Charlie Strong is an enthusiastic coach. The 58-year-old needs little sleep and works a lot. His goal? To give young men a place in life. His formula? Honesty, respect, and team spirit. His means? American football. In Tampa, Florida, he tells us what the title “first African American head coach in Texas” means to him and what helped him with his flat feet.
Charlie and his eight siblings grew up in Batesville, a small town in Arkansas. They were poor and their father was rarely around. To stay busy, Charlie engaged in every sport he had the opportunity to – basketball, baseball, football.
At some point, the sports coach Arvie “Bubba” Burks entered his life. He was a very special individual who took street kids under his wings. It was the era of racial tensions and the assassination of Martin Luther King. “He never looked at anything like black and white. It was just helping someone,” recalls Strong. Coach Burks helped young people in many different ways – and showed them they were worth something.
Why become a head coach?
Although Charlie was fast and was already playing American football at an early age, he never wanted to become an NFL player. He dreamed of working as a coach. Upon graduating from college, he became a graduate assistant at the University of Florida. This was followed by stints in Texas, Illinois, Florida, Mississippi, Florida again, and then Indiana. He became head coach in Louisville in 2010, in Texas in 2014, and in South Florida in 2017.
Charlie loves football – it gives him the opportunity to help young people. Many African Americans grow up lacking prospects and a father figure, and Charlie wishes to be a role model for them. Football doesn’t just mean they can earn money. “What’s more important is a degree, as they can then make a success of their lives after sport, too,” says Charlie.
The first African American head coach
Strong was the first black head coach for college football in Texas. He doesn’t see what he does as a political statement – he simply wants to do a good job: “When an African American coach becomes the head coach, we shouldn’t say ‘Hey, he’s the first.’ No, just let him coach, let him be himself – and then if it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t work out. It doesn’t matter if he is black or white,” he says laconically.
Respect and trust
Many of the young men come from difficult family backgrounds, and college and football offer them the chance to have a better life. But this calls for clear rules and values. Charlie’s overriding motto: “Treat people with respect. Be honest. Then I can work with you.” For him, there is no place for drugs, alcohol, larceny, and the possession of firearms. “I can show you thousands of guys that not only ruined their lives, they were ruining their children’s lives. They are ruining their families’ lives – because that’s the route that they chose,” he explains.
Hard work and passion
Charlie systematically practices these values. His day begins at four in the morning. He goes jogging at 5 a.m. and at 8 a.m. he has his first group meetings. Training finishes at around 6 p.m., after which the day’s video footage is analyzed. His working day comes to an end just before 10 p.m., and at 11 p.m. he goes to bed. Charlie likes this rhythm and adds: “You need passion and love. Only then can you work hard.”
The thing that gives him the greatest sense of satisfaction is the pride on the young men’s faces when they graduate from college. “I got a text the other day from a young man from Texas that graduated and he’s all happy and he was jumping around. It’s those moments when you really feel like, you know, he did listen to me. Then they’re the real winners,” he says, beaming.
Comfort for flat feet
Charlie has had problems with flat feet all his life. In 2002, he saw a coach wearing Birkenstocks and bought a pair of these “Jesus sandals,” as his players called them, for himself. They were a perfect fit and he advised his players: “I convinced them to get them and then they did it because I wear them. And I see some of them say: ‘Hey, coach, I wouldn’t get a pair of those shoes.’ I said ‘They are called Birkenstocks. They are not a “pair of those shoes,” they are called Birks and Birkenstocks, OK?’” He has been wearing Birkenstocks every day since then and he now has numerous pairs. “I have a lot. It’s like guys who collect tennis shoes – I collect Birks.”
Teamwork is everything
The most important thing in football is that everyone interacts perfectly. This isn’t easy, especially with young people who come from all kinds of different backgrounds. For Charlie, the art is reaching these young people honestly, shaping them, and making them work as one. “And you form relationships that just last forever,” he says with conviction.
*All photos and content are from the BIRKENSTOCK USA website