Charles Bethel was only a high school football coach in Miami-Dade County for six seasons. His career record of 27 wins and 34 losses between 1978 and ’83 at Miami High and then Jackson High doesn’t rank very high among the list of great head coaches.
But if you add up all the lives he touched in his 30-plus years in the school system — all the coaches, administrators and leaders in the South Florida community who were shaped by him — he might be one of the most beloved and impactful of all-time.
“He’s the reason that I decided to be a coach, because of the impact he had on us at Jackson, especially for me, who was being raised by my grandmother,” said Tim “Ice” Harris, a former USA Today National High School Coach of the Year, who won three state football championships at Booker T. Washington and a track title, and is now back with the Tornadoes as football coach following a second stint as an assistant at the University of Miami.
“If it wasn’t for Coach Bethel, I don’t know where my life would be at this point,” Harris added. “I really owe a lot to him in terms of how he structured us. He had a real tight structure to make sure we did things the right way, and he gave us the opportunity to understand dreams can come true, that you can accomplish goals. He was the father figure you always wanted to have, and he definitely played that role in my life.
“All a lot of us have done all day is talk about how one guy came into our lives and changed our direction. When it’s my time, when God calls on me, I want people to say the same things they’re saying about Charles Bethel.”
Bethel passed away Thursday night at 72 from complications of diabetes, his son, Chuck Bethel, a local photographer, told the Miami Herald. Bethel is survived by his son, his daughter, Candice, and his wife of 51 years, Leatha, who was at his side when he passed away peacefully at their Miami home. Bethel is also survived by his granddaughter, Saraiyah.
Bethel’s legacy runs deep. Among others he coached or taught: Marlins third-base coach Lenny Harris (he was Bethel’s quarterback at Jackson), Northwestern High football coach Max Edwards, North Miami High principal Daryl Branton and former state representative Ralph Arza.
Bethel served on the board for the Florida High School Athletic Association and was a principal at Miami Central, Booker T. Washington and North Miami Elementary schools
“Charlie Bethel was special to me,” Lenny Harris said Friday.
“He was a guy who would come to me during lunch period and talk to me about the game plan. He was very serious about football. He changed a lot at my high school. He made us pretty much gentlemen. He was strict, and they don’t get no better than that.”
We won some big games, but we could never win that state championship. But he made us a better team, without a doubt. And definitely a better person."
An army brat who grew up in South Florida and Germany and then graduated high school in Virginia, Bethel returned to Miami in the early 1970s and was first a biology and physical education teacher at Edison Park Elementary and Middle School.
Bethel then moved onto Miami High were he coached the boys' soccer team to a state title in 1974 and served as a football assistant until he became the first African-American head coach in school history in 1978. Bethel coached the Stingarees for two seasons before moving onto Jackson for four seasons, leading the Generals to a district title in 1981.
Bethel then returned to Miami High as an assistant coach under Arza, who played for Bethel in high school and whom Bethel initially hired as an assistant at Jackson.
After Bethel retired in 2003 from serving as an assistant principal at Miami High (1985-1991) and principal at Booker T. Washington middle (1991-94), Miami Central High (1994-2000) and North Miami Elementary (2000-03) Arza fought to get Bethel a seat on the board of the Florida High School Athletic Association. Bethel became only the second African-American to sit on the board.