It made him stronger, maybe a little faster, probably even gave him a bit more leverage.
It also put him in a position to compete for a starting position on Hampton (Va.) University’s football team and solidify his spot on the depth chart from year to year.
But somewhere in the vicinity of his sophomore and junior years, Charles Huff realized he hated lifting weights.
“I mean I hated it,” Huff said. “I mean I did it because obviously you had to, but I despised lifting weights. I said, ‘You know what? If I’m going to play in the NFL, I’m going to have to lift weights all the time. I don’t want to do that.’”
Huff had no intention of ditching football, but the idea of staying in the game in a different way began to percolate.
“I started saying, ‘You know what? Maybe coaching is not the worst thing,’” said Huff, a 2001 graduate of North Caroline High.
So during the fall of his senior year, Huff, then a team captain and starting center, carried his dilemma to Hampton head coach Joe Taylor.
“I said, ‘Coach, I don’t want to play in the NFL. I want to coach,’” Huff said. “He said, ‘Yeah, your skill set probably is not set to play in the NFL. But your drive, your determination, your intelligence …. You’re going to be a helluva coach.’ He said, ‘You have a natural knack for motivating people and leading. And you have always got a positive attitude.’ So right after I got done playing I was lucky enough to get a coaching position with the offensive coordinator who I played for and kind of took off from there.”
Huff has worn a slew of titles at a string of stops since that first job coaching the offensive line at Tennessee State University in 2006. But on Jan. 17, 2021, the 37-year-old Denton native was chosen for a title that had eluded him over his career, when Marshall University hired him as its new head football coach.
“It feels surreal,” Huff said during a phone interview of his selection by Marshall. “But it’s one of those deals where when you’re a kid and you have a vision, and you can finally start to see that vision coming to life. It feels very gratifying.
“All your hard work. All the things that you did. All the sacrifices that you made in your career. You’re now cashing in on that investment.” Huff continued. “And to me it’s kind of like, you dream something at night and then you wake up and you can see it unfold just as you dreamed. And that is a very gratifying feeling — working towards a goal and finally seeing that goal.”
Exactly when it started for Huff is hard to say, but the football piece began when he was growing up in his parents’ home on River Road in Denton, and began playing youth football for the Caroline Cougars.
“It was all weight class back then,” Huff recalled of a time when Caroline’s youth program had just two teams. “I was always playing with guys older than me. My weight was surprisingly up at a young age.”
Practices were held at the old senior league field by Lockerman Middle School and at the park behind Denton Elementary under the direction of William Emory.
“When we first started he was everything,” Huff said of Emory, a man he called one of the greatest influences of his youth. “He was D-line coach, O-line coach. I mean he did it all.”
Huff was already becoming goal-oriented by his middle school years and was part of group that went to North Caroline High to begin lifting weights.
“Like the first day I got over there, for some reason, myself and Coach (Colin) Joseph like really hit it off,” Huff said of North Caroline’s longtime defensive coordinator. “And growing up all I wanted to do was play for Coach Joseph. He was the O-line coach. That’s all I wanted to do: get to high school and get a chance to play for coach Joseph.”
While Chuck Hunter was head coach during Huff’s four years at North Caroline, Huff did get the chance to play for Joseph, and also received plenty of instruction from others on the coaching staff, including Bill Miller and current head coach James McCormick. The young lineman and Joseph also had another connection.
“I did the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) at North High then, and Charles has always kind of been a spiritual kid,” Joseph said. “So he was in FCA so we got to be a little bit closer in that.”
Joseph also noted Huff had the kind of commitment not always seen in young players.
“He was also one of those all-in kids,” Joseph said. “He did whatever the program asked and then some. His work ethic was always big.
“Charles was always one of the hardest working kids we had in the weight room, and I don’t think he got any results from it until he went to college,” Joseph continued. “He would come and work out the 90-minute workout, do it with all his heart and intensity. And we would go to max out and his bench press would go up five pounds. But he always showed up and he kept coming back.”
He also kept playing any position asked of him, including center and guard on offense, and linebacker when teammates went down with injuries.
“Then they moved me back to O-line. Guess I wasn’t fast enough,” Huff said, laughing.
The ambition of his former offensive lineman — an All-Mid-Shore honorable-mention selection at center his senior year — also garnered a smile from Joseph.
“He always thought we misplayed him, that he should have been a skill guy,” Joseph said. “He was always wondering when we were going to move him to running back, or when we were going to move him to tight end or something like that. I was like, ‘Man, you should be happy to be right where you’re at. That’s where your athleticism kind of fits.’”
Huff graduated from North Caroline, then walked on as a fullback at Hampton, where he again played multiple positions.
“He was kind of like a Swiss army knife at Hampton,” Joseph said. “He went as an O-lineman and then he ended up being like a hybrid tight end-fullback, played some line. I mean I think he might have had five or six positions.”
Huff eventually became Hampton’s starting center his senior year, but the road wasn’t easy.
“All my high school career I was overweight,” Huff said. “And I got to college and for some reason they got bigger and I didn’t. I struggled. I was probably 260 when I got to college, but everybody else was like 300, 310, 320. I kind of grinded my way through.”
