This story appears in the July 28, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Charlie Strong opens his eyes. It’s 4 a.m. He rises, dresses and, without caffeine, drives 20 minutes to the Texas football facility. On Mondays he runs south to downtown via Red River Street and returns on Guadalupe Street. On Tuesdays he heads through neighborhoods to the north. The routes vary each day, but the goal remains the same -- shave a few seconds off his time from the week before.
He does not always succeed, but Strong still bangs out five miles at a nine-minute clip, straining to outrace some previous version of himself. He has done this for his entire career, through 14 coaching jobs at eight universities -- three decades spent pushing himself forward while running in loops. And yet even when he has reached his destination, Strong cannot help but do what he has always done, so he runs just as hard.
Last winter, after going 23-3 during his final two seasons at Louisville, Strong landed what many consider the best coaching gig in the country, signing a five-year, $26 million deal at Texas. If everything is big in Texas, the task of reviving the football team is no exception. The Longhorns went 18-17 in the Big 12 under Mack Brown over the last four seasons; this year they didn’t have a player drafted by the NFL for the first time since 1937. And Strong’s hiring as the program’s first black coach carries with it a social significance that matches the breadth of his improbable journey. “Could you ever believe,” Strong confided to a friend recently, “that I ended up at Texas?”
Sitting at a conference room table the size of a par-3 that’s adjacent to his office, the 53-year-old Strong has little interest in taking inventory of the hardships he’s endured or in dwelling on the issues of race that have dogged his past and bring significance to his present. Of his humble beginnings he says simply, “We came from nothing, but we still had enough. Everybody supported one another.” About the whispers that bias popped up every time he got passed over for a head coaching job: “I didn’t get hired because they didn’t feel like I was [the best] candidate for their position, but I think everybody wanted to make it about race.”
Instead of talking, Strong would much rather put his head down and run. Day after day. Mile after mile. “I can’t change who I am,” Strong says. “For me to get where I’ve gotten is because I’ve been that person and stayed true.”
Sometime around kindergarten, Charlie Strong attempted to stand on the edge of his family’s bathtub. On wash days the tin basin would be filled with boiling water from the stove. But on this day it was empty, and as young Charlie tried his balancing act, the tub flipped up and smashed him in the face, leaving him with a scar under his left eye and a nickname: Tub.
Tub spent most of his childhood in Batesville, Ark., a predominantly white town of 10,427 dotted with chicken processing plants that, as an entrance sign reads, is home of NASCAR great Mark Martin. The white three-bedroom house at 556 14th Street had as many as 15 residents, no hot water and a chicken coop out back. Most family members slept two to a bed. Strong’s mother, Delois Ramey, and aunt Cardia Ramey cleaned houses to help provide for their 13 children. Still, some years on Christmas no presents appeared.
Each night at the tiny kitchen table the women would serve dinner in shifts, girls first then boys. On Sundays the women would cook a feast of fried chicken, sweet potatoes and greens. Some nights there would be just a piece of cornbread. On the best days there appeared a concoction of ground beef, gravy and white bread -- what family members now call “s--- on a shingle.”
“That was one of the best meals you ever thought you’d eaten,” Strong says.
The rules at 556 14th Street were simple:
If it’s not yours, don’t take it.
If it’s not nice, don’t say it.
If you know it’s not right, don’t do it.
Discipline was administered through the branches of a tree that stood in the yard. If the children got in trouble, they snapped off a switch, dropped their pants and awaited their fate. Tub rarely required such motivation. He saw his mom and aunt work tirelessly to put food on the table, get the kids off to school and assemble everyone for church on Sundays. “We learned at an early age,” says Strong’s cousin Tommy Neeley, “if we were going to get something out of life, we had to work for it.” Along with his brother and cousin, Charlie raked yards to earn money and chased foul balls at the baseball park for dimes. Starting in junior high, Charlie spent his summers pumping gas and cleaning windshields at his uncle’s Phillips 66 station in downtown Batesville, bringing most of his paycheck home to his mother and aunt. Their work ethic would inspire him to put in 18-hour days in football offices around the country.
“You did everything possible,” Strong says, “to not let them down.”
Urban Meyer screamed obscenities into the phone. It was late 2006, and his Florida team was on its way to its first national championship. Strong, then the Gators’ co–defensive coordinator, had interviewed for a coaching job at a power-conference school. Now Meyer was ripping the school’s athletic director, who had hired another candidate without even talking to Meyer about Strong.
“I felt like Charlie was the token interview,” Meyer says, declining to name the AD. “If there was a guy more qualified and ready to go, I’d liked to have met him. That was a strenuous time for Charlie and all of us who cared about him.”
When South Carolina coach Lou Holtz hired Strong in 1999, he became the first African-American defensive coordinator in the SEC; two years later he moved to the same job in Gainesville. Between 2001 and ’09, Strong says at least 15 schools interviewed him for their top job, and they all passed. By the time Louisville hired him in Dec. ’09 he had worked for three future Hall of Famers (Holtz, Meyer and Steve Spurrier) and won two national championships with the Gators (’06 and ’08).
