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Back to the Future: What Austin Peay is getting in Scotty Walden

It says everything about the state of college football and where this sport is headed that hiring the 30-year-old candidate with 14 games of head coaching experience is the conventional, unsurprising, safemove for a Division I university.

And yet that's very much the state of play at Austin Peay, where the program rose from the grave -- actually, Austin Peay was six feet under the grave -- to become one of the biggest turnaround jobs in college football on the back of an infectious, energetic 32-year-old head coach who was unapologetic about what he didn't know and open about the direction he was going to take his program.

When that approach worked under Will Healy, it's no surprise Peay is doing it again with Scotty Walden, who was formally introduced as the Governors' next head coach on Monday.

"The great programs are led by the programs that are not only led by great Xs and Os, but who understand and how to manage the Jimmys and the Joes," AD Gerald Harrison said. "He understands our total Gov concept."

"We believe in coaching the whole player," Walden explained later. "It will not just be about football. One day football's going to end and they're going to have to hang those pads up. We're going to develop character and talent -- the athletic side, the spiritual side, the social side and the academic side. We're going to coach all phases of the player."

Healy's name was mentioned numerous times on Tuesday, as one would expect considering how the man flipped the idea of Austin Peay football on its head in his three years in Clarksville. Having inherited a team in the midst of a one-win-in-four-seasons span, Healy led the Governors to an 8-4 season and the brink of the FCS playoffs in 2017.

The program broke through under Mark Hudspeth's leadership in 2019, winning the Ohio Valley title and two FCS playoff games. Walden will be expected to make Austin Peay a perennial OVC contender and a mainstay in the late rounds of the FCS playoffs.

But in linking Walden to Healy, Harrison also gestured broadly at the people Healy has been compared to, guys like Mack Brown and Dabo Swinney.

"I have seen described Scotty as a new age CEO for a new era of college football, and a different type of student-athlete," Harrison said. "Those who've chronicled his rise have used like innovator, infectious, energetic, whiz kid."

Walden will differ from them in one specific way as his own offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, but he mentioned many times Monday that the football will be just one part of the Austin Peay football experience moving forward.

"I could sit there and start installing our offense today, but some of them aren't going to listen to me because they don't know how much I care yet. They're going to learn how much I care," Walden said. "In my book, I'm not judged on wins and losses, I'm judged on kids. When you're in this program, you're family. We're in this thing together."

To be clear, Austin Peay will not be a summer camp where practice is scrapped in favor of singing Kumbaya around a camp fire. Governor football will take on the personality of its head coach -- excitable, intense, ready to go right this second. In fact, Walden opened his press conference by joking it'd be difficult for him to remain seated throughout the entire thing.

"We're going to live by the mantra of fearless, fast and physical. We're going to play with an edge. When you watch the red and black, we're going to play fearless and without intimidation, fast and assignment sound football," he said.

Walden also mentioned a "four-way test" that will serve as something of an oil check to make sure the culture is working: if coaches believe in coaches, coaches believe in players, players believe in players and players believe in coaches, everything else will take care of itself.

"Xs and Os are great, but as long as we're in alignment we're going to do great things in this program," he said.

The circumstances surrounding Austin Peay's hiring of Walden could not have been stranger. The Governors played in three games -- including the very first game of the season -- under an interim head coach before taking a 5-month break. The guy they hired was the interim head coach of an in-season team, temporarily on leave due to a COVID-19 diagnosis. The introductory press conference was delayed so the new hire and the AD could wait out their quarantine period. The team will play games on Sundays in the spring.

None of that is normal.

But hiring the 30-year-old with limited experience but enough energy and enthusiasm to power a small town by himself? That's as normal a choice as Austin Peay could have made.