Huff graduated and then began a different grind — coaching.
After coaching the offensive line at Tennessee State in 2006 under Fred Kaiss — his offensive coordinator at Hampton — Huff spent two years coaching tight ends and special teams. He spent a year as assistant offensive line coach at Maryland, where he worked with his future boss James Franklin, then in his second year as the Terps’ offensive coordinator.
Huff returned to Hampton in 2010, coaching the offensive line and coordinating the run game. A year later, Franklin became head coach at Vanderbilt and lured Huff to Nashville, where he spent a year as the Commodores’ offensive quality control coach. He was on the move again a year later, spending his lone season in the NFL as assistant running backs coach for the Buffalo Bills in 2013 before returning to the college ranks as running backs coach at Western Michigan.
Huff made his longest stop in any one place from 2014 to 2017, when Franklin — now head coach at Penn State — hired him as the Nittany Lions’ running backs coach and special teams coordinator. In addition to those duties, Huff recruited, and played a pivotal part in landing star running back Saquon Barkley, who developed into a consensus All-American and two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and now is with the New York Giants.
Huff was back on the move in 2018, heading to Mississippi State as associate head coach and running game coordinator. One year later, he accepted a position as associate head coach and running backs coach for perennial national-title contender Alabama and Nick Saban.
“Everybody has the preconceived notion that it’s difficult to work for Coach Saban, and it’s hard to do,” Huff said. “And honestly it was very easy from a sense of, he sets an expectation and it’s very clear. And he holds everyone to that expectation. So you know exactly what your job responsibilities are. It’s not, well, you don’t know what he wants. You know. It’s very defined for everybody in the organization what their role is. So all you do is follow the lead.
“You know, it’s very demanding,” Huff continued. “That’s where people kind of get this, it’s hard to work for him. It’s very demanding on you. It’s very demanding on your family. It’s very demanding from a time standpoint. It’s very demanding because he holds everyone to a certain standard every day. Regardless what time of the year. Regardless of the opponent. Regardless whether you won or loss. Whether it’s raining outside. It doesn’t matter. The expectation is set and he holds to that. And when you do not meet the expectation he lets you know.”
Exactly what was expected of Huff during his two years in Tuscaloosa? Well, only he, Saban, and perhaps a handful of others really know those specifics. But on performance alone, it appears Huff more than met those expectations.
After rushing for 1,224 yards as a junior, running back Najee Harris ran for 1,466 yards this season en route to helping Alabama win its sixth national championship under Saban.
In terms of wooing high school prospects to Alabama, Huff was instrumental in helping land the nation’s second best recruiting class in 2020. That rank rose one notch this year as Alabama lassoed the nation’s No. 1 cast of recruits, while Huff was named the nation’s No. 1 recruiter by Rivals.com and 247Sports.
Then Marshall — which went 7-3 last year but chose not to renew the contract of head coach Doc Holliday — called.
Huff had interviewed for head coaching positions over the years at Northern Illinois, South Alabama, Southern Mississippi, Akron, Vanderbilt and Lafayette, and had attracted interest from Old Dominion and Louisiana-Monroe. But he had never received an offer.
“It’s not that I didn’t believe it wasn’t going to happen,” Huff said of getting a head coaching job. “I just knew at some point my window would start closing. When is that? Who knows? Maybe another five or 10 years. But I just wanted to continue to put myself in really good situations around really good people so I could learn. And that’s what I did. And lucky enough this opportunity came along at the right time, and I was the right guy for the job.”
It didn’t hurt that Huff knew some of the right people. Byron Leftwich, a former Marshall quarterback and now offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, knew Huff from coaching. He contacted another former Thundering Herd quarterback, Chad Pennington, who got further input from David Lee, who coached Pennington and worked with Huff while in Buffalo.
“Byron connected me with Chad,” Huff said. “Lee reached out to Pennington and said, ‘Hey, this is your guy.’ We spent some time (together) and as this thing went on, they said, ‘Coach, you’re what we need right now.’ I still didn’t believe it was going to happen because there were a lot of good candidates.
“We talked periodically,” Huff said of Pennington. “They weren’t necessarily looking for a great head coach to call plays, or a great head coach that had a great offense or defense. They were looking for a little bit more of a CEO, who could run a program, organize an organization and get out in the community. He said, ‘You fit that mold.’ He said, ‘I don’t know if you’ll get the job, but I will help you be prepared to get the job.’ And that’s what he did. He gave me some insight on the place, on the university, on the history. And I put it together with who I am and they thought I was right for it, so they made a decision.”
Marshall offered, Huff accepted, becoming the first Black head football coach in school history. He then remembered something he once told the coach he always wanted to play for at North Caroline.
“I’ll never forget. I told him, ‘When I get a head job I’m going to hire you,’” Huff said of Joseph. “He called me the other day and was like, ‘You still going to hire me?’” I said, ‘I can’t pay you now. You’re making millions over there.’ He said, ‘No, I’m not making millions.’ But I’m still teaching the same techniques I was with you.’
“We talk, Coach McCormick, Coach Joseph — we talk once or twice a month,” Huff continued. “They both send me a text every game, ‘Good luck.’ Every time I go back I definitely go see those guys.”