Imagine, if you can, Kansas seriously competing for the Big 12 title. Not in the distant past, not in some undefined future, but, like, now. The 2018 Big 12 championship game is next weekend, and Kansas is going to play in it.
That’s the story line playing out at the FCS level right now.
Austin Peay went 0-12 in 2013, 1-11 in 2014, 0-12 in 2015 and 0-11 in 2016. The Governors entered 2017 rated as the worst team in all of Division I. And why wouldn’t they be? This was a program that went 1-46 over half a decade of football. Austin Peay was rated as the worst program in Division I because it was the worst program in Division I.
Until it wasn’t.
Austin Peay enters the last game of the regular season at 7-4 overall and 6-1 in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Governors opened the season at 0-2 — both losses to FBS teams — snapped their 29-game winning streak with a 69-13 whipping of Morehead State on Sept. 16 and haven’t slowed down since, losing only to FCS No. 2 Jacksonville State and undefeated Central Florida.
The man at the center of that turnaround is head coach Will Healy. A former Richmond quarterback, the 32-year-old Healy spent seven seasons as an offensive assistant at Chattanooga before taking over the biggest fixer-upper in Division I before the 2016 season. Ahead of the Govs’ regular season finale against Eastern Illinois, Healy spoke with FootballScoop about where the credit goes for this turnaround.
FootballScoop: It’s my understanding you had six guys show up for summer workouts before your first season. Is that correct?
Healy: I never want to make what the last staff did seem like it wasn’t good enough. There was a commitment that needed to change from the top of how important was football going to be here. We’ve got a new president and a new AD they (emphasized) summer school is important, the weight room is important. All the preparation aspects that this program had lacked, we now had the resources to be able to make sure that these kids had. Our first year here, we had about three guys there were here in June for any type of summer workouts. This past summer we had 87 kids that were here.
The administration was giving us the resources. We were feeding them the right way, we were traveling the right way, we were aligning ourselves with Under Armour, which was a big improvement. These kids were being treated as well as anybody in FCS football. They started to take pride in where they played, take pride in how important it was in our administration. As we started to win games now it’s becoming important to our student body. It was really a university saying, ‘All right, we’re going to put everything into football being successful.’ Whether it’s allowing me to hire the coaches that we hired, whether it’s how we travel, what we eat, what we wear, it’s a university saying, ‘We’re going to be great at everything we do.’ And that’s what’s given us a shot.
FS: You went 0-11 in your first season. How did you convince your players and your coaches that, yes, there was light at the end of that tunnel, even if they couldn’t see it yet?
Healy: As hard of an athletic experience as I’ve ever been through in my entire life. I’ve never been 0-fer in anything. For me, the toughest part, you preach so hard to these kids and you are so concentrated on what type of experience they have here. I was young and naive and thought, ‘Oh, we’ll go in there and have some energy and we’ll win a couple games.’ Then we got in this league and we thought, ‘Holy cow. The football in this league is really, really good.’ You’re not just going to be able to win games on energy. I lost sleep a lot because I wanted those kids to have a chance to be successful and I lost sleep a lot because I wanted this staff that I hired and lured away from other great programs to feel like the move was validated for them. It was a hard year. I beat myself up about it a lot. I never lost confidence in the way we were doing things. I never changed what I thought you needed to do to be successful, but I worried all the time about those kids and this staff and give a lot of credits to the kids and the staff that they stuck with it.
FS: Did that season make you change your approach at all?
Healy: We made a decision as a staff that we’re going to start spring ball as quickly as humanly possible. We started spring ball a week and a half after Signing Day. Our spring game was on March 4. I did it for a couple reasons. One is I felt so nauseous about how the season had gone before I want to get that taste out of my mouth as fast as possible. I felt like it would give our staff an opportunity to go visit other staffs and make sure we were doing things the right way. I thought it would guys, if they got hurt, an opportunity to heal and give them more time. The most important thing is I wanted them to be able to spend time in the weight room. A year ago we tested them before the season started; we had one kid that benched over 310 pounds and zero that squatted over 500. We go seven weeks uninterrupted in the weight room after spring practice is over, we test them again and we’ve got 23 that bench over 360 pounds and 25 that squatted over 500. Those weight room gains were as important to changing the culture as anything else.
FS: When you’re in the midst of such a tough season, how do you balance the see-saw between encouragement and correction?
Healy: That’s a great question. I’m a big positivity guy, and a big energy guy. Even sometimes at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday in Week 12 it may even have to be false enthusiasm, but just creating energy in practice, in meetings, whatever it may be. I just tried to make sure that these kids understood from the relationship we built with them, ‘Just because we’re losing doesn’t mean I’m going to hold you to a different standard. I’m going to hold you to the standard of being a conference champion well before you become a conference champion because I want you to know how to handle it when we get there.’ It’s the same thing that our administration was able to do. We’re going to treat you like you’re the best football team in the conference well before it happens so we don’t have to change who we are when it does happen. I think a lot of universities say, ‘Hey, just win some games, then we’ll give you what you need.’ Our AD and our president weren’t like that. They are the reason this has been able to happen so fast.