Strong stood out by not trying to stand out. He avoided media attention, preferring the focus to be on his players. He prided himself on consistency; coaches and players recall how, without fail, he’d phone his daughters at 7 a.m. before they left for school. “Nothing rattles Charlie Strong,” says Ohio State running backs coach Stan Drayton, his colleague for three years at Florida. “He’s got that mouth full of big white teeth, and you see them every single day.”
The results on the field were just as gleaming. In the 2008 BCS title game, Strong’s defense held an Oklahoma offense averaging 54.0 points -- more than any team in college football history at the time -- to 14. Yet the rejections piled up. Everyone from California to East Carolina, Vanderbilt to Georgia Tech, Kansas to Kentucky went in another direction. “He had the roadblock of being an African-American,” says Drayton, “and then you combine that with people having issues with his interracial marriage. At times it was like a lose-lose situation for Charlie.”
Strong met his wife, Vicki, when he was a graduate assistant at Florida. Married in 1995, they have two girls, Hailee, 17, and Hope, 13. (Charlie has a 25-year-old son, Tory, from a previous relationship.) “If that’s who you love, then that’s who you love,” Strong says of his wife. “If you start worrying about the outside and you let them run their life and your marriage, well, that’s what they really want to do.” (Vicki declined to be interviewed.)
The whispers that schools were passing over Strong because of his marriage resurfaced with every rejection, and even though Strong did his best to play them down, he felt their sting. He acknowledged in a 2001 interview with The State, a Columbia, S.C., paper, that his marriage “would be a hindrance” to career advancement. He rarely spoke of it afterward, but the emotional toll of repeated rejection was apparent during his introductory press conference at Louisville. Asked how it felt to finally get his chance, Strong broke down. “You just never knew,” he said through tears, “if it was going to happen.”
“I think about a lot of African-Americans not having the opportunity that I do now,” Strong says in his Austin office. “But a lot of them paved that way for me, and what I was just hoping to do is pave the way for someone else.”
At its core, college coaching is about connections and motivation, and Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich realized that Strong could provide both. He not only recruited gems like quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, but he also uncovered and developed three-star safety Calvin Pryor and defensive end Marcus Smith -- all first-round picks. Strong’s defenses are as straightforward as he is: They’re based on man coverage, fundamental tackling and simpler schemes that allow for more instinctive reactions. Most important, Strong can get close to players without, as Holtz says, “being their buddy.” Ryan Stamper, a Gators linebacker from 2005 to ’09, says Strong yelled less than any coach on staff. Players don’t want to let him down the same way he didn’t want to disappoint the matriarchs of 556 14th Street.
“I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for that man,” says Brandon Spikes, another Florida linebacker, now with the Bills. He recalls the defining moment of the 2008 Florida-Georgia game. In the Bulldogs’ 42–30 win the year before, a freshman running back had gashed the Gators for 188 yards and three touchdowns. “How dare you let Knowshon Moreno run on us like that,” Strong repeated every day in the off-season. On the second play of the ’08 game, Moreno took the ball deep in the backfield and cut toward the line. Like a shaken can of seltzer finally popped open, Spikes released his pent-up energy, blasting forward to de-cleat Moreno for no gain and setting the tone for a 49–10 Florida rout.
“Every time I put on my pads,” Spikes says, “I thought about not letting him down.”
Aretha Franklin’s “Mary, Don’t You Weep” blared from Charlie Strong’s record player. It was a Sunday-morning ritual during his sophomore year at college, a way to wake up his roommate, who was also his ride to church. As a kid Charlie sang with such passion in the choir that his brother Billy predicted he’d be a preacher. But after matriculating at NAIA Central Arkansas in Conway, Charlie decided to follow his father’s career path.
Although he lived in Luxora, two hours east of Batesville, Charles Sr. was an influential figure in Charlie’s life, visiting 556 14th Street to give all the boys haircuts. In the summers Charlie would visit his father and stepmother in Luxora, where he grew to appreciate the impact a coach can have on a community. As a teacher, head basketball coach and assistant football coach at Luxora, Charles Sr. became so influential in town that the community gym was named in his memory after he died in 1995. The recreation center’s board of directors is made up of his former players and students, who fondly recall that father and son have similarly stoic sideline dispositions and an abiding passion for their players. “His dad was a true competitor, and I can see the same things in Charlie,” says Billy Miller, one of Strong Sr.’s closest friends.
At Batesville High, Charlie had been a regular on the honor roll, and although he wasn’t a superstar, the coaches admired his work ethic so much they gave him the football leadership award his senior year. He took the opportunity to go to college seriously, seeking out the most challenging instructors and walking on as a defensive back and as a sprinter. Charlie caught on as a graduate assistant on Sporty Carpenter’s staff at Henderson State, an NAIA school in Arkadelphia, Ark. Carpenter was known for his love of chewing tobacco and his deep-fried wit, which meant anything from a stream of Redman juice to a wry one-liner could pour out of his mouth at any time. “Lightning struck the outhouse,” he said after one loss, “and we were in it.”
In the summer of 1983, a few words from Carpenter transported Strong into the coaching life. “You’re going to the University of Florida to work as a graduate assistant,” Carpenter said.
