'Who is this 12-year-old?' – Meet the country's most unconventional young coach

ATHENS, Ga. – Soon after Will Healy took over as the coach at Austin Peay University three years ago, one of his first directives was commissioning a new logo. The urgency came more for logistic sensibilities than aesthetic preferences. He wanted the state of Tennessee on the logo so people stopped asking if the school, which is in Clarksville, Tennessee, was in the Texas capital.

Until Healy arrived to author one of the most impressive turnarounds in recent college football history, Austin Peay’s only football notoriety came from the depths of its futility. Since 2000, the school has held the nation’s longest losing streak (29 games), lost 47 of 48 and dipped more than 100 games under .500 for the century.

The only thing more unlikely than Austin Peay becoming a relevant FCS program is the coach who got them there. Austin Peay hired Healy at age 30, and he’s often mistaken for a team manager and looks young enough to be Brad Stevens’ nephew. He joked to the interviewing committee he was, actually, old enough to drink coffee and shave when they hired him in December of 2015. During his first speech to his new team, Healy felt a distinct vibe: “Who is this 12-year-old?”

“Everybody around this place was little bit skeptical,” Healy told Yahoo Sports. “There’s a 30-year-old who’s never been head coach, never called a play and is now taking over the worst program in college football. The overwhelming odds say this is a terrible job to take, and you have no chance of being successful.”

What’s made Healy, now 33, successful is the most intriguing part. His style focuses on energy, encouragement and engagement, a sharp contrast to the generations of coaches who’ve subsided on berating, yelling and intimidating.

What’s different? There are cameras at practice solely focused on players’ body language. There’s mandatory exuberance after big plays captured by an end zone celebration camera. And overall, there’s a coaching philosophy more focused on the person than the player, as Healy preaches etiquette more than execution. Healy is such a stickler for manners that he makes his 3-year-old son, Eli, say please to the family’s Amazon Alexa device. “I don’t mind being different,” Healy said. “I think we hold our players accountable, but you don’t have to cuss ’em up one leg and down the other to do it.”

Austin Peay head coach Will Healy speaks to Austin Peay wide receiver DeAngelo Wilson (11) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
Austin Peay head coach Will Healy speaks to Austin Peay wide receiver DeAngelo Wilson (11) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Healy, now 33, arrived at a school with so few resources that they had just one football in the equipment room. Austin Peay dropped scholarships between 1997 and 2006, and the residual institutional apathy showed. Dog feces routinely littered the practice field and the weight room was so primitive it had a gravel surface. The results reflected the investment, as the school hadn’t won a league title since 1977, had a winning season since 2007 and never earned an FCS playoff bid. In other words, no one would have complained if they’d exported the football program to Texas. “The expectation was so low,” Healy said, “you couldn’t fail.”

Healy tempted his theory by finishing 0-11 in 2016 and opposing fans taunted their top recruit by chanting the school’s name. Two seasons later, people are asking the same question – “Who is the 12-year-old?” – in a completely different tone.

Healy’s unconventional methods have, well, put Austin Peay on the map.

Healy’s focus on recruiting and engagement over X’s and O’s paid off when Austin Peay lured the nation’s No. 1 FCS recruiting class after going 0-11 in 2016. They improved to 8-4 in 2017, including 8-1 against FCS competition, and were the last team left out of the FCS playoffs. Healy won the Eddie Robinson award as the top coach in the FCS. (Austin Peay is 2-2 this year with a showcase game at No. 8 Jacksonville State this week.)

Austin Peay’s overnight rebuild offers a window into what coaching looks like in the next generation, as new wave coaches like Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck have ushered positivity and energy into the mainstream.

“He’s very Dabo-esque,” said former Austin Peay athletic director Ryan Ivey, who hired Healy. “I’ve told him this, before it’s all said and done he’ll be in the SEC, and you’ll see him hoisting the College Football Playoff trophy.”

Is Will Healy’s baby face what coaching could look like in the future?

