Basketball was Charlie Cobb’s first love. But growing up in West Columbia, South Carolina, Cobb could not help but be drawn to the pigskin in his football-first community. An offensive lineman, Cobb impressed enough to receive a scholarship to NC State, where he earned four letters and took home the Jim Tatum Award for highest GPA of any senior in the ACC, as well as the Bob Warren Memorial Award for integrity and sportsmanship. Currently the athletic director at Georgia State University, Cobb spent the previous nine years as AD at Appalachian State and also had administrative stints with the Atlanta Sports Council, the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and the Georgia Dome. In this exclusive interview for FootballMatters, Cobb talks about how the structure of football put him on the path to success.
Football Matters: What was your introduction to the game of football like? When did you begin playing and when did you realize you had a passion for the sport?
Charlie Cobb: My brother and I grew up on Friday night lights. From the time I can remember we were water boys or managers for the high school team [Airport High School]. I started playing in the seventh grade where there was a rule that everybody had to play one play, and I got to play one play every game. I joke now; it was a real auspicious start.
FM: Just one play when you were in seventh grade? So how did it take off from there?
CC: I grew up with this mindset I was going to be a great basketball player. But I played in one of those high schools where football was important to the school. We had great tradition. While I grew up thinking I was going to be a great basketball player I was easily convinced I was a much better athlete if I was in a three-point stance. I was fortunate to have some really good high school coaches, but also a pretty structured environment. We were doing the summer workouts, we were doing the spring practices, we were doing those things that I think a lot of places were just getting started with, but really it was a part of our culture, a part of our DNA. Where I grew up, if you were an athletic male, you played football. We had close to 80, 85 guys on our team. It was what you did.
CC: I wanted to be an architect coming out of high school, so I focused on schools that had an architecture program. I ended up playing at NC State for a coach named Dick Sheridan. He and his staff, they were at Furman, and my brother was going to Furman to play. The summer before our senior year of high school they took the job at NC State. I really felt comfortable with the coaches. I bought into the vision of changing the program and changing the culture. I didn’t really know a lot about NC State other than they played basketball at Reynolds Coliseum. I chose the school really to play for a set of coaches.
FM: What did those coaches teach you, not only about football but about life?
CC: I think the thing that coach hit us with all the time was how we handled ourselves. How we handled competing like crazy on the field, but also off the field you have additional responsibilities. We were very structured in what we did. I never grew up thinking I’d be a college athlete. So to have these opportunities put in front of me, you follow this progression. I remember the last game I played in I thought, ‘Holy smokes where did the time go?’ But I also knew I proved something to myself based on the physical nature. I’ve learned throughout the years that when you test yourself physically it’s the greatest experience-based learning that you can have. It’s part of that day-to-day grind, the physical nature of it. Realizing that there won’t be immediate results. You have to work your way into being able to play and compete physically. I proved things to myself I don’t think I would have been able to understand had I not gone through that experience.
CC: Me and brothers, we were taught very early on to take care of your school work. There was structure placed from home. Going away to college, I found that the structured environment of playing – wake up, work out, go to class, meet, practice, get homework done or go to study hall – that structure was great for me. The times when I ran into challenges, frankly, were when I had free time and didn’t have that structured environment. I tell kids to this day, you may not understand all the demands that are placed on you, but I promise you as you get older and walk through not only your college path but also life after, that structure that is provided is critical for development.
FM: It sounds like football was a guiding force for you. Do you feel as though football played a part in your development as a person?
CC: I think college kids and teenagers are screaming for accountability sometimes. You just aren’t aware of it. Being a part of that structure, I knew what the rules were. My teammates knew what the rules were. We knew as players what we had to do. The reality of it is that guidance and structure allowed us to have fun. We played on some really good teams. But it also allowed us, when we walked away and were through playing, we had a blueprint to start life. I’ve said it for 30 years, there’s nothing harder that I’ve ever done in my life than two-a-days. If you can make it through two-and-a-half weeks of two-a-days in 100 degree heat, you can get through anything.
FM: What is your favorite part of your job today?
CC: The favorite part of my job is real simple: I love knowing the names. For a lot of people the name on the front of the jersey is really important. The purpose of my job though comes from the stories of the names off the back of the jersey. When you get to know the kids that are playing for your teams, you know the investment, you know the sacrifices, and you know their own personal journey. You get your fulfillment from finding that purpose of supporting those kids. You look down the road and see five, 10, 15 years where they are, and you like to think you had a little bit of an impact, just like they did for you, in terms of guiding a career and a life.
FM: What do you think the role is that football has played in your life?
CC: I think the role came in the opportunity to learn and grow and develop and challenge myself when I was in that process of playing, and also experience some great success but also some gut-wrenching failure. I learned to handle the ups and the downs.