Louisville football coach Charlie Strong has spurned an offer to be the next coach at Tennessee, sending the Vols’ search in a new direction 18 days after it began.
Jason Higdon of Scout.com said Wednesday night he spoke to Strong “and as expected he has turned down Tennessee and decided it was best for he and his family at Louisville”.
SI.com, citing an unnamed source, reported that Strong agreed to a new contract that would put him among the “top echelon” of coaches in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where the Cardinals will move in 2014.
“It was Charlie’s desire to end this constant speculation and re-commit long-term to Louisville,” the source told SI.com.
The report capped another wild day of speculation, rumors and reports as Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart waited for Strong to make his decision.
Hart returned to Knoxville on Wednesday afternoon in a private jet registered to the Pilot corporation, according to Volquest.com, whose reporters saw the plane at the airport. The jet’s tail number is blocked from plane-tracking websites.
Hart’s next move is unclear.
With Wednesday’s news, UT appears to have missed on its top targets — Strong and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy.
Multiple reports earlier in the day said that Gundy had decided to stay at his alma mater, although neither Gundy nor the school has made any public comment to that effect. Gundy made $3.275 million this season and is under contract through 2019.
Hart was scheduled to meet with North Carolina coach Larry Fedora this week in New York, where both men were attending the National Football Foundation awards ceremony, according to reports from Volquest and others. It could not be confirmed that the meeting actually took place.
North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham released a lengthy written statement Wednesday that said, as a matter of policy, he does not comment about reports linking his coaches to other jobs.
“This time each year there are a number of coaching vacancies in college football and yesterday several rumors included speculation about our own football coach Larry Fedora,” said Cunningham. “Neither Coach Fedora nor I are going to address rumors about individual jobs that are bound to happen each year.
“It’s been my policy since I have been a director of athletics not to comment or engage in discussions regarding a coach’s job until such time that there is a change in a coach’s employment status. Speculation about the future employment status of a head coach can be detrimental to an athletic program.”
Fedora also had no comment, although a prospect, Jordan Fieulleteau, told Scout.com that he called the coach to ask him about the rumors.
“He’s a man of his word,” Fieulleteau told the website. “You can’t just talk to a kid ... and then go back on your word. I’m 100 percent confident that he’ll stay at UNC.”
Strong, 52, is a native of Arkansas who had stints as a defensive coordinator at Florida and South Carolina before getting his first head coaching job at Louisville. The Cardinals (10-2) will play Florida in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.
Strong met with players at the Cardinals’ football facility on Wednesday, but didn’t answer questions, according to multiple reports from Louisville media.
Players were directed not to speak about the meeting, but multiple reporters tweeted that Strong told players he had not made a decision about his future. Eric Crawford, a reporter for WDRB in Louisville, said Strong told players he would meet with them before the talking to the media this morning.
Louisville center and Rimington Award finalist Mario Benavides tweeted after the meeting: “All I’m gonna say is I’m not worried about my coach..we are a family.”
Previous coaches, like John L. Smith and Bobby Petrino, had used Louisville as a stepping-stone job, but Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said as early as October that the school was willing to make a large financial commitment to Strong if he would remain with the Cardinals.
“The ultimate decision will come down to does he want to be in Louisville or not?” Jurich told TV station WHAS. “Economically, fiscally, we can match anything anybody wants to do.”
Strong earned $2.3 million plus bonuses in 2012. Strong’s buyout, which is on a sliding scale, is reportedly in the neighborhood of $2 million.
Tennessee is seeking a replacement for Derek Dooley, who was fired Nov. 18 after three losing seasons.
Hart said in his press conference that day that he was seeking a proven head coach, which appeared to rule out candidates like Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who recently interviewed for the Auburn job.
Another potential target, Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, strongly denied a Denver Post report late Wednesday that he had been hired by Colorado.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Get up-to-the-second coaching search updates at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.