Why the best young coach in college football might be this man, not Scott Frost
Will Healy is doing a miraculous job at Austin Peay, and a win at UCF can put him on the map
CLARKSVILLE, Tenn -- In 2016, Scott Frost took over an 0-12 Central Florida program that was the worst team in the AAC. In Year 2, Frost has UCF 6-0, ranked 15th in the country with an undefeated season in its cross-hairs, and he's considered one of the most coveted coaching candidates in the sport. And yet, this Saturday, Frost will have the second-best turnaround story on the field when he looks to the opposite sideline and sees Austin Peay coach Will Healy.
An FCS program hailing from the Ohio Valley Conference, Austin Peay had won a single game in its previous 46 tries heading into this season. It entered 2017 on a 27-game losing streak, and before this fall, Austin Peay wasn't just the the worst team in its conference, it was the worst team in Division I.
Against that backdrop, it's borderline miraculous that, on Saturday, the Governors bring a 5-3 record to Orlando, Florida -- the lone blemishes being losses to Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio) and Jacksonville State, the No. 4-ranked team in FCS. Neither of Austin Peay's FBS opponents topped 300 yards of offense, and the Governors outgained Cincinnati in a Week 1 scare.
Powering the turnaround is Healy, a 32-year-old first-time head coach who was the passing game coordinator of a run-heavy offense at Chattanooga before his current gig. His credentials as a head coach were nonexistent, and yet he has managed to drum up unwavering belief from an athletic director, an impressive young staff and some of the most highly sought after recruits in FCS.
"I believe in him," Healy's defensive coordinator, Marcus West, said. "If I wouldn't have come here to be the DC, I'd have come here to be the equipment manager."
West has a better excuse than most to buy into what Healy is selling. The two were on staff together at Chattanooga, where they helped head coach Russ Huesman turn a 1-11 team into an FCS playoff contender in Healy and West's final three years on staff. West remembers hearing about the Austin Peay opening and saying, "There's no way in hell I'd go there." Weeks later, he left an assistant head coaching position on that playoff team to join Healy in Clarksville without hesitation.
West's resolute belief in Healy was crystalized when some of his players at Chattanooga were probing West on his coaching aspirations.
"They said Coach Healy would be a great head coach," he remembers. "They were talking it up as [the Austin Peay interview] was happening. These kids are basically telling you that's the dude you want to follow. You can sit around and think, 'They're 18- to 22-year-olds and we're adults, and they don't have it figured out.' They know. If you ever take the time as a coach to just listen to them, they know. They're telling you the heartbeat of a team. They're telling you how to be successful. Just listen to them. That was my affirmation. These dudes want to play for him."
The next stop on Healy's proselytizing tour was the Austin Peay athletic director. A fast riser in his own right, Ryan Ivey was hired at Austin Peay in August 2015 at age 34. He wasn't desensitized to the losing in Clarksville, and after one 0-11 season he went looking for his next coach.
"When I first started, he was 30 at the time, he turned 31 right after we hired him," Ivey said. "I didn't think there was any way he was ready. But as we went through the process, the more I talked with him, the more I realized he had the vision.
"I think the biggest thing for me was the energy and the passion that Will brought. For 20-plus years, we hired football coaches the same way at Austin Peay and for 20-plus years it didn't work. Will brought an energy that was contagious."
Ivey also wanted a coach who could recruit the state of Tennessee, and as the recruiting coordinator at Chattanooga, that was the one area that Healy could show tangible results. According to 247Sports, Healy helped bring in among the top classes in FCS during the 2014 and '15 cycles at Chattanooga.
In his first year as head coach at Austin Peay, recruiting off nothing but a promise, Healy brought in the No. 2 class in the OVC. In his second cycle, recruiting off that same promise and an 0-11 season, he brought in the No. 4 class in all of FCS, according to 247Sports. The class even ranked higher than a few FBS programs like Idaho and UTEP.
That class included one of the best players in the state of Tennessee in quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall out of powerhouse Brentwood Academy. Oatsvall is one of the most decorated athletes in Tennessee high school history, but he's a tweener as a quarterback. Instead of pursuing a different position at a big-time program or going the service academy route at quarterback -- or even accepting one of his basketball scholarship offers -- he went to the winless team with the second-year coach in the OVC.
"What we've been doing this year is kind of what me and the whole recruiting class saw," Oatsvall said. "It wasn't on paper. No one could understand why, but when you've got a coach like Coach Healy, their staff, a recruiting class before that believed in it, I really think we all saw this coming together."
Showing a prospect the blueprint is one thing; actually doing the demo work and heavy lifting to renovate a losing culture is something totally different. For Healy, with the help of Ivey, that started with treating the team like winners even before the winning came.
"Those kids were whipped puppies, and they never felt like there was a light at the end of the tunnel," Healy said of the winless squad he inherited. "For me, that's why it was so important to treat them right."
Healy pushed to switch the program from Russell Athletic to Under Armour and bought the nicest uniforms Under Armour makes. Winless or not, Austin Peay started staying in hotels the night before home games. With the help of strength coach Chris Laskowski and his girlfriend, the program pieced together a nutrition center. Alternate uniforms and helmets followed.
And then there's this weekend's trip to play UCF: a charter flight, massages for the players upon arrival, trips to Disney World and Cocoa Beach before the game and new sweats and gear to commemorate the trip make this a legitimate bowl-game experience for a program that hasn't sniffed the postseason since 2007 and has a .349 winning percentage over 80 years of football.
The belief is spreading. I ate lunch with Healy at a local restaurant that had no Austin Peay paraphernalia up just one season ago, and I'm staring at a huge flag in front of our table and a barrage of red as you enter the door. Austin Peay is getting single donations on a weekly basis that top what was raised all of last season. The year before Healy arrived, Austin Peay hosted 23 recruits over the course of five home games. Through four games this year, 604 have been in the stands. In Healy's first junior day at the spring game of 2016, 40 recruits showed up. Last spring, even after an 0-11 season, recruits and family members numbered 575 people at the same event.
"Jeremiah Oatsvall made it cool for guys in Nashville to go to Austin Peay," Healy said, referring to his true freshman quarterback.
But even Oatsvall didn't expect the turnaround to happen this quickly. He was bracing for two to three wins this fall and ready to ride it out for the long haul.
"We're turning heads," he said. "After the first couple of games, it was surreal and now he's making it an expectation that this is how it's supposed to be. It's gone a lot faster than I expected and a lot of people expected."
Even Healy is pleasantly surprised by the pace of the turnaround this fall. He credits his strength and conditioning coach, the buy-in from the kids and the offseason work. He talks about how this team is winning close games this fall that his teams at Chattanooga took four years to learn how to win. But he never questioned whether the wins would come.
"I never had a doubt," he said. "Even going through what we went through last year, I never doubted the fact that we could win games here. I think that the staff, the strength coach and the assistants are so good, and the administration was pumping so much more money into it than they ever have before and I saw what we could do in recruiting, just creating a buzz, that I never had a doubt."
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