(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a feature story on new Texas coach Charlie Strong, that was published in 1999 in the Log Cabin upon his induction into the Batesville Area Athletic Hall of Fame)
BATESVILLE — Lou Holtz gave Charlie Strong a night off last week for the University of Central Arkansas alumnus to come home.
Strong, the new defensive coordinator under Holtz at South Carolina and an All-Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference at defensive back in 1980 and 1981 under Ken Stephens, was one of four inductees into the Batesville Area Athletic Hall of Fame at Lyon College.
“I didn’t know that was going to take so long,” Strong said of the introduction by Arvie Burks of Batesville, his seventh-grade football coach and a brother of Conway resident Dr. Arvil Burks. “I didn’t know I’d accomplished and achieved so much.”
He has. And Conway residents Stephens, Burks and Richard Martin, who also coached Strong at UCA, were there to enjoy his night.
“With all the things he’s achieved, Charlie is a real credit to the UCA Athletic Department,” Stephens said. “I’m very proud of him.”
A 1979 honor graduate at Batesville High School, Strong walked on for the Bears but quickly earned a scholarship. His career statistics include 186 tackles, including seven for loss; 11 interceptions; seven passes broken up; one forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. He holds the school record for the longest interception return, 100 yards against Southeast Missouri in 1980.
UCA went 33-8-2 during his career.
In his introduction, Arvie Burks read a quote from Holtz about Strong: “He’s a good teacher, a great motivator. He has a good understanding of football. He’s always calm, always in control. He’s a fun guy to be around, a great role model.”
After graduating from UCA, Strong started graduate school at Henderson State and worked under Sporty Carpenter. Strong remembered when Carpenter met him in the hallway one day and told him, ”You’re leaving.’
“I said, ‘What did I do, coach?’’ Strong remembered. “He said, ‘You’re going to the University of Florida.’ I said, ‘I’ve never been out of this state.’ He said, ‘You don’t need to be here. I want you to go to the University of Florida. Do this for me.’”
Carpenter had used some connections to get Strong hooked up under Charlie Pell. That started the winding road that has now led to South Carolina.
While in Gainesville, Strong earned his master’s and educational specialist’s degrees. He went to Texas A&M for a year under Jackie Sherrill; the Aggies won the Cotton Bowl. He spent a year at Southern Illinois, then returned to Florida under Gaylon Hall, where he coached Emmit Smith.
Hall was fired at midseason. Steve Spurrier came in at the end of the season and told the nine assistants — none of whom he knew — to leave a name and telephone number and he’d be in touch.
Meanwhile, Billy Brewer at Ole Miss had called Strong. The young man couldn’t wait for Spurrier to make up his mind, so he went to Oxford.
The next season, Spurrier called back with a job offer. Strong returned to Florida for the third time and helped the Gators to four Southeastern Conference titles.
Then came the call from Holtz at Notre Dame.
“We had it going at the University of Florida, and it was just a matter of time before we’d win the national championship,” Strong said. “Why would I go to Notre Dame? I got off the plane and there was snow everywhere. It was 85 degrees in Gainesville. But Notre Dame is a special place. It’s an unbelievable school. You cannot work at a better place than the University of Notre Dame.”
He told Holtz then of his goals: first, to be a defensive coordinator; second, to be a head coach someday.
“Lou Holtz said, ‘I’ll give you that opportunity if you come here,’” Strong said.
His debut at South Bend was spoiled by Northwestern’s upset of the Irish, who went on to the Orange Bowl, losing to Florida State.
Then Holtz resigned.
“I thought, ‘Why did I do this?’ But you never, ever look back on decisions you make,” Strong said.
He stayed at Notre Dame under Bob Davie. The Irish went 7-6 this year, earning a trip to the Gator Bowl.
Holtz came out of retirement for the South Carolina job late last year and called Strong shortly afterward.
“He said, ‘I always told you if I ever got another job, you’ll be my defensive coordinator’” Strong said. “Coach Holtz is one of the premier coaches in the country. Whatever you see is what you get. I just hope he says all those good things about me at the end of the season.”
Strong finished his recruiting duties at Notre Dame and joined Holtz at South Carolina in mid-December, foregoing the Gator Bowl.
He is following in his father’s footsteps as a coach.
“I feel like coaching is one of the greatest professions in the world,” he said. “You can have great impact on young people’s lives. Today, young people need direction. You have a chance to touch lives. I always wanted to coach. I always feel like I can be a better person and a better football coach.”
He talked to the crowd of a couple of hundred about the four “F’s” he lives by: family, faith, friends and future. He also spoke of the three requirements he stresses: trust, commitment to excellence and caring.
“So many people are looking for love, a pat on the back,” he said.