10:00 AM AND
- Chris Lowe
ESPN Senior Writer
- University football journalist
- Member of ESPN.com since 2007.
- A graduate of the University of Tennessee…
- Adam Rittenberg
ESPN Senior Writer
- A college football reporter.
- Member of ESPN.com since 2008.
- Graduated from Northwestern University.
Scotty Walden knew he had to call, but he was scared.
It couldn’t have been better the night before last. Walden, Miss South’s 30-year-old temporary coach, has come from Hattisburg to New Orleans for a permanent coaching session with Austin Pi. Walden and Sports Director Gerald Harrison had already spoken for Zoom, but only met in the 19th race. October in person at the Marriott Hotel, adjacent to the New Orleans Convention Center.
Gerald and I did it, Walden. It feels like it’s sinking. It seemed like the right decision.
But something was wrong, at least not the next morning. Around 10:00, Walden got a call at his office from South Miss Todd McCall’s head track and field coach.
I thought you sounded a bit abrupt, McCall said, while he kept delivering the message.
Walden tested positive for KOVID-19. Granted, Walden called his agent Thayer Evans, and was then willing to call Harrison as best he could.
I’ve been thinking: It would disqualify me from this position if I gave the coronavirus AD? Walden said. I was a little nervous about this conversation. I felt terrible, but you know what this is about. You can’t control it.
The remorse and sincerity of Walden’s voice told Harrison everything he already knew about the man he wanted to hire. On Monday, Austin will introduce Pi Walden as head soccer coach. The announcement was postponed because the new coach and his boss have been quarantined.
Welcome to the Carrousel of the University Football Coach 2020.
At some point we’re all going to look back, laugh and say: It’s incredible what we’ve achieved under such strange circumstances, said acting President Austin P. Dannelle Whiteside.
After interviewing Walden in New Orleans, Harrison took his first flight to Nashville, Tennessee, and then, in less than an hour, to the Austin P. campus in Clarksville. He was talking to Whiteside when Walden called, and then he called him back.
I said a few four-letter words, not to him, but in my head when he told me he had a positive result, Harrison said.
After hanging out with Walden, Harrison made the call he was afraid of. After taking some time to cool off, Harrison called his wife Lisa to let her know he’d been exposed.
The next few days, Harrison and Walden stayed at home, away from their families. Luca, Walden’s seven-month-old son, rolled to his walker’s door and stared at his father, who could not take him with him. Walden’s wife Callie and Luca were never infected with the virus.
Harrison’s test was also negative because he separated from his wife and two daughters, Torrey, 14, and Lorry, 13.
But even if his test was positive, Harrison knew he’d found his head coach. The 22nd. October Harrison offered Walden a job, this time through FaceTime – and Walden accepted. Austin Pay hired a temporary head coach for another team recently diagnosed with VIDOC-19 during the global pandemic.
I told Scotty that we would always be connected, the first interview and the first job at Covid-19 and the first coach who tested positive got the job, said Harrison, who has since had a second negative. But we found the right man.
During college football season, unlike everyone else, there were a few early Austin P.S.’s. The governors, who will play most of their games in the spring as members of the Ohio Valley Conference, took office on September 30. August in the first university competition of the pandemic, when they lost from Central Arkansas 24-17 in Montgomery, Alabama. (This fall HVAC members were allowed to play games without a conference).
They were the first to hire a trainer during the same pandemic.
Walden said everything was going well and the weather was great.
The resignation of Coach Austin P. Mark Hudspeth on the 3rd. July – Hudspeth is currently suspended from behavioral training – Garrison gets the lead. The transfer of the football season in the fall to HRC on the 14th. August brought another layer of uncertainty. Harrison has appointed Marques Lovings as temporary head coach of Austin P for the three-game tournament.
But he soon realized that an exhaustive search would be necessary.
We knew it would be a pretty quick program, said Drew Turner, vice president of Collegiate Sports Associates, who helped Harrison find a coach. Doing this at a distance during the pandemic, when most candidates were in the middle of the season, was certainly unique.
Harrison held some of his first meetings with candidates about Zoom. But he said he needed to see the finalists in person, while understanding the risks of flights, hotels and travel in the context of the pandemic.
There was no time to lose either. The governor’s spring season is scheduled for the 21st. February versus Tennessee Tech. The three games this fall ended in defeats in Central Arkansas, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Training for the spring season 2021 starts in January.
I thought I was going to do everything at Zoom, but it was too important not to be able to talk to the people I really wanted to see, said Harrison, whose meeting with Walden was the last with the five finalists.
Evans first mentioned Walden with Turner in July, drawing a parallel with another young coach, Will Healy, who took over the Austin P program in 2015 at the age of 30 after winning the previous three seasons. Austin Pay finished his 29-game loss streak in 2017 and finished near Healy this fall with an 8-4 tie.
Walden, who became the youngest NCAA head coach for the East Texas Baptist Division III in 2016 at the age of 26, quickly rose to the top of Harrison’s list. Assistant South Miss since 2017, he was appointed on the 7th. Jay Hopson was appointed Interim Head Coach on September 1, after Jay Hopson’s departure. Although Southern Miss may have considered Walden for a permanent position – Walden says he got a legal interview – Austin P offered him security and more.
There are two sides to it, Walden said. It’s not just a job I’m looking at, like I need a job during a pandemic. It’s a phenomenal job and a phenomenal opportunity. I’m lucky to start my career as a Division I head coach in a place like Austin Pay, as opposed to a place that has long been a losing program. … If you look at the other side of the medal, South Miss, a phenomenal place, a place we love. But it wasn’t a guarantee.
Turner received excellent reports from Walden and Harrison after a personal meeting in New Orleans. Then Evans called.
We think we’re ready to land the plane, Turner said. I’ll tell my wife there’s always turbulence when we do this research. If something goes too well, wait for a crooked bullet. … Gerald was happy with the process, we were on schedule, and then we got a call that there was a COVID. I walked out of the office, looked at my wife and said: This is our turbulence.
Walden met Whiteside for Zoom the night he was diagnosed with VIDOC-19 (Walden ensured that none of his interactions with Austin Piem contradicted his duties as South Miss). Whiteside, who has a 2 year old child, contacted Walden and his wife about sleeping problems. When the young leaders were in their thirties, Whiteside and Walden discovered that we had a lot in common, White Side said. She agrees with Harrison’s choice.
While Harrison Walden clearly could not offer the position personally, sophomore sports director Austin Pay was creative and even expanded the offer.
Walden, known for his offensive creativity, was also impressed.
I was hoping it would be good news, and then he calls his 14-year-old daughter Torrey in the room where he’s been and says: Do you want to ask Coach Walden something? Says Walden. And she says: Are you ready to be the next head coach of college football at Austin P.?
I’m fired, and so is this: You know I can’t say no to your daughter. It was awesome. I like the way she did it. We laughed about it a lot, and it was a really great moment.
Harrison’s first day of quarantine was Friday, when he took a private jet to pick up Walden and his family and bring them to Clarksville.
Since I met him, I’ve been stuck in the [quarantine] house, and on my first day out, I wanted to go get him, Garrison said.
Two people laughing now… One day he called and said: Is this the man who quarantined me? Walden remembered… …but it was a strong reminder of the unpredictability of the year 2020.
It was a lesson… for all of us, Harrison said. You learn to plan everything when you get into this business, but there is no planning.