You can coach a kid as hard as you want to as long as there’s a relationship. Just because I’m correcting you and I’m holding you to a high standard doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. If this is the expectation of this program and you understand it and you’re not living up to it then either you won’t be here or there’s going to be a consequence for it. I give a lot of credit to our kids because, from an execution standpoint or from a personnel standpoint, where we would like it to be a year ago, the culture was still changing. I think that’s helped lead to the success of this year.
FootballScoop: A turnaround project as big as yours is as much or more about culture than anything happening on the field. What were the first couple steps you took in changing the culture?
Healy: I knew how important it was that we invested a lot of money into the assistant salary pool. Who these players were around on a regular basis, great people and great coaches, was really important for me, being a first time head coach, because I had to surround myself with really good people who would believe in the same vision and message that I would be trying to portray. And then from there it just became: paying the price to be successful. I’m a big believer in: you find out a lot about kids when they work really hard for something and they don’t get the result that they want or they feel like they deserve, how do they respond? You’re not a man because you can handle being an All-American and you can handle success. You’re a man when you do everything you do to the best of your ability, regardless of what the outcome is and there’s no situation that’s going to dictate what your response is. That was the biggest thing. We had so many kids that were putting in more time in the weight room or on the practice field or whatever it may be, and they still went 0-11. But the way they responded, to me, was the most exciting thing showing where our culture is. ‘All right, I didn’t get what I wanted or felt like I deserved because I worked so much harder. Now I’m going to step it up another notch to make sure this doesn’t happen again.’ That’s what I’m most proud of.
FootballScoop: What’s a piece of advice you would give to a coach inheriting a similar situation as yours?
Healy: If there’s one thing I’ve done right, I’ve hired right. I’ve surrounded myself with people who would not let me fail. They’re all really good friends as well. Our staff is very close. We spend a lot of time together outside of football. Our families are very close. Kids and wives are around all the time, and I think creating that family environment and making sure that everybody is supportive of one another is very important when you’re going through a rebuilding process, for us just a building process.
I was listening to some stuff Tony Bennett at Virginia had to say, he said that sometimes you get so consumed as a head coach with taking the guy that can put you over the top from a winning perspective that you don’t necessarily think about taking a guy where, even if I don’t win as fast as I want to, they’re still going to help me build the culture, they’re still going to be positive and they’re still going to act the way that meets the standard I have set. Surround yourself with positivity, believe in what your program should look like and don’t always try to be somebody else, and be where your feet are. I’ve seen it happen where you’re moving yourself up the ranks and you go, ‘Let’s go fix this and then let’s go take the next one.’ A lot of times what happens is you go take a bunch of transfers, you go take a bunch of junior college guys, if it doesn’t work out the way you want it to then you’re sleeping in your own mess three or four years down the road and it may be your last opportunity. That was the great part about our job is there was time. Because the expectations were so low there was time to do it how we wanted to do it and we had the support behind us on the administration side that we could do it the way we thought it could be successful.
I used to tell people when I took the job my goal in doing this was to show people you can be a really good husband, a really good father and a really good football coach, but I’m going to get fired for being a head football coach a heck of a lot faster than as a husband and a father, but I think you can be great at all three. I think Dabo Swinney is showing you can do that, as are a lot of guys across the country. It’s fun to be in this profession right now because you have guys setting the standard in front of you that show you can be about family and the way you treat kids, yet hold kids to a high standard and do things the right way.
The advice I would give is be consistent, love on kids and make sure they understand how much you care about them, and surround yourself with great people. But also, take a job where the values of the administration match up with what you want your program to look like. The great part about my job is I’ve got a president and an AD that are about family, that allow us to treat kids the right way, that allow us to bring values and ethics to our program that we think are important, that are supportive of us, and that will put the resources behind it. This was a gold mine job and I felt that way from the get go.
FootballScoop: I’m not terribly familiar with the selection process for the FCS playoffs, and I imagine many of our readers are in the same boat as me. Can you explain where your playoff chances stand?
Healy: We’re 7-1 in FCS football, we’re 6-1 in the conference. I’ve been a part of three conferences in my life: the CAA, the Southern Conference and the Ohio Valley Conference. I think this league is severely underrated, especially from a talent perspective with all the transfers that come in and out of this league. These transfers that come in this league from the SEC and play at a dynamic level are coached by really good coaches. You look at an Eastern Kentucky that is down eight points with two minutes to go against Kentucky. You’ve got Tennessee State that beats Georgia State; Georgia State is No. 1 in the Sun Belt right now. There’s a bunch of parity in this league and everybody beats up on one another so the league doesn’t get near the love it deserves. I’ve been a part of the other ones and I know how good this one is. We’ve got to win this week to be 8-1 in FCS football, 7-1 in the league. An 8-win team against FCS competition should be an unbelievable resume to get in, especially as talented as the teams are that we play. Our three out-of-conference losses are Cincinnati, Miami of Ohio and Central Florida, and our in-conference loss is to No. 2 Jacksonville State. I feel really good about resume.
(This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.)