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It's all about the road taken, potholes and all, for new USF coach Charlie Strong

University of South Florida football head coach Charlie Strong smiles during a press conference held at the Marshall Student Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, December 15, 2016.
Published Dec. 18, 2016

TAMPA — This wasn't how the defensive tactician initially drew it up. The Charlie Strong of a quarter-century ago, as studious as he was dirt poor, could not have fathomed the greeting he received Thursday morning at USF.

Not the ballroom, and certainly not the boosters or band. In a previous life — before stints in South Bend and South Carolina, before dodging visors in Gainesville and vitriol in Texas — the Bulls' newest football coach thought he would be delivering lectures instead of pep talks.

"I always wanted to be a college professor," Strong said.

"I always told him … he was wasting his mind," added University of Central Arkansas track coach Richard Martin, a football assistant at the school in the early '80s when Strong starred as a defensive back. "He was really too smart to be a college football coach."

But Strong was barely ankle deep into adulthood when, like many other coaches cutting their teeth in the profession, he discovered coaching was teaching. It was more gradual realization than epiphany, but it evolved into a conviction and calling.

Here was a lectern where you could deliver lessons transcending gap control and the 3-3 stack. Heck, you could impart the value of punctuality, attention to detail, resilience and completing the journey.

To this day, that last one remains the cornerstone of the Strong syllabus. Bulls players will hear about the journey a lot. From personal experience, Strong will share how even the most outlandish dreams can be realized by staying the course, regardless of how many directions it may meander.

Perhaps even a racial barrier or two might be conquered along the way.

"It is about the journey," he said.

Charles Rene Strong didn't have his own bed all to himself until he arrived at Central Arkansas.

He was raised with 12 other children in a four-bedroom house in Batesville, Ark., a town of roughly 10,000 that sits on the White River in the northeast part of the state. His single mother, Delois Ramey, was a sharecropper's daughter with eight children. A younger sister with five children of her own comprised the rest of the household.

"It was actually just two to a bed," said Eddie Brown, Strong's older half-brother. "Charlie and I slept together, and then we had a couple of sisters that slept in the room with us, too."

Strong's father, himself a successful coach, lived a bit farther east in Luxora — near the Arkansas-Tennessee line — with Strong's stepmother. While a solid presence in Strong's life, he wasn't a constant one.

Perhaps the greatest paternal figure of his youth was an uncle who ran a Phillips 66 full-service gas station in Batesville. Strong — who went by his middle name or nickname ("Tub") back then — worked there to help support his sprawling family.

A popular repast consisted of fried hamburger, with gravy culled from the grease, with a side of pork and beans. For entertainment, the children played with other neighborhood kids in a large field downhill from the house. Young Charlie astounded peers by learning to walk on his hands, sometimes as far as a block.

At Christmas, each child received one gift.

"And it wasn't nothing extravagant," Strong said. "It was just like, maybe a sweater or a pair of pants. But you appreciated it … because you knew you didn't have much. That's probably where I developed so much appreciation for people, just because of the way you grew up."

Academically, he excelled at Batesville High, not that Delois would have it any other way. This was the late 1960s and early '70s, when parents were more likely to be allies than adversaries of school administrators.

Any of Delois' children who got in trouble at school would be disciplined again at home, with a switch from the front yard. "She'd make you go get your own," Brown said. "You brought the right one in there, too. If it was too small, she'd whip you with that and then she'd go get her own."

Strong walked on at Central Arkansas (then an NAIA program) and earned a scholarship by his second year, evolving into a two-time first-team All-Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference selection.

Though not yet betrothed to coaching, he had begun a flirtation, landing a graduate assistant job at Henderson State in Arkadelphia.

That's where the journey took a fortuitous detour. On Strong's behalf, Henderson State coach Sporty Carpenter phoned an old buddy from the University of Florida, Gators assistant Dwight Adams. Between spits of tobacco juice, Carpenter convinced Adams to set up Strong with a graduate assistant job in Gainesville.

"So he hangs up the phone," Strong recalled, "and he looks at me and says, 'You're going to the University of Florida. Get your backs packed. Tomorrow, you're outta here.' "

After two years at UF, Strong earned an education specialist degree in curriculum and instruction, but he had become enamored with coaching.

At his next GA job, at Texas A&M, then-Aggies defensive coordinator R.C. Slocum was so impressed with his 25-year-old subordinate, he paid for Strong to fly to Southern Illinois for a job interview with Salukis coach Ray Dorr, whose budget wouldn't allow him to fly in a candidate from Texas.

Strong got the job. "He was totally focused on coaching," Slocum said.

"A lot of young guys, they've got so many different things going on, it's hard to ever get 'em settled down. But he was totally one-dimensional. He was focused on coaching football and being a good coach. … He was a cut above most guys at that level because of his maturity and his eagerness to work."

From there, the journey graduated to an odyssey.

Over the next 24 years, Strong had seven coaching stints at five different schools, including three more stopovers at Florida.

With each stop, he seemed to distinguish himself a bit more for his meticulousness, strategic acumen, organization and ability to engage others. He was co-defensive coordinator for the Gators' 2006 national title team and coordinator two seasons later when UF held Oklahoma — then averaging 54 points — to 14 in the BCS title game.

"He's a players' guy, but he's gonna make you toe the line and do things the right way," said Tusculum College coach Jerry Odom, a Gators linebacker during Strong's second stint at UF (1988-89).

"He's an unbelievable recruiter and very knowledgeable in just about every aspect of the game. His key is the way he connects to people. Charlie connects to people in a very profound way."

Yet for all the prominent bosses he impressed, from Slocum to Lou Holtz to Steve Spurrier to Urban Meyer, Strong couldn't land a head coaching job. Racism was inferred; in 2009 Strong, who is African-American, said he believed his interracial marriage negatively impacted his quest to become a head coach.

During an interview in his new second-floor office Friday inside the Selmon Athletics Center, Strong, 56, seemed to back off that stance — to a degree.

"What had happened was, someone had done a study up to that point, and everybody that won a championship got a job," he said. "And so we win in '06, I don't get one. And then we go back in '08 and we win, and I don't get one. But then I get one the next year (at Louisville)."

The ebb and flow of Strong's seven-year head coaching life has been well-chronicled, with theories aplenty as to why he couldn't duplicate his resounding success at Louisville (37-15, two Big East titles in four years) at Texas (16-21 in three years).

Depending on whom you ask, Strong didn't get the offensive coordinator he wanted at the outset, or had no staff continuity, or simply didn't get enough time to recreate the Longhorns in his image.

"When I took the job at Texas, it was more of just changing the landscape of society," said Strong, the first minority head coach of any men's sport in UT history.

"Because what I look at, I look at a young minority that wants to be the CEO of IBM, a young minority who wants to run a major hospital, go be a doctor. I felt like by my work at Texas, that someone else would get a chance along the way.

"And I wasn't successful in wins and losses, but I'd like to think, with the impact I made on the young men and just with their lives, and everybody seeing what was happening there, I hope that I did help the cause and the journey can continue."

It continues in Tampa, where the would-be professor would like to eclipse a few more barriers. Some are indigenous to Bulls Nation, such as winning a conference title.

"Their biggest challenge will be, can they handle winning?" Strong said. "Because some guys are gonna think, 'Oh we won 11 games, I mean, what do we need to do?' No, no, no.

"Now that you won 11, it's where you want to be now. That's gonna be the measuring stick. Now can we go get No. 12? Can we go get No. 13?"

Which is to say, some uncharted path remains on this journey.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com.

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