What makes Will Healy’s methods different

Healy’s philosophy starts with a personal touch. For his coaching staff, that means making sure they’re not overworked, a counterintuitive notion to the stereotypical sleep-deprived, relentless and family un-friendly coaching lifestyle. Healy is so serious about this that he pays for their coaches to get babysitters on Wednesday so they can take their wives out on a date night. (The going rate for Clarksville babysitters is $20 per hour.)

“He gets it, it’s the new model, the true CEO and not just an X’s and O’s guy,” said Austin Peay athletic director Gerald Harrison. “He has a rare passion for the student-athlete and the ability to understand the whole picture.”

The picture began changing in the macro, as the school put more than $20 million into the stadium, doubled the size of Healy’s coaching staff salary pool to more than $600,000 and allowed him to lure talented and vibrant assistant coaches. Former Eagles receiver Todd Pinkston is the wideouts coach, Joshua Eargle wanted the head job before agreeing to come as the offensive line coach and strength coach Chris Laskowski overhauled the strength staff from three total employees to 11. (Laskowski cooked breakfast for the team before summer workouts, using the outdoor grill lent from Healy’s house and the skillet Healy received as a wedding gift.)

Healy hired well enough that he lost assistant coaches to Minnesota, Southern Miss and Troy last season. “It wasn’t that the last staff couldn’t coach,” Healy said. “It was because we had never invested. It’s not like I’ve got the answer, it’s they let me hire right.”

Austin Peay coach Will Healy talks to one of his players prior to the start of their season opener against Georgia. (Austin Peay athletics)
Austin Peay coach Will Healy talks to one of his players prior to the start of their season opener against Georgia. (Austin Peay athletics)

Healy coaches his coaches to connect, and that helped Healy pull off what’s considered his greatest coaching coup – luring the country’s No. 1 recruiting class in the wake of the 0-11 season. Talent dictates trends, which is why coaches like Fleck and Swinney outsource the bulk of the X’s and O’s to their coordinators and spend so much time recruiting. Healy does the same, pouring his energy into relationships, fundraising and recruiting instead of micro-managing red-zone packages. That has worked with players who’ve grown up in the emoji generation and prefer inspiration over intimidation for motivation.

No player is more indicative of the Austin Peay turnaround than quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall, who turned down the three military academies, Yale and a host of peer OVC schools to attend Austin Peay. This came much to the amusement of Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy’s rival, Montgomery Bell Academy, which serenaded him with chants – “Let’s go Peay” and “WIN-LESS” – during basketball games to mock his decision. Oatsvall jokes that even friends spoke in coded language that second-guessed his decision – “They got a steal” – intimating to him that he could do better. But he believed in the vision Healy laid out for him. “I didn’t want to continue a legacy,” he said. “I wanted to start a legacy.”

That began when Austin Peay snapped the 29-game losing streak last season, and the clip of the fans rushing the field made it to “Good Morning America.” Oatsvall and other players pointed to the youth of Healy and the staff as a positive, as defensive turnovers in practice are celebrated by dunking a ball in a trash can and Healy stresses body language – hence the camera – as much as he does ball security. The staff’s daily goal is to deliver a sense of constant energy and positivity, which begins on social media in recruiting and transcends to practice every day. “You have so much fun practicing that you’re getting better and sometimes you don’t even know it,” Healy said. “It’s not pulling teeth.”

Healy is a former star high school quarterback from Chattanooga who had a modest career at Richmond before getting into coaching. (He credits much of the family-first philosophy to former Richmond coach Mike London.) The leap of faith in hiring a receivers coach with no play-calling experience prompted some eye-rolls upon announcement. Even Healy admits in his first season he re-watched his opening press conference a handful of times to remind himself why he took the job. As the losses mounted, he focused even harder on staying positive. “I believe the fear of disappointment,” he said, “motivates you more than just getting your (tail) ripped on a regular basis.”

