteristics,” Larkin said Thursday afternoon. “And I believe that.”
Added fellow offensive lineman Michael Galati, another former Hurricane: “I can see them in similar ways, because they’re just similar in their passion as football coaches.”
While USF’s current roster was greeted by Strong, who is scheduled to be at the bowl game, this week is a dead period for recruits. That means coaches cannot interact with recruits face-to-face, but recruits can reach out to coaches.
Southeast High School’s Darrien Grant, the county’s lone South Florida commit, hasn’t talked with Strong, but he has stayed in contact with other coaches such as graduate assistant on the defense, Clayton McGrath.
"I still have to go up there and see how he runs things, just see what kind of coach he is," said Grant about Strong.