Mike Strickland spent many years in Gwinnett County as a high school football coach, including 14 as a head coach - seven each at Dacula and Duluth - before retiring in 1997 with a career record of 82-72. Saturday, he returns to the sidelines for the first time in 11 years to coach the West squad in the Rivalries of Gwinnett All-Star Game against the East squad, which is coached by his friend and former Shiloh coach Charlie Jordan. Strickland, now working in the private sector, took time this week to talk with staff writer David Friedlander about the old days, including talking about the best player he ever coached, his current situation and coaching again, even for just one game.
DF: So, what's it been like blowing the whistle again after being away from it so long?
MS: I'm just glad the rain has moved out (laughs). I felt like we've been practicing in Seattle all this week. ... But it was an honor when (former Brookwood coach) Dave (Hunter) and (current Dacula coach) Kevin (Maloof) called me and asked me to do it. Once you (coach football), it's always in your blood.
DF: You were only 52 years old when you retired 11 years ago? Why did you get out so young?
MS: Well, it started when we (Duluth) were playing Shiloh, one year and I got (run into) on the sideline and wound up having three leg surgeries. I came back the next year, but I noticed the style of coaching I was using was kind of falling behind. And I was only a few years from retirement. I could've stayed around as athletics director or maybe an assistant principal, but I just needed to go away. I knew that wouldn't be fair to whoever came in. I had planned to coach until I retired, but I just felt like the time was right.
DF: Duluth has really struggled since your last year there, with only one non-losing season (in 2003) and now having their fourth different coach in 11 seasons. What's your take on why it's been so tough for the Wildcats to win?
MS: I spent seven years at Duluth and I loved everyone there. We were successful and even went to the playoffs one year (in 1994). I think the difference is, once I got there, two schools (Collins Hill and Peachtree Ridge) were built and pulled a lot of students out of the school district. (Duluth) is one of the original schools built in the county. When I was coaching, the growth was mainly in the southern part. When I took my first job (as an assistant) at South Gwinnett, if you looked from Stone Mountain to Loganville, there was only one school. Gwinnett was still rural. The growth now in the northern part of the county. When you build two (new) schools out of one, it's going to take a while to recover from that.
DF: What are you doing these days?
MS: I work for Scholastic Images Balfour as a sales representative. We do all the class rings, graduation announcements and caps and gowns for nearly every school in Gwinnett. In total, we do 50-something schools. In fact, I was just over at Wesleyan (on Wednesday) to fit them for their championship rings and I'm going to Buford pretty soon. I enjoy it because I'm still in the schools. I'm still seeing the coaches. It's just a different side of (education).
DF: I understand you still keep up with high school football by going to a game every Friday night with some of your former colleagues.
MS: (Laughs) Yeah. We call it "The Retired Coaches Corner." Charlie Jordan lives three houses down from me. (Former South Gwinnett coach) T. McFerrin lives across street. (Former Brookwood assistant coach) Ray Allen also lives on the same block. A bunch of us retired and moved out that way. So, every Friday night, we'll pick a game to go see. It's a lot of fun. We've been doing it five or six years now.
DF: Do you get caught up analyzing a play every now and then and arguing among yourselves on how you might've run it?
MS: (Laughs) Yeah, there's a little coaching that goes on in the stands, but we sit off by ourselves and keep it to ourselves.
DF: And of course, you'll be coaching against a member of your group on Saturday in Charlie Jordan. I know it's all in fun, but are there side bets going on as to the outcome, like who buys dinner the first Friday night of next year or something like that?
MS: Well, it's always competitive when you go out there, especially when it's your neighbor. (Laughs). And remember, when my leg was injured, we were playing Charlie's team. But seriously, it's an honor to be across the field from him again.
DF: So, you're still close to a lot of your coaching colleagues, and I imagine you probably still keep in contact with some of your former players. So, when you look back at those kids, is it safe to say (former Dacula and N.C. State multi-sport star) Terry Harvey was the best player you ever coached?
MS: I was very fortunate to have coached a lot of great kids. Terry was the most phenomenal athlete I ever coached. He was first-team all-state in football, basketball and baseball. And one spring, we needed (an extra player for) the region golf tournament. He was in baseball during the spring, but I asked him, "Hey, if it will get you out of school for a day, will you come out to region tournament?" He did and guess what? He won it. A lot of people may not have known it, but he's a scratch golfer. But the thing I remember most about him is he's so down to earth. Even today, he's handled his success so well. When he blew his shoulder out playing baseball, he was smart enough to go back to Raleigh and finish school and he's got a great career and great family now. But he's without a doubt best athlete I ever coached, even though he was coming out of (what was then) a small Class A school like Dacula. Anyone who coached against Terry will probably tell you same thing.
DF: As great as Terry Harvey was to coach, you've got some great ones you're coaching this week. And, of course, football has changed a lot since you last coached. What's the biggest difference to you after working with this kids all week?
MS: What I've noticed most on this practice field is the speed and size and strength. It's just improved so much over last eight to 10 years. From a coaching aspect, too, the game's just gotten a lot faster. I was fortunate when I was coaching. I had about 15 kids sign scholarships. but it doesn't matter what school they're from. They're so athletic and so coachable. The whole game has gotten better.