How far Austin Peay has come (and how far it still needs to go)

About five hours before Austin Peay kicked off at Georgia to open the season, Healy wandered the aisles of Dick’s Sporting Goods in nearby Buford, Georgia. One of his wide receivers needed a pair of size 11 Under Armour cleats, so Healy and his trusted operations guru, Carter Crutchfield, maintained an annual tradition.

They’d gone to Dick’s Sporting Goods near Troy, Alabama, and Cincinnati the past two seasons the night before the opener to buy an assortment of pants and gloves that coaches and players needed. Prior to the Troy game, they needed to drop off the uniforms at a local seamstress – Tang’s Alterations – to get the names sewn on the jerseys. Healy’s parents picked them up and brought them to the stadium. “I don’t feel right that we’re not in a panic,” Crutchfield joked.

Their virtually empty shopping cart marked progress. As did an encounter in line, when a fan noticed Healy’s logo and said he’d enjoyed the letter “your coach” wrote to fans about the opportunity that awaited playing Georgia. Hearing his own letter quoted back to him so startled Healy that he spilled some of his coffee on the floor. Healy cleaned up the spill with a plastic bag and left the store wearing a grin that stretched from Nashville to Asheville. “It shows,” he told Crutchfield, “people are starting to pay attention.”

That proved one of the few highlights of a day that simultaneously showed how far Austin Peay has come and how far it needs to go. Healy signed up to play Georgia for $500,000 in the opener because he knew the benefits of the months of attention focused on the opener – as opposed to a late-November game – and the recruiting buzz that would follow.

Austin Peay coach Will Healy got doused by his players after their losing streak was snapped in a win over Morehead State in 2017.(Robert Smith/Austin Peay)
Austin Peay coach Will Healy got doused by his players after their losing streak was snapped in a win over Morehead State in 2017.(Robert Smith/Austin Peay)

The unintended benefit came when Georgia fans helped deliver one of the feel-good stories in college football this year. They heard the story of Landrey Eargle, the daughter of Austin Peay assistant coach Joshua Eargle, who was battling a rare genetic disease. Georgia fans spearheaded a fundraising effort to help the Eargles with medical bills, raising more than $157,000. When the Eargles were presented a $5,000 check from the Kirby Smart foundation at halftime, Healy kept his team on the field to watch the ceremony.

Appreciating that moment dovetails with Healy’s entire philosophy, as his pre-game speeches were nearly devoid of strategy.

“Don’t ever forget gratitude. Don’t ever forget to say thank you.”
“Pick up the dadgum trash on the bus.”
“Shake hands with everyone and look them in the eye. I don’t care if they’re here for the Johnson wedding. Shake their hand. We need fans.”

Healy believes in constant stimulation of his team, as he paid out of his own pocket to have former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett come talk to the team before the season. Clarett was so impressed with Healy and the Governors that he drove 12 hours from Columbus to be on the sideline for the Georgia game.

“He reminds of a younger version of Matt Campbell,” said Clarett, who got to know Campbell while he coached at Toledo. “It’s hard to quantify how they connect with people. You see the spirit, it’s a feeling.”

Austin Peay didn’t leave Athens feeling great after the opener. They trailed 38-0 at halftime, lost 45-0 and Healy agreed to shorten the game to a 10-minute fourth quarter. What was worse was the self-induced mistakes, as Austin Peay imploded in a flurry of pre-snap penalties, fumbled pitches and miscues that made the moment look too big.

“How do you come out flat in a game like this?” Healy asked his team at halftime.

But Healy had prepared for the lopsided result, as he’d spent the 48 hours around the game ensuring the experience of playing Georgia made more of an impression than the game’s result. Austin Peay did a walk-through that essentially allowed the team to take pictures at Sanford Stadium. He brought the team to the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta on Friday and they stayed in an SEC-level hotel – the Chateau Elan – where the team’s set up, catered meals and meeting spaces felt like a Power Five school. “This is why you play the game,” Healy said. “This is an experience these kids won’t forget.”

Providing a positive experience around a blowout cuts to the core of Healy’s philosophy, and it’s precisely the reason why Austin Peay has found itself on the college football map. No logo necessary, anymore.

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