Nowadays, it seems like most college football programs have at least one alumnus on their coaching staff. Rarely, however, is that returning player a superstar. That’s the case with Autry Denson, the former tailback who has returned to South Bend to coach running backs for the Fighting Irish.
Denson grew up in Lauderhill, Florida, where his parents and older peers influenced his decision to play football. His favorite football player to watch as a kid was Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton. Denson’s first ever coach was his dad, who was also, Denson says, his toughest coach.
As a scrawny freshman at Nova High School in Davie, Florida, Denson declared that he would start on both sides of the ball. Coaches thought he was crazy at first, but quickly realized he was a special player. Denson would choose to attend college at Notre Dame, where he would become arguably the best running back to ever represent the Fighting Irish. He holds the school's all-time rushing record with 4,318 career yards.
After college, he played for four teams in the NFL, and he never thought about staying in football after he retired. In fact, he never aspired to be a coach at any point during his childhood. He planned to work in the financial industry after his playing days were finished. But after a few years away from the game, Denson was back in football.
In order to work his way up through the coaching ranks, Denson had to start somewhere. That somewhere was Pope John Paul II High School in Boca Raton, Florida. He was there for one season, then moved on to coach running backs for Bethune-Cookman University, a program