ATHENS – The tendency for most coaches when they lead their squad into a near-impossible challenge is to downplay the gravity of the moment and the magnitude of the opponent. Will Healy is adopting no such strategy.
The third-year coach of the Austin Peay football program that has agreed to play the No. 3-ranked Georgia Bulldogs for relative chump change in today’s Power 5-opponent market is fully embracing both the opponent and the experience.
“I was in a staff meeting and breaking down film and I just stopped and said, ‘guys, I want you to think about something for a second: In less than two weeks, we’re going to be competing in a nationally-televised game against the No. 2 or 3-ranked team in the country in Sanford Stadium in front of 93,000 people,” Healy said. “How cool is that? It’s such an awesome opportunity for our kids – and for us.”
Healy has more than a passing familiarity with Sanford Stadium and the Georgia Bulldogs — the opposing sideline in particular. Healy’s father, grandfather and uncle all played for Georgia Tech. Healy’s brother, Chip, also became an All-American at Vanderbilt. As a result, Healy has had numerous opportunities to take in the not-so-friendly side of Sanford Stadium.
Healy’s uncle, Tech All-American Brad Bourne, used to work for Scottish Rite Hospital and would give out the winning trophy back when that group was the title sponsor for the Georgia-Georgia Tech game.
“So I’ve been on that sideline a number of times as a Georgia Tech fan,” Healy said. “I was on the field to see Joe Hamilton and Mike Bobo and Hines Ward and all those guys go at it. Saw some terrific games, too. That was back when Tech was winning a few.”
Alas, Healy said he “wasn’t good enough” to continue the family tradition at Tech. But he did play college ball as a quarterback, first for the Air Force Academy and later at Richmond.
Apparently, Healy can coach a little, too. He certainly has done some special things in the short time he’s been with the Governors.
There are a lot of different ways to quantify how bad Austin Peay – a small college located in Clarksville, Tenn. — has been at football. The Govs, as they’re called up that way, have won six or more football games in a season only 11 times in its entire history. They carried a 29-game losing streak into last season, which saw them fall 100 games below .500 — just in this century. But probably the best illustration is the fact the school gave up football for a 10-year stretch from 1997 to 2006.
Healy, who had been passing game coordinator at Chattanooga, said he took over as head coach at Austin Peay in 2016, “because nobody else wanted to.” The Govs were winless his first season and lost the first two games last year. But he did manage to lead them to wins in eight of their last 10 games last year and finish 8-4. Three of those losses came to FBS teams, including undefeated UCF and Jacksonville State.
Playing as many FBS game as possible is something Healy is trying to do at Austin Peay. But until this year’s date with Georgia, it hasn’t often ventured into the upper reaches of the Power 5.
“Scheduling Georgia helps us make sure we can financially help out our athletic department with one game rather than two or three,” said Healy, who will take a $500,000 check back to Clarksville. “That’s a big deal. But obviously the stage and the hype and publicity that it gives you is the real significance. You could play five or six mid-majors and not get the hype and publicity a game like this gives you.”
There comes, of course, the eventual reality that one must prepare and try to actually compete in these games. That’s something on which Healy and his staff have been intently working.
At 33, Healy is the second-youngest head coach in college football. But he is not naïve. He is not trying to motivate his team with the “shock-the-world upset” narrative. Instead, he’s selling his players on being personally competitive, on trying to achieve “small and short-term goals,” and on trying to impress the NFL scouts that will surely be in attendance.
He’s also telling them: “have more fun that you’ve ever had playing college football.”
“We don’t get opportunities like this much,” Healy said. “You’re talking about 3:30 on ESPN on the opening weekend of the season. You’re talking about one of the best venues and most intense fan bases in college football. You’re talking about a team that has national championship aspirations. It’s the perfect storm, really.
“Everybody across the country wants to talk about the University of Georgia right now. Lucky for us, that means they’re talking about Austin Peay, too. That’s great for us.”
Healy said Austin Peay has “a few guys” that may get an NFL shot, including junior defensive end Jaison Williams, senior defensive tackle Austin Maloata, a transfer and former starter from Oregon, and Missouri transfer Nate Howard. He told the players if any of them believe they can play pro ball, it’ll at the Georgia videotape that scouts will first look.
“So give ’em something good to look at,” he said.
The Govs have the best offensive line Healy said he has coached, going back to his time at Chattanooga. Behind them is a 698-yard rusher in Ahmaad Tanner, a sophomore from Dalton. They had another 600-plus-yard back, but sophomore Kentel Williams has been suspended for the first two games.
Meanwhile, Healy said he won’t hold out anybody in hopes of preserving them for FCS play. Austin Peay plans to do the best it can with what it has and throw caution to the wind.
“We scheduled the game, so we’re going to strap it up and see how well we can compete on national TV,” Healy said.
This is a guy who knows exactly what he’s getting into. While there is Tech on one side of Healy’s family, there also is Georgia on the other. His mother, Betsy Healy, went to Georgia, and so did his cousin, Drew. In fact, Drew was a fraternity brother of Kirby Smart.
But while his cousin has met the Georgia coach, Healy himself never has.
“No, I don’ know Kirby, but I certainly know about him,” Healy said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he will have Georgia ready to play. They’ll be extremely well prepared and anxious to get back out there and get the bad taste out of their mouths from the last game last year. I think they’ll play hard and it’ll be an incredible environment.”
Austin Peay will do it’s best to make it so.