ST. PETERSBURG -- As friends and former colleagues, Southern Mississippi’s Larry Fedora and Louisville’s Charlie Strong have admired one another’s work for years.
The coaches in Tuesday night’s Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl worked together as assistants at Florida for two seasons, building a tight relationship they’ll put aside when the Golden Eagles and Cardinals take the field at Tropicana Field.
Fedora has guided Southern Miss (8-4) to a bowl game in each of his three seasons at the Conference USA school.
Louisville (6-6), which left C-USA for the Big East five years ago, is aiming to finish Strong’s first season as a head coach with the Cardinals’ first winning record since 2006.
“I knew he would be a great head coach when he got that opportunity. He’s showing that right now,” said Fedora, who along with Strong were part of former Florida coach Ron Zook’s staff in Gainesville in 2003 and 2004.
Fedora was the Gators’ offensive coordinator and Strong ran the defense that second season.
“Neat situation to compete against him,” the Southern Miss coach added. “To sit in a room with a guy, have one common goal and that’s to win, do all the things it takes, overcome adversity, to see what kind of character that man has, says a lot about somebody.”
Tuesday night figures to remind the coaches of the days when they used to go at each other in practice.
Southern Miss is averaging just over 458 yards total offense and has scored at least 31 points in 10 of 12 games.
Louisville easily has the stingiest defense the Golden Eagles have faced all season, with the Cardinals ranking 11th nationally while yielding 304.7 yards and 18.7 points per game on the way to finishing a better-than-expected finish in the Big East.
“We’re really excited, just happy to be back in a bowl game,” said Strong, who was part of two national championship teams while coaching at Florida under Urban Meyer. He inherited a Louisville team that won four games last season.
“It was so important for us to get our seniors into a bowl game, which we’ve been able to do,” he added. “It would’ve put a whole different light on their experience.”
The Cardinals are led by running back Bilal Powell, a native of Lakeland, Fla., who’s averaged 6.3 yards per carry while rushing for 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Defensively, Louisville is facing the challenge of containing Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis, who’s completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,898 yards, 18 TDs and just six interceptions. The junior also has rushed for 436 yards and 10 touchdowns.
It’s the ninth consecutive bowl trip for the Golden Eagles, who appeared in the New Orleans Bowl each of the past two seasons under Fedora. They last played in a postseason game in Florida in 1981, when they were in the Tangerine Bowl.
The Southern Miss coach is thankful for Conference USA’s tie-in with the St. Petersburg game, which is played in the domed stadium that’s home to major league baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.
Strong is appreciative, too, of the exposure it provide to a Big East team each year.
“When they established this bowl, our AD and I talked about it,” Fedora said. “We’re not playing for a championship, this is the bowl we want to be in. Come to Florida, be in the warm weather, everything the beach brings. ... Get to play a great opponent. Be indoors. Really a perfect venue.”