Charlie Strong isn’t the kind of guy who leaves things to chance.
The coach charged with restoring Louisville to the glory of its not-so distant past is a stickler for details, monitoring everything from the number of available towels in the locker room to where his players park their cars.
Strong’s meticulousness has instilled a renewed sense of discipline at Louisville, keeping the Cardinals on their toes and delighting a fan base turned off by the decidedly more relaxed — and ultimately unsuccessful — approach of former coach Steve Kragthorpe.
Still, after eight months of sweating the small stuff, even Strong isn’t so sure about some of the big stuff , like what kind of team he’s got on his hands heading into Saturday’s Governor’s Cup showdown with Kentucky.
“I just don’t know who we are right now,” Strong said. “We’re searching for an identity.”
A certain air of mystery may not necessarily be a bad thing, particularly for a team coming off its worst season since 1997.
Strong brings in a new coaching staff , one that features Louisville’s fourth offensive and defensive coordinators in as many seasons.
Former UNLV coach Mike Sanford will bring the spread off ense he perfected under Urban Meyer at Utah in 2003-04. Former Florida secondary coach Vance Bedford will partner with Strong to help a defense that ranked 91st in the country last year.
It has sent Kentucky coach Joker Phillips to the film vault trying to figure out what to expect in a series the Wildcats have dominated in recent years. Kentucky has won three straight over its archrival, swinging the balance of power in the state firmly back to Lexington.
“We’ve got to be mentally prepared for a lot of diff erent things,” Phillips said. “It’s just been a pretty difficult team to prepare for.”
Well, not entirely.
Phillips has spent enough time watching Strong’s talented defenses at Florida have its way with the Wildcats over the last seven seasons to know what to expect whenever Kentucky has the ball.
“It’s going to be a blitz-o-rama,” Phillips said. “He’ll be blitzing as soon as he comes out of the locker room. It’s just what they do.”
Even if the Cardinals won’t do it with the same kind of athletes Strong had at Florida. That’s the least of his worries at the moment.
He knows his teams lacks depth and size. He can work on that. Right now, he’d like to see some confidence. It’s a rare commodity in a program that has gone 15-21 since winning the Orange Bowl four seasons ago.
“What these players have heard (for years) is ‘You’re not very good, you can’t do this, you can’t do that,’” Strong said. “It’s a confidence thing with them now because we have nothing to show for it.”
The only way to get it is to win. Though the more experienced Wildcats are a slight favorite, they have questions of their own.
Can anybody else besides do-everything wide receiver Randall Cobb catch the ball? Can quarterback Mike Hartline do more than just manage the game? How will eight first-year players react while playing in front of 56,000 mostly hostile fans?
“The biggest thing is how those guys are going to react?” Phillips said.
It’s a question that’s not limited to Kentucky’s players. Though Phillips has spent the last 24 years preparing to make his head coaching debut, he knows things will be diff erent when he walks into Cardinal Stadium and sees his longtime friend on the other sideline.
“I’m sure maybe Saturday morning I’ll be hugging the toilet somewhere,” Phillips said.