Following a 4-8 season, which culminated in a 34-7 embarrassment in the War on I-4 against UCF, USF has dismissed head coach Charlie Strong after three seasons.
“I would like to thank Coach Strong and his staff for their hard work and contributions to our program,” Vice President of Athletics Michael Kelly said in a statement. “I have tremendous respect for Coach Strong and his dedication to recruiting and developing young men of talent and character and leading them with integrity. He has represented USF with dignity and class and we wish Coach and his family the very best.”
A national search for a replacement for Strong will begin immediately. In the meantime, Josh Newberg of 247Sports reported defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary has been named interim coach, primary for recruiting purposes.
Strong’s buyout terms weren’t immediately known. His standard state employee contract calls for 20 weeks of base pay, but, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times last year, Strong also has a buyout agreement with the USF Foundation. USF Foundation records, as a direct-support organization, are confidential and not subject to Florida’s broad public records laws.
However, Spectrum Sports’ Chris Torello reported that Strong will be paid $5.2 million over the next two years as part of the buyout.
“I fully support the decision to reorient our football program in a new direction,” USF President Steven Currall said in a statement. “We are committed to excellence across all aspects of the university, including USF Athletics. I am confident that our search will result in a new head coach who will lead our student-athletes to great achievements on and off the field.”
Hired in December 2016 to replace Willie Taggart, who left to take the head coaching position at Oregon, Strong went 21-16 as coach of the Bulls, though just 11-13 in AAC play.
Strong’s tenure at USF started out well enough — the Bulls jumped out to a 17-2 start through his first 19 games in Tampa.
Ultimately, though, the era was marked by underperformances.
Picked to finish first in the AAC and go to a New Year’s Six bowl during the 2017 season, USF finished 10-2, falling to Houston and UCF in the regular season.
The Bulls defeated Texas Tech in the Birmingham Bowl thanks to a last-second touchdown pass from Quinton Flowers, but the ending to Strong’s first season was far from what experts predicted. Additional salt was poured in the wound when UCF emerged as the Group of Five’s representative in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
But 2018 is when the bottom fell out for Strong and USF.
The Bulls jumped out to a 7-0 record — though the seven wins weren’t the most convincing. USF needed a last second field goal to defeat Tulsa (3-9 in 2018), a fourth-quarter comeback against Illinois (4-8 in 2018) and an onside kick recovery to seal the win against UConn (1-11 in 2018).
Then the bottom truly fell out.
USF lost its next six straight games, including a 38-20 loss to Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl, becoming the first team in FBS history to end a season 7-6 after starting 7-0.
Changes were made after the 2018 collapse. Eleven players were dismissed and four assistant coaches did not return — including much maligned offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, who left to take the head coaching position at McNeese State.
Gilbert was replaced by Kerwin Bell, the former head coach of Division II Valdosta State that set multiple offensive records on its way to an undefeated, national championship season in 2018.
Most importantly, the overall attitude of the program seemed to change. Players seemed to be having fun at practice during media viewing windows during the preseason — a stark contrast to the number of fights that broke out during similar periods in 2018.
Still, the losing continued.
The Bulls were badgered by Wisconsin in 2019’s opener and trampled by SMU in Week 4. Mental mistakes arguably cost them the game against Georgia Tech in Week 2.
USF ultimately lost 14 of its last 18 games under Strong and went 3-14 against teams that finished with a winning record.