Say what you will about the the state of things in Tallahassee, but Willie Taggart left behind a fully-stocked cupboard at South Florida. Taggart inherited a 3-9 Bulls team from Skip Holtz, went 2-10 in his first season of 2013 and then steadily built from there: 4-8 in 2014, 8-5 in ’15 and then an 11-2 season in 2016 in which USF won a share of the American East championship and finished the season No. 19 in the AP poll.
When Taggart left for Oregon that winter, South Florida quickly scooped up Charlie Strong; Strong was fired by Texas on Nov. 26, 2016 and announced by USF on Dec. 11. It seemed a glove-in-hand fit at the time. Despite his unsuccessful run at Texas, Strong went 23-3 in his final two seasons at Louisville and built deep ties in the state during his lengthy and successful run as a defensive assistant at Florida.
And for one year, it was.
South Florida went 10-2 in Strong’s debut, losing only to Houston by four points and in a thriller to an ascendent UCF team on its way to a self-proclaimed national championship. Still, the Bulls beat Texas Tech, finished inside the AP Top 25, and began the 2018 season 7-0.
Heading into an Oct. 27, 2018 trip to Houston, Strong had coached 19 games at USF and won 17 of them.
Since then, he’s coached eight and lost all eight.
There were signs USF was teetering throughout the first half of 2018 — the Bulls beat 3-9 Tulsa by one and 1-11 UConn by eight — but since that Houston game the program has been, well, about as bad as anyone in the American. USF has played one team within a single score during its ongoing 8-game losing streak, and that came this Saturday in a 14-10 loss to a retooling Georgia Tech team. The Bulls were non-competitive in their opener, falling 49-0 to No. 14 Wisconsin while being out-gained 435-157.
Offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert took the McNeese job last winter and took offensive line coach Matt Mattox with him, and the Bulls have struggled to adjust to new coordinator Kerwin Bell’s system. USF ranks 130th of 130 in total yards (418) and points (10) through two games.
South Florida will most likely snap its 8-game losing streak against South Carolina State on Saturday, but after that the rest of the season looks like an uphill climb. The Bulls host BYU next month, draw Memphis, an ascendant SMU team and a trip to Navy from the West Division as well as an East Division schedule that includes conference heavyweights Cincinnati and UCF. ESPN’s SP+ has downgraded USF’s chances of reaching a bowl game from 73 percent to 14 after absorbing the Bulls’ first two weeks.
All this to say, if the ship does not turn around and South Florida wanted to move on from Strong this winter, it certainly could.
A review of Strong’s contract, signed Dec. 9, 2016, sets his base salary at $500,000 per year and his buyout at simply 20 weeks’ pay of his base salary.
However, there’s more to this story than what’s written on paper. While the official contract puts his buyout at just over $192,000 ($500,000 divided by 52, times 20), a 2018 Tampa Bay Times inquiry found the bulk of Strong’s buyout money is tied up with the USF Foundation, which is private.
Even still, Strong signed a 5-year contract that to date has not been extended. The bulk of the money was backloaded since Strong was still being paid by Texas through 2018, but even still his total compensation is $2.5 million in 2019, $2.6 million in ’20 and $2.7 million in ’21 — and by the time this November and December roll around, most of his 2019 salary will have already been paid.
The athletics director who authorized that contract, Mark Harlan, is now at Utah. He was replaced by Michael Kelly, who worked at USF in 2001-02 but spent the intervening 15 years in various administrative roles with the ACC, three different Super Bowl host committees and, most recently, as the COO of the College Football Playoff.
His thoughts on Strong seem to be a mystery. Most of Kelly’s public efforts seem to be centered on raising money to build an indoor facility, and nothing complicates a fundraising drive like dropping a coaching change on top of it. At the same time, Kelly may find the hat he passed among USF’s donor class could come back to him empty if the Bulls’ donors aren’t satisfied with the trajectory of the program under its current leadership.
Either way, unless Strong’s contract with the USF Foundation guarantees the entire remaining $5.3 million, it stands to reason South Florida could be a situation to watch this fall if the Bulls’ season does not turn around.