December 7th, 2012

The Coaching Lives of Charlie and Joe


Billy Reed

Executive Editor

The Coaching Lives of Charlie and Joe
photo from / by Jamie Rhodes US Presswire

Divergent paths for two old friends

This is a story about a couple of football guys named Charlie and Joe. All they’ve ever wanted to do is be college head coaches in the sport they love. But for each, opportunity was late in coming because of race. Charlie and Joe are African-Americans who perversely chose to pursue their version of The American Dream in the South.

They worked with each other on the way up the ladder, their paths crossing for a couple of years in South Carolina. They were members of the same coaching staff and neighbors as well. Who knows how many nights they spent talking about philosophy and strategy, hopes and dreams, frustrations and disappointments?

What Charlie and Joe found out about each other was that they shared more than their race – more, even, than their passion for football. They shared a commitment to integrity, honor and hard work that was drilled in them early by their parents and never left them.

Charlie grew up in Arkansas, Joe in Kentucky. Each came from backgrounds rich not in material goods but in love. Each bought into the virtues they heard around the dinner table, in church, on the playing fields and the classrooms. Each developed a burning desire to succeed.

Eventually fate played a cruel trick on them. At the same time Joe finally ascended to the head job at his alma mater, the big state university, Charlie got his chance at the arch-rival urban university up the road. They would not only have to play against each other once a year, they would be measured against each other in a state where, even now, black head coaches are held to a different and higher standard.

Their very first game as head coaches was against each other, and Joe won, 23-16. But at season’s end, both teams had a 6-6 record and received invitations to minor bowls. But where the big state university’s fans saw Joe’s 6-6 as a disappointment, the urban university’s fans regarded Charlie’s 6-6 a major step forward.

When Joe’s team lost its bowl and Charlie’s team won, it did more than give Charlie a final 7-6 record to Joe’s 6-7. It gave everyone a hint about the directions the two programs were heading. The big state university’s fans began grumbling to each other; the urban university’s fans began buying more tickets.

In the midst of their second seasons, when both programs were again hoping to at least break even, the athletics director at the big state university gave Joe a vote of confidence. But the athletics director at the urban university gave Charlie a new contract. Maybe that made a difference, and maybe it didn’t, but Charlie’s team finished at 7-5 and Joe’s at 5-7. While Charlie went to a second straight bowl, Joe stayed home and listened to the fans roast him.

And then came the defining third season. In the opening game, Charlie’s team defeated Joe’s team handily, the launching pad for a 10-2 season and an invitation to a major bowl. After the season, Charlie was one of the hottest coaching properties in college football and traditional powers were throwing big money at him.

For Joe, the opening loss to Charlie was the beginning of his worst nightmare. His team finished at 2-10, the program’s worst record in years, and he was fired with a game still left to play. Throughout the season, week after week, he was hammered on the radio talk shows and the Internet message boards. In his state, only President Obama was less popular.

The stories of Charlie and Joe were only further evidence that winning is really all that matters in big-time college sports. University presidents can blow all the smoke they want about the importance of graduation rates and rules compliance and character development. Nobody pays attention any more. It’s all about winning. Period.

But before we write off Charlie as a winner and Joe a loser, we need to go a little bit deeper and consider the extraordinary way these two buddies handled their different circumstances.

Despite the scorn and abuse that was heaped upon him in increasing amounts as the season wore on, Joe never complained, never lashed out, never showed any bitterness. He coached his team to the bitter end. He remained loyal to his alma mater. He talked about his disappointment candidly, but without rancor. He accepted responsibility.

But he was no more admirable than Charlie, who didn’t let success turn his glistening shaved head or change his values. Somewhere in their childhoods, Charlie and Joe both learned the importance of loyalty. So when the traditional powers began waving the big bucks at him, Charlie remembered the athletics director who had finally give him an opportunity to realize his dream and who had doubled-down on him with a new contract when the jury was till very much out.

Each in their own way, Charlie and Joe have made extraordinary contributions to anybody who cares to see beyond the wins and losses. They have taught us how to handle both success and failure. They have shown us that honesty and integrity still matter. They have forced us to reconsider the value inherent in the quant notion of old-fashioned loyalty.

They have, in other words, demonstrated the kind of values that we have a right to respect of our leaders and role models, no matter what their field of endeavor. We all can learn much from Charlie and Joe.  

And it really has very little to do with football.


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