New Bengals cornerbacks coach Charles Burks loves books. But he didn't go by one to reach the NFL.
While ranging from sideline-to-sideline with reads from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time to J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, Burks coached eight years in Division II before bowling over the Dolphins and the NFL on the phone at age 31 in what he calls "the interview of my life."
"Perspective is important," says Burks in a bare Paul Brown Stadium office outfitted in early-offseason-new-job decor. "If there are two sides, sometimes those two sides are closer than you actually think. It's the narrative that keeps them apart."
Burks had been the defensive coordinator at Arkansas Tech for a month when he had a Sunday morning appointment with new Dolphins defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. Even though it was over the phone, Burks went into his office wearing a suit and was so impeccable talking about coverages that Graham called him to Miami for an in-person interview.
That was three years ago, when Dolphins first-year head coach Brian Flores was late putting together his staff because his Patriots had just won the Super Bowl. "February 14th, 2019,' is how Burks remembers it, when Graham called and offered him a defensive assistant job.
On Feb. 22, 2022, the Bengals, just off a Super Bowl appearance of their own, announced Burks as one of their three new assistant coaches, three days after Flores landed with the Steelers as a senior defensive assistant following his ouster in Miami.
"Up and coming star," says new Ohio State secondary coach Tim Walton, one of Burks' mentors. "An elite thinker with a passion to learn. He's got a great mind with a vision on how he can impact others."
Burks, now the ripe old age of 34, has shown up right away to engulf tape and get ready for next week's NFL scouting combine. So the office is spare except for a computer and a couple of his current books. One is on the desk, Atomic Habits, James Clear's lessons on how altering routines can be successfully life changing. Another is on a shelf, Madeline Hunter's Mastery Teaching: Increasing Instructional Effectiveness in Elementary and Secondary Schools.
"All of it is supposed to help me be a better coach," Burks says. "It forces you to listen to your players."
The Bengals hope Burks can impact a position that played well for the departed Steven Jackson but faces a bit of transition. Two of the starters, Chidobe Awuzie and slot cornerback Mike Hilton, are as solid any in the league.
It's unclear what's going to happen at the other spot or what happens behind them for depth. But one thing is certain. When the Dolphins finished the season 8-1, Burks helped direct a secondary that came up huge. During that stretch, Miami allowed the NFL's fewest passing touchdowns (6), the third lowest passer rating (66.1), the third lowest completion percentage (56.3) and the fourth fewest yards at 171 yards per.
And four of Burks' cornerbacks, led by starters Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, finished the season ranked in Pro Football Focus' top 80.
"Great get," says Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. "Great recommendations from people I trust Very good overall teacher. Very good relationship with players. I like him a lot."
Burks caught Anarumo's eye at the 2021 Senior Bowl, where the Dolphins coached the National team. And why not? Anarumo had coached the Dolphins secondary for six seasons not too long ago, from 2012-17. Under Burks, the gifted Howard, whom Anarumo had coached in his first two seasons in the league, had just made it to his second Pro Bowl in Burks' first year coaching the Miami cornerbacks.
"I talk to guys like the Xavien Howards and the Byron Joneses and I know how he's impacted them and how he's helped them," says Walton, just finishing an 11-year stint in the league with four teams. "He has an uncommon ability to develop young men."
That's probably because of the people helping him after Burks finished playing cornerback at East Central University and then started his coaching career the next year at his alma mater in Ada, Okla., while getting his master's in sports administration.
That began the Division II climb. West Texas A&M. Texas A&M University-Commerce. Then, at age 26, a five-year stint as defensive coordinator at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, helping him earn a chapter in the book Legendary Locals of Grand Prairie. Fellow Texan John Wooten, then the head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the organization dedicated to diversifying the NFL, became a mentor.
After Burks' first year of coaching, he was awarded a Bill Walsh minority coaching fellowship with the Lions and it changed his life. In large part because he worked with Walton, then the Detroit secondary coach, and they've been tight ever since.
"That was a great defensive staff," Burks says. "Jim Schwartz was the head coach. Gunther Cunningham was the defensive coordinator. (Former Bengals linebackers coach) Matt Burke was there and he was here once. I learned a lot about scheme presentations, meetings, classroom aesthetics."
Burks had opportunities to go the Division I graduate assistant route. But he liked coaching on the field and teaching in the classroom too much. He believes staying in Division II prepared him for the league better than any string of big school G.A. appointments could have.
"It gave me an opportunity to be successful at the NFL level. Not just be there, but be successful," Burks says. "You spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to make a lesser athlete more productive at the game.
"I think for the small school coaches, it's about developing players. I think in a bigger program, and this isn't a knock, but recruiting is the main thing. You've got to get those athletes in and they're only going to be there three years because they're going to the league. Where I was coaching, guys were going to be there four or five years."
Burks thinks the climb up the ladder has allowed him to communicate with the guys at the top rung.
"The Division II kid is a kid who is going to develop late or he may not have as much athletic ability, so you have to go in and coach each player differently," Burks says. "It's the same thing in the NFL. You can't coach every player the same. What you do revolves around what you have in the building. Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, I coached them a little bit differently than the Nik Needhams."
There was talk of an extension in Miami under the new regime. The Dolphins wanted to keep that defensive staff intact. But he thought "the relationships and the environment," in Cincinnati would be better for his career.
Not to mention a quarterback named Joe Burrow.
"I think a quarterback like that would factor in any coach's decision," says Burks with a wry smile.
And he seems quite comfortable here. As fellow Miami secondary coaches, Burks and Anarumo had already bonded on the pro day trail. He played his college ball in the Oklahoma town of Bengals head coach Zac Taylor's grandparents. His college coach coached Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons in the old West at Dodge Community College.
And he's got his books. He knows he's in J.D. Vance's neighborhood.
"Great book," Burks says, "about how classism and racism are from the same tree. The creating of 'The Other.'"
"The Fire," is his go-to Baldwin.
"That helped me to articulate things that I was feeling but things I didn't quite understand," Burks says. "Why do people do the things they do?"
There are only the books and the computer in the office. The players are next.
"We're texting," Burks says. "Getting the relationships started. It's all about relationships."