University of Texas football coach Charlie Strong punched a button in a conference room connected to his new office. The blinds rose and perhaps the most recognizable face in the state of Texas stood staring into the bowl of the 100,000-seat Darrell K. Royal Stadium.
Strong smiled, and then chuckled.
“It is a long way from Batesville, Arkansas,” Strong said, referring to his small hometown.
The 53-year-old Strong has overcome “a whole lot” of obstacles while going from a graduate assistant at Henderson State to becoming the new head coach of the Longhorns, considered one of the elite programs in college football.
Strong worked his way from the bottom up in the coaching ranks, spending late nights and not getting a lot of sleep during graduate-assistant stops at Florida and Texas A&M before his first full-time stint at Southern Illinois.
“When I stop and look back, those are the days and remember most,” Strong said. “Back then, you didn’t use computers. You would input information and then get this big ‘ol stack of reports. We had this film room and you had this 18-millimeter film and you would look at it on a little viewing box and it would mess your eyes up. You had to splice it up and would be in there all night. The grunt work, you just did it. Nothing was given to you, I just always had the mindset that ‘I had to go to work.’ ”
Strong “went to work” each and every stop along his path to Texas. He spent time at Florida, Mississippi, Notre Dame and South Carolina, working with top coaches Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier, Urban Meyer and others.
Holtz, a College Football Hall of Fame member, called him a rising star. Strong was a popular coach among the players and in the media, and he helped Florida win a pair of national championship with his ferocious defenses. But despite his resume and having his name thrown around for all of the top job openings, he kept getting snubbed.
That’s where the legend of Strong almost ended.
“You start questioning yourself and asking if you are really good enough to be a head coach,” Strong said of the missed opportunities. “I remember one time I was so frustrated that I said I was done with the interviews and I wasn’t doing anymore. I didn’t want it anymore.”
Strong wouldn’t say who the coach was, but he took advice from “a friend.” The message was not to stop the pursuit of his long-term goals.
“He told me there were a lot of African-American coaches that didn’t have the opportunity that I had at that point and if I were to give up, think about all of those guys who just wished they had your chance,” Strong said. “So, I decided to try and give my best and even if I didn’t get a job, that maybe I could pave the way for another African-American to come along the way.”
The University of Louisville gave Strong his chance in 2010. He became just the sixth black head coach among the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, and four years later Strong had led the Cardinals to three bowl wins and a 23-3 record, and had helped sculpt three NFL first-round draft picks.
Strong turned down a chance to go to Tennessee after the 2012 season, but jumped at the Texas offer this offseason.
“I think about that time I almost stopped all the time,” Strong said. “Really, when you look at it, all I wanted was a chance. I finally got my opportunity.”
And here he is, looking into Royal Stadium.
“More people fit in the stadium, just on this one side, than the whole city of Batesville,” Strong said. “Yes, it’s a long way from Batesville, Arkansas...”
SCOUT: What drives you to be Charlie Strong every day?
STRONG: Motivated to be successful; fear of failure. Growing up in a little small town like Batesville, Arkansas, you know how important it is to be successful and how far you have come. And you know that you have only gotten to where you are today because of people along the way. There have been a lot of challenges and roadblocks, but I have overcome that adversity. So now I just can’t ever feel like the job is finished. I have the drive and determination and feel like there are still things for me to do to be the very best.
Who are some of the people who helped you along the way?
When you grow up into a smaller community, a lot of people contribute. My mom and dad, and I had two uncles who were very instrumental in my upbringing. I had one uncle, we called him N.H. (Noah) and he owned a service station and he really taught me how to work. I remember I would go there and work a weekend for him when I was in college and he would give me 25 bucks, and I would go back to college and with that money in my pocket. My other uncle was the same way; he made sure we stayed out of trouble. He was always told us: keep yourself clean and graduate. My family taught me to do things properly and do things the right way.
Do you have any mottos?
I always say this: I drink from a well that I didn’t help dig. So many people have paved the way for me and I stand on many shoulders right now that didn’t have the opportunity that I have right now. So, when I stand on those shoulders I just have to make sure I don’t let them down.
You’ve worked for so many coaches over your career. How big was that in your development?
I was very fortunate to work for some really outstanding football coaches, and I always liked to take a piece from each and every one of them. You think about coach [Steve] Spurrier and how he had the attitude that we were the best in the country. And how coach [Lou] Holtz had that same attitude, but he made sure you knew how to take a young man and not only teach him football, but how to become a man in society. Urban [Meyer] and I were so good because we came under that same tree of coach Holtz. Even Ron Zook, he was a heck of a recruiter, but he had a great relationship with the players; they loved him. Each coach, I say it all the time, we are all different, but if you take a piece of each one then you can put that all together and come up with something to help out the young men.
How important to you is your relationship with your players?
A lot of times as a coach, we sometimes get caught up in the Xs and Os and schemes and we forget there may be a young man sitting over there and he may be 18 and so much is going on in his life. Sometimes you just have to stop and say, “Hey, how’s it going?” It can be where he just broke up with a girlfriend or he has a parent at home sick or troubles at home with a brother or sister, whatever it may be. When you have that conversation with them they feel like you do care for them and not just football related. You have to do that. You want them to understand all I am trying to do is shape your life and make sure that you become a fine young man.
Wins and losses are how you are measured, but it must make those wins all the sweeter when you get them in the way you just described.
Wins are very important, and you are going to get those wins when you have that relationship because they feel like they can’t let you down. You have become a part of their life and they want to make sure you are successful.
What did you first think when you got the call from Texas?
It was hard for me to leave the Louisville because of all the relationships I had built there, not only within the athletic program, but within the city. It happened so quickly. It was like—boom!—we were gone. But to have the opportunity to come here, it was special. I had a really good job at the University of Louisville and was provided with everything that I needed, but then you look at something like this and there are only so many. It’s really an unbelievable program.
Describe the program.
It’s all in place for you here. This is a major college program, you have so much to deal with and there’s always something going on. If you are not careful your time can be used up pretty quickly. But everything really is here for you to be successful. I told our coaches, if we’re not successful here then it’s our fault.
You liked to do the morning runs in Louisville. Are you still able to do that here, as well as some of the other things like Secret Santa visits?
I still do my morning runs, and made a visit to a children’s hospital see some kids. I can’t change. It’s just a part of me. When you have a chance to touch people’s lives and be part of people’s lives, that’s what it’s all about.
Tell me about the morning of your first run here.
I get up at 4 and I come over to the office and take off anywhere from 4:40-4:45. I have a route for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Running gives me a sense of peace. I was running around this campus and I was just thinking, “Wow, I am the head coach at the University of Texas. I am so grateful.”
How was spring ball and what are the challenges this season?
It’s just a matter of how quick we can develop leadership. It’s a new system and a new team. Expectations are always high here, and we just have to make sure we build this team with toughness. I always talk about putting the “T” back in Texas: toughness, trust, togetherness and teamwork. We have to really build those four things in this program to make it happen. We are not too far away. We have to get better at a lot of positions, but we’re not too far away.