Last fall, Will Healy was a few games into his first season as Austin Peay’s head football coach. He’d gotten the job when he was 30, after the Governors had gone winless the season before. A few months later, they’d finish winless again, part of what became a 29-game losing streak that stretched over parts of four seasons. The Governors were the worst team in Division I football, and everyone knew it.
“It was the laughingstock of our campus as well as the laughingstock of college football,” Healy says now.
He remembers walking one day near 10,000-seat Fortera Stadium, on the school’s Clarksville, Tenn., campus, as an admissions tour group walked by.
“How’s your football team?” Healy says he overheard someone ask.
“They’re terrible. Don’t worry. You’ll probably never wanna go to a football game,” the tour guide responded, Healy recalls, unaware that the coach was within earshot.
“The truth hurts,” he says now. “We didn’t give ‘em anything to go watch.”
Now, finally, the Governors have given them something to watch.
That 29-game slide, Division I’s longest active streak, is active no more. It ended in a 69-13 home romp against Morehead State on Saturday before an announced crowd of 8,152. Officials called the game with 17 seconds left, as a wave of students poured onto the field. They’d yank down both sets of uprights before they left:
Down. go. the. goal. post #MissionPossible #BeAGovBeAChampion pic.twitter.com/5egzzA93B0— Austin Peay Football (@AustinPeayFB) September 17, 2017
Saturday night’s win was the result of a slow build.
The Govs had a few chances in close games last year, including a 41-40 home loss to Tennessee State in early November. In Week 1 this year, Healy’s team came fairly close to beating FBS Cincinnati (a 26-14 loss in a paycheck game).
“You’re interested to see how your kids will respond from losing two in a row,” Healy says. “Now your losing streak’s at 29 games, and I’m 0-13 as a head coach, so have any of the kids lost faith in what the future of this place could be?
“But we got a resilient group of upperclassmen, and then we got a bunch of young kids that are naive enough that they feel like they could go and beat the Green Bay Packers.”
Through all the losing, the program’s tried to be relentlessly positive.
Healy’s 32, just a decade older than some of his players. He’s a more natural social media presence than most of his coaching peers, but for his first season-plus on the job, he’s had a challenge: How do you promote a program that loses every single game? Healy is candid about the public relations strategy of Peay’s athletic department.
“It was from everything with how to write an article,” he says. “If we’re gonna write an article on LetsGoPeay.com, it can’t say, ‘Govs get throttled at Troy.’ You can’t put some really cool graphic up that says ‘Troy 70, Austin Peay 7.’ There’s nothing cool about that graphic. You have to make sure and put, you know, ‘Govs relinquish first-half lead,' even if it was 14-13 for .2 seconds, or 'Kentel Williams rushes for career-high 240 yards, but Govs fall short,’ or something like that.”
Branding’s important. Even if you’re Clemson, building a social media national champion requires years of work.
“I wanna travel in the nicest buses. I wanna stay in the nicest hotels. I wanna eat the best food. I wanna wear the nicest apparel. I wanna wear the best helmet,” Healy says.
Ending the losing streak was awesome. Ideally, it’s not an endpoint.
“Every opportunity I got to go speak at a convention or any speaking engagement I had, I always thought to myself, if I’m in this crowd and I’m listening to a guy who’s 0-for-13, what type of credibility does he have?” he says. “Speaking to our donors, speaking to our student body, whatever it is. It was important to just get a win to help validate some of the successes that will happen with this program.”
Peay’s recruiting has gotten better, with the Govs signing up a top-50 FCS class last February. They can play some defense, too, having held Cincinnati to 3.3 yards per carry and allowing 23 points per game so far. Last year’s team gave up 47 per game, and the improvement this year has come against two-thirds FBS teams.
“I think the great thing about this job for me is that the expectations were so low, so I felt like I had time to do it the way I wanted to do it and fix it the way it needs to be fixed, so it’s never a bad football program again, and that streak never happens here again,” Healy says.
Healy thinks Peay has the team to win Ohio Valley Conference games this season. The FCS offers more upward mobility than the FBS, where top-tier contention’s only for elite recruiters who have been on top for years. But for now, this week, Peay’s taken a vital step right at home.
“The kids now go out and they walk around with their chest out a little bit,” Healy says, “because they’re proud to wear Austin Peay football stuff around.”