Editor’s note: This article combines elements from a Feb. 2016 feature story with online remembrances from many lives touched by the FCHS legend.
For more than two decades, John Strickland was a fixture at Fayette County High School. The calendar now turns to 2020 without the Tiger coaching legend prowling the sidelines, as he is laid to rest January 4 in Quitman, Georgia.
Strickland fought a brave fight with cancer up to the very end, coaching his beloved Lady Tigers basketball team until the winter break. Upon his passing, remembrances poured in from around the state from players, coaches, and colleagues touched by his heart and dedication as both one of the state’s best leaders in multiple sports and as a soul who truly cared for the athletes he helped mold as young adults.
“We really lost a legend today…He was always there for me every step of the way. To the best high school coach ever, I’ll forever be thankful for you, Coach Strickland.”
~ Chinyere Njoku, FCHS and Texas A&M track alum
Sports is one of the greatest molders of success and character in our young men and women. It teaches discipline, teamwork, responsibility, and so many other key pieces of winning at life. Those lessons learned on the ball fields and courts are instilled by coaches, people who give their own blood, sweat, and tears to their players, showing them the way to true victory. The spirit of leadership was embodied in one of the county’s longest-tenured and most successful coaches: John Strickland. Along with years as a member of the football staff, Strickland turned the FCHS track and field program and Lady Tiger basketball team into something synonymous with victory in all phases of life. His impact goes beyond just the wins, of which there are many, and into heart of the community.
“He will be dearly missed. I am not sure he realized how much he impacted all of us.”
~ Kelly Taylor, former FCHS athletic director
A multi-sport star at Brooks County High School in south Georgia, Strickland went to college to play football at West Georgia. He made his mark from 1984 to 1987 as a wide receiver and kick returner under a staff that included Mike Earwood. Fast forward to 1997 when Earwood was starting up the football program at Starr’s Mill High School. He hired Brent Moseley away from Clint Burton’s staff at FCHS, leaving a hole for a wide receiver coach.
“Earwood called (Burton) and said I’ve got the right guy for the job,” remembered Strickland.
After finishing at West Georgia, Strickland tried out life in the business world, but he was drawn back to sports. He had never been to Fayette County before he interviewed with then-Principal Gary Phillips, earning that shot as a football assistant. He made FCHS his new home, and it stuck.
“Best Tiger there ever was and ever will be. This man changed my life. I’m a better person and better coach because of him.”
~ Nate Enloe, FCHS football alum and now football coach
He soon added coaching the ninth grade girls basketball team to his resumé. He worked under three different head coaches before becoming the head girls varsity coach for the 2005-06 season. An overtime loss in the first round of the region tournament his first year would leave them with a final record of 12-13. Nearly every year after, the Lady Tigers won 20 games or more, along with nine straight region championship game appearances. He finished with a sterling 299-125 record with one state championship, two runner-up finishes, eight region championships, and 14 playoff appearances.
“He was such a well-rounded, versatile, unique man who had nothing but love for everyone around him. He was always willing to help and be there for those who needed him…Me and my teammates got a version of coach that we are blessed to have known. He was more than a coach to us, and I’m grateful to have known him and been graced by him. You will truly be missed by so many people in this world.”
~ Trinity Brown, FCHS basketball alum and current University of the Cumberlands lacrosse player
Strickland’s crowning achievement came in 2011 when his Lady Tigers won the AAAA state championship over Forest Park. It was the culmination of a stretch of three title game appearances in four years, the first two ending in losses to Southwest Dekalb.
“I kept saying I didn’t want to be the Buffalo Bills of this thing,” joked Strickland about the NFL team that lost four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s. He got a bit of helpful advice from a fellow coach who had twice lost in the finals. “He said at least you had the chance to not win it. You know how to lose one, now you have to figure out how to win one.”
Win one they did, bringing the first-ever state basketball championship to the county. They’ve been right on the cusp of winning another crown most years, and it’s because they have built a winning tradition that never graduates. It’s a foundation of hard work, dedication, and devotion to defense.
“When you have a program and you do things systematically, you don’t waver on it. It’s solid. One of the girls could come back from the first team I had and they could probably join right in. We’re still a winning program because we’re doing it right,” he said. “We’ve got to go at every loose ball. We’ve got to scrap and claw. That’s what championship teams do. They’re going to go and play hard every night.”
Strickland remained a key cog of the coaching staff for a Tiger football program on the rise and was the head coach of the stellar track program that pumped out many college athletes over the years. Under his track tutelage, the Tigers racked up more than a dozen individual state champions, five top-four team finishes, and he has been honored as the state sprint coach of the year. That hearkens back to his appreciation for the value of playing year-round for your school.
“Me and this guy had many ups and downs all throughout high school, but he was still on my side no matter what. He was the one who instilled that ‘dog’ in me. He always wanted to see someone do great and never quit on themselves. Love you, Coach Strick.”
~ Seth Holloway, FCHS track alum, now running collegiately at UCLA
For all the wins he tallied on the court, there were victories that were more important. What meant the most was setting up his athletes to succeed at life. To help show that life is more than sports, he marched with his basketball team every year in Fayetteville’s MLK Day Parade.
“Strickland was definitely another father when I needed him to be. May he forever live through me in everything he taught me: hard work, perseverance, and humility.”
~ Kamille Carpenter, FCHS basketball and track alum
Strickland saw his share of players compete in college or get a chance to play professionally. He welcomed former players back as coaches and colleagues, and he had the opportunity to coach siblings years apart.
“That’s my first bloodline,” Strickland said of coaching sisters Sasha and Sidney Sims in particular. “It’s fun watching Sasha come from the ninth grade up and then have a chance to coach her sister. It’s special to be around long enough to do that.”
One of his favorite success stories was Tessah Holt. She graduated from Boston College and made a special trip to the gym to show her old coach her degree.
“That’s probably a more rewarding moment when you see a kid come to the gym who has their degree,” said Strickland.
Even better, Holt followed Strickland into the coaching ranks, and, after coaching at the college level, she joined his staff at FCHS.
That off-court success in his former players was a big a point of pride for Strickland.
“I can safely say 80 to 90 percent out of the girls that played on those teams will go to college. The fact that they went on and got their college degrees is a testament to our program,” he said. “The basketball will stop bouncing one day, and then you’ve got to go into the workforce. You can take the hard work and dedication you learned in basketball into the workforce.”
“Coach Strickland has taught me so much, and I’m not even talking about sports. He prepared me for college and taught me things that I never even knew was a factor…Coach always told us that the goal wasn’t to win a ring, the goal wasn’t even about basketball at all, he said, ‘Your goal is to walk across that stage on May 25th (at graduation).’ You never know how much one means to you until it’s too late. When my mom passed away my sophomore year, he told me, ‘You are the strongest woman I know, and I look up to you for that.’ Coach, you touched my heart.”
~ Rikkelle Miller, FCHS basketball, track, and softball alum and current Grambling softball player
The love and dedication exhibited by Strickland is appreciated by the community as a whole and especially in the lives of Tigers, both current and former.
“My coach, my friend, my mentor, my second dad. Words can never describe the impact you had on my life and everyone else’s who really knew you. You exemplified hard work, discipline, and love in all you did. You taught me to love the process because without it the reward was worthless. From high school to college and through adulthood, we loved the process together each year. I am forever grateful to have experienced life with you on this earth and to be by your side while you fought the battle. I love you Big Dawg. LEGEND forever.”
~ Brandon Boykin, FCHS football and basketball alum, college football star at UGA, and NFL veteran
Fayette County, specifically our young athletes, was lucky to have him. His legend will live on through the Tigers.