*This story is part of an ongoing series that highlights campus leaders during Black Heritage Month*
The town of Batesville, Arkansas had a population of just over 10,000 in 2010, but when USF football coach Charlie Strong grew up there in the 1960s, it was different.
Almost everyone found work at one of the four main production plants. Most were employed by the Tyson chicken farm and the rubber plant on the other side of town. Growing up, Strong worked at his uncle’s service station where he would fill gas tanks and wash windshields.
He’d go back home, where he was one of eight children. Strong was the fourth oldest. He had older siblings Cleatrice, Eddie and Billy in that order. His younger siblings were Deborah, Carla, Lee and Ron.
They lived in a three-bedroom house with Strong’s mother, DeLois, and his aunt. Strong’s father, Charles, didn’t live with them because he coached basketball in another town. There was no running hot water.
“It was so much togetherness and so much love in that house,” Strong said. “When we were growing up, that’s just the way it was. Because it was such a large family, the girls would eat first, then the guys would eat.”
Back then, there were only about 6,000 people in the town. Born only three years after and an hour and a half away from the crisis surrounding the Little Rock Nine, Strong noticed a divide early in his life.
“During the time that we grew up, it was the 60s in Arkansas,” he said. “You knew it was a ‘have’ and ‘have not’ situation. If you didn’t have it, you made sure you didn’t step to someone who had it. The people who had it were on one end of the town and we were on the other.
“We didn’t have much. When you don’t have a lot, you don’t realize that you don’t have a lot. Everyone that you were around had what you had, so you made the best of it.”
Strong learned very quickly that nothing would be handed to him. He’d have to work hard to move forward. Even so, he found time to play sports. Strong was heavily involved in football, basketball and running track, but baseball held a special place in his heart. Unfortunately, the baseball season was in the summer when he worked.
Sometimes, Strong was able to play a season of baseball, though. He was playing baseball in junior high school when he met coach Burks, a white man who took Strong, Strong’s brother and cousin under his wing.
Burks would pay entry fees for Strong and his family. He’d drive them to and from games. He saw they needed help and did what he could for them.
“It wasn’t so much of him trying to be our father,” Strong said. “It was more of him trying to make sure we were staying on the right track. Make the right decisions … He showed that he wanted a part of our lives.”
Now, as a head coach, Strong has an opportunity to help young men similar to the way coach Burks helped him.
“I’ve always been under the impression that we, as coaches have a duty to make sure we leave a mark,” Strong said. “When we’re dealing with young people, they have to understand that they can be anything and they can do anything, but they’ve got to be willing to pay a price. That price is hard work.”
Strong preaches to his players in team meetings that they can’t be afraid of their dreams or failure. He also teaches the reality that comes with dreams.
“No one is ever going to give you anything,” Strong said. “Anything you ever get, you’re going to have to work for.”
Strong’s responsibilities with the football team include recruiting, hiring assistant coaches, planning practices and games and running team meetings. The list keeps going on. Though not in his job description, Strong feels that he has another responsibility, given his position.
“I tell my guys all the time, I have nine assistant coaches,” Strong said. “Their job is X’s and O’s. My job is to make sure I develop that player and make sure he becomes an unbelievable young man. The only way that can happen is that we have to communicate with them and we have to show them that we really care.”
The USF coach remembers when his former coach from Batesville, Arkansas went out of his way to help Strong and his family. While help was offered, their opportunities were earned.
“Never place limits on yourself,” Strong said. “Never say what you can’t do. Because if you are willing to work, someone is always going to help you.”