“I’m not going to the University of Florida,” Strong replied. “Coach, I’ve never lived outside Arkansas.”
But lightning had struck -- and instead of hitting an outhouse, a door opened to the SEC penthouse. Thanks to Carpenter’s buddy, Gators special teams coach Dwight Adams, Strong did two years as a graduate assistant in Gainesville. He was impressive enough that word spread to Texas A&M defensive coordinator R.C. Slocum, who arranged to get Strong a graduate assistant spot in College Station for the 1985 season.
Slocum can still picture Strong hauling metal film canisters from the coaches’ offices to the practice fields. When the season ended, Strong asked Slocum for help landing a full-time assistant’s job at Southern Illinois. Slocum called Salukis coach Ray Dorr, but Dorr said he’d already narrowed the field and couldn’t afford to fly in another candidate. Slocum cut a deal: He would pay for the flight if Dorr would meet with Strong.
So it was that an old coach at Texas A&M jump-started the career of the new coach at Texas, a thought that makes Slocum chuckle. “You identify with guys like that over the years,” Slocum says. “I was the first in my family to go to college because I earned a scholarship. To me, [Strong’s career] is a great American story.”
The gray cargo van sat caked in dirt and salt. It was late December, and Texas AD Steve Patterson and two associates had arrived in Louisville to interview Strong, but their car service went to the wrong airport and the van was the only option. The pilot of their charter flight drove them to Strong’s house and dropped them off because the airport needed the van back immediately. “Charlie could tell right away we were classy operators,” Patterson says, laughing. “A big-money school shows up in a borrowed cargo van.”
In truth Texas needed no introduction, but the dirty van provides a convenient metaphor for the new era of Longhorns football: The team will be more focused on arriving than on how comfortable and stylish the ride is.
Since Strong took over, he has focused most on reestablishing the program’s edge, instilling a combination of toughness, confidence and cohesion. The buses that drove players a quarter mile to practice have disappeared, as did the Gatorade Energy Chews during mid-practice breaks and the smoothie and snack bars. “We need to work to earn it back,” Strong says. “Sometimes you’re given a lot and it’s, Do you really deserve what you have?”
Players have noticed the difference. Spring practices began with smashmouth goal line drills. Senior tailback Malcolm Brown estimates there was a 30% increase in hitting in the spring. “They’re definitely having us strain a lot more; that’s really what it’s all about,” Brown says. “It’s all about physicality and developing that toughness.”
That includes developing a higher pain threshold. One staff member under Mack Brown called the rash of soft tissue injuries -- difficult to diagnose sprains and strains -- a “crisis.” Brown acknowledged concern to his staff but didn’t do much to change it.
Strong brought in a new head trainer, Anthony Pass, who worked with him at Florida, and an assistant trainer, Joshua Chatman, who worked with him at Louisville. Under their watch an injured player is sequestered in an area known as “the pit” and worked so hard that he can’t wait to return to practice. Players with lower-body injuries endure exhausting upper-body workouts and vice versa.
“Injuries are not a reason to not be practicing anymore; injuries are not a reason to not be playing a game,” says senior defensive end Cedric Reed. “There’s gotta be blood and a bone sticking out.”
And while Strong pushes the players harder, he’s also bringing them closer. The door lock outside the coaching offices, which required fingerprint access, has been deactivated. And Strong, who’s as chiseled as any of his players and looks 10 years younger than his age, runs sprints with the team during conditioning. Players say they feel more comfortable stopping by his office than they did under Brown. “I think Coach Strong is more hands on and probably desires a closer connection to the players,” says former Texas tailback Ricky Williams. “Mack was more of a CEO who hired talented coaches around him to do that.”
Coming off an 8–5 season in which Texas lost its games by an average of 21.6 points, expectations are so low that Strong told a fan gathering that the Longhorns can’t win a national title this year. But despite a brutal schedule, if quarterback David Ash stays healthy, a Top 25 finish is within reach. There are raw materials to work with. Reed, senior defensive back Quandre Diggs and a trio of dynamic tailbacks -- Brown, senior Joe Bergeron and junior Johnathan Gray -- will be on the NFL’s radar. “We have a lot of individual talent here. It’s super. I’m glad we do,” Strong says. “But the only way our talent will ever show is if we come together as a team.”
Strong will push ahead steadily and consistently, the pace that has gotten him this far. He knows struggle, he knows perseverance, he has overcome doubt. Even after his hire, Texas megabooster Red McCombs told a San Antonio radio station that Strong would make “a great position coach, maybe coordinator” but not a head coach. Strong responded the way he always does, by quietly yet forcefully pushing forward. Meyer says that what he admired most about Strong during their time together in Florida was the way Charlie maintained his calm, upbeat demeanor whether the team was playing Alabama or Alabama A&M.
“He’s real,” says Ohio State strength coach Mickey Marotti, who worked with Strong at Notre Dame and Florida. “That’s the in word right now, real. Players want to be around him. They want to be coached by him. They feel bad when they let him down.”
Every morning at 4 a.m., Charlie Strong wakes up with a single goal in mind: Do better. As his run in Austin begins, expect Strong to change Texas more than Texas changes him.