MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. -- Charles Huff leaned back in his desk chair, took a moment and studied the play diagrammed before him.
Sixth-grade social studies class had morphed into Football 101.
The Xs and Os showed a curl-flat concept; a common pass play found at most levels of football.
This was the seminal moment Huff chose to reflect on almost three decades later inside Blue Chip Casino, tucked between Chicago and South Bend, Ind., where Huff and his Marshall Thundering Herd stayed last Friday night on the eve of what would become, in terms of football moments delivered in message-form heard round the sport, a victory perhaps greater than any in program history.
That’s with the knowledge of the Herd’s tradition and former record-setting Football Championship Subdivision dominance.
Yet to get to here, where Marshall this week is national media darling and Huff is further burnishing a fast-rising career that leaves Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket Herd green with envy, first begin in Denton, Md., the inlet-community nestled east of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and just across the Delaware Bay from New Jersey.
Before Huff could serve as architect of an historic, 26-21 upset-win last Saturday against host Notre Dame, the son of a career educator father and entrepreneurial beauty-shop owner mother first had to get a legal formation on his notepad.
“You’ve only got 10 Xs,” Huff said his sixth-grade coach, Mr. Fredrick, noted.
Huff tweaked the play, and began drawing more sets.
Soon offensive formations, then defensive sets, filled Huff’s notebook.
Homework? That, too, got finished. But what Huff couldn’t have known at the time has become readily apparent in recent years: Huff, for all intents and purposes, had spent his youth diagramming his future.
“I remember in sixth grade sitting in social studies class with my then-football coach and we would draw up plays,” Huff told FootballScoop, on the eve of what now is being termed one of the biggest upset-wins against Notre Dame in that program’s unparalleled history. “And I would have 10 guys on the field and he would look and say, ‘You gotta add one more.’
“I was drawing concepts and he said, ‘That’s curl-flat.’ So from an early age, the behind-the-scenes part of football, the development, was intriguing to me.”
Huff’s development – from 22-year-old offensive line coach at HBCU stalwart Tennessee State to sleep-on-the-couch graduate assistant under James Franklin at Maryland – might be among the sport’s most unconventional paths.
Mind you, Huff transformed from undersized walk-on offensive skill player for iconic Hampton coach Joe Taylor to scholarship recipient, team captain and starting center for Taylor’s routinely dominant Pirates – who won three-straight Black College National Championships from 2004-06, a pair of which Huff helped garner.
“I really learned a lot about molding young men from Coach Taylor,” said the 39-year-old Huff. “I didn’t grow up and play in like a Charlie Weis scheme or a Baylor scheme or a Lane Kiffin scheme. I didn’t come out of that; I came out of a molding and motivating young men environment. I saw how the game of football could help change young men’s lives.
“I was blessed, had both parents, never had a lot of money but we had enough. So I never knew true struggle; I knew, ‘OK, I can’t have everything I want but I can work for what I get.’ In college I got around some guys who knew true struggle and I saw how Coach Taylor used the game of football to mold young men for life.”
As Huff continued to shape his own career, which had by 2019 seen stints at TSU, Maryland, Vanderbilt, the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, Western Michigan, Penn State and Mississippi State, he also began to further hone a knack of impacting others after he joined Nick Saban’s Alabama staff in 2019.
“Just the way that he treated everybody, his overall way that he approached everybody and his work on daily basis,” said Marc Votteler, who, like Huff, arrived at Alabama in 2019 as the Tide’s assistant director of player personnel. “His attitude, organization, everything. I could go on and on.
“He has this presence about him that you just can kind of tell people gravitate toward him, and he has an ability that he relates to everybody in all aspects of life. He won’t meet anybody he can’t find something to relate to them and get them to open up.”
College programs were opening doors for Huff to interview to become their head coach, even before helping Saban earn his record-setting seventh national title in 2020.
Those programs, however, were not in a rush to place Huff at the helm.
Now a bowl berth in his debut campaign and 2-0 start in this one later, it’s their loss.
“I interviewed, I've interviewed for eight head coaching jobs,” Huff said. “Marshall was the ninth job that I interviewed for to be a head coach that I actually got. It got to the point where I'm like, well, ‘Hey man, look, I mean, I've been, this is the eighth one. Like what, what is it? You know what I mean?’
“My agent told me ‘Shane Beamer just got the South Carolina job (after the 2020 regular season)’ and he said, ‘Shane interviewed for eight. He got nine.’ Probably two weeks later, you know, the Marshall thing comes alive and here I am.”
Votteler now is right there alongside Huff in Huntington, W. Va.
Like Huff, Votteler’s is an ascending star – his stints at Tennessee and UCF with Brandon Lawson, as well as ‘Bama with Bob Welton, causing multiple Power 5 programs to seek to wrest him away from Huff before their first game together at Marshall.
Those programs, which Votteler prefers not name, carry all the national benefits but not the underlying belief that accompanies working with Huff.
“He’s not a micromanager, but he’s going to tell you what he wants and how he wants it,” said Votteler, who with wife, Makenzie, a former on-campus recruiting coordinator at Tennessee, UCF and Alabama, had emerged as arguably college football’s most in-demand team in an off-the-field capacity. “Just like any coach, any leader, he will confront you if the job is not getting done, but he knows how to read and work with people.
“He’s not going to sit there and beat you down in front of the staff. He just does a great job of reading who he is with and how to handle them, and it’s impressive how he can flip the switch to be able to work with everybody. You almost feel like he’s your best friend because you want to be around him, he has that effect on people.”
This week, more than ever, folks have wanted to be around Huff and the Thunder Herd in perhaps ways none of them ever have seen. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice called the team during its victorious flight home Saturday evening from South Bend, and Justice stopped by practice in person Monday to address the program. Huff’s still tried to find time for a meal at Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House in downtown Huntington.
By blending lessons learned from Saban, Franklin, Taylor, Chan Gailey, PJ Fleck and Mike Locksley, among others, Huff has prepared to lead a multifaceted program and still break bread with the people who touch his program in all areas.
“Whenever you're taking over a program, I think that the head coaching chair has changed now; I tell people all the time it's my job to be Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Vince Lombardi,” said Huff, who also openly shared the impact Ty Willingham had imparted on him – just by being a Black head coach at Notre Dame as Huff was growing up. “That's my job. I'm not saying I can be those guys, but I look at that as my job. The head coaching chair is not just sitting here saying yes, guys, we go cover-2 here.
“The chair of the platform has allowed me to be boisterous and supporting the community. I don't think it's my job to say, ‘Hey, vote for this candidate or that candidate or this candidate's wrong or that party's wrong.’ For three hours on a Saturday afternoon at a college football game, we're all one.
“My job is to take those three hours and try to multiply them throughout the week and wherever I can, the community, wherever I can be in the community, and be a positive light.”
These days, Huff could hardly draw it up any better.