The Austin Peay State University football team began this season the way one might expect of a program that had lost 27 games in a row. The Governors lost their 28th straight at Cincinnati, though by a highly respectable final score of 26-14. They followed that up with a 31-10 setback at Miami (Ohio).
But something in the way they looked in that opener offered hope to second-year Austin Peay coach Will Healy.
"I thought we could cause a bit of a stir in our conference," noted the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga assistant and Boyd-Buchanan School playing great early Sunday evening. "I just didn't know how fast it would happen."
How's this for fast? After losing every game on the schedule during his first season at the Ohio Valley Conference school in Clarksville, Tenn., and dropping those two early games to Football Bowl Subdivision programs this season, the Govs are now on a three-game winning streak after Saturday night's 7-0 upset of UT-Martin, which is ranked 18th in the Football Championship Subdivision.
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To put that into better perspective, every other Football Bowl Subdivision and FCS team in the state of Tennessee lost this past Saturday, and most quite convincingly. The University of Tennessee was humiliated 41-0 by Georgia inside the Volunteers' own Neyland Stadium. Our town's University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs were crushed 45-7 at home by Western Carolina. Vanderbilt lost 38-24 at Florida. Memphis was mashed 40-13 at Central Florida. Middle Tennessee fell 38-20 at Florida Atlantic. Tennessee Tech lost 34-7 at home to Jacksonville State. East Tennessee State was flattened 56-35 at Furman. Tennessee State was edged 19-16 by Eastern Illinois in two overtimes.
Add that all up and it comes to eight in-state FBS or FCS schools losing their games by an average of 23.6 points. It was enough to make you wonder if the state should volunteer to drop football at the collegiate level.
But not Austin Peay. Thanks to Healy and a coaching staff that includes no fewer than five other former UTC assistants — associate coach Marcus West, Brandon Cooper, Carter Crutchfield, Sean Dawkins and Wes Satterfield — the Govs are on a mighty roll, including consecutive record-setting crowds at their completely renovated Fortera Stadium.
"Football players used to go class here and get made fun of," Healy said. "Now they go to class and receive standing ovations. We've made it cool again to play football around here."
With considerable support from athletic director Ryan Ivey — who's but three years older than Healy's youthful 32 — Austin Peay just may be the coolest program in the state.
"You normally have to win to get better facilities, better food, better gear," Healy said. "I asked, 'Why do we have to win before we travel in the nicest bus or eat the best food?'"
Ivey agreed. Healy and the school hitched their equipment and apparel contracts to upstart Under Armour. The Govs and OVC brother Jacksonville State are the only two schools in their conference to stay at a hotel the night before home games, a la the FBS big boys.
"Our bus has leather seats and (electronic) hookups," Healy said. "Even before these wins, my AD had given me everything we need to be successful."
Healy has also reached into his hometown to help speed up that success, bringing in former McCallie star JaVaughn Craig to quarterback his offense, as well as adding Chattanooga-area products Tyler Reid, Jaylen Moore, Corey McDonald and Tristen Pierce.
"Probably two-thirds of the roster has been brought in since we got here," Healy said during a brief break from preparing for Saturday's visit from Jacksonville State, a top-five FCS power. "But it's the guys who were already here that's made this so fun.
"They used to be embarrassed to wear football gear to class. Now they're like, 'When can we get more gear?' This football team is all they're talking about around town now. This place can be a gold mine."
If he's right, it might be because the school struck gold by choosing a then-30-year-old Healy to become the Govs' coach prior to the 2016 season.
"Look, this wasn't a very good job when I took it," he said. "If it had been, they wouldn't have turned to a 30-year-old passing game coordinator at a school that probably threw it three times a game beyond the line of scrimmage. But it's a great job now."
Indeed, a $25 million commitment to upgrade facilities and salaries goes a long way at the FCS level. But an energetic, innovative young coach can help, too, which UT athletic director John Currie might want to consider should he ultimately decide to part company with Butch Jones.
For instance, with the Govs in the process of thumping Morehead State 69-13 to snap their losing streak, Healy instructed them to celebrate every score.
"We pulled a Mark Richt," he said of a strategy once employed by the former Georgia coach to help snap a skid against Florida. "We probably got six celebration penalties, but I wanted them to enjoy the moment."
By Saturday, the tone was slightly more subdued, despite the magnitude of the victory growing larger.
"My parents, my in-laws, my wife (Emily) and some close friends went to a suite in the stadium and watched some football," he said. "We may or may not have had an adult beverage or two."
But unlike every other FBS or FCS head coach in the Volunteer State this past weekend, Healy — to steal a line from an Eagles song — was drinking whatever he drank to remember rather than to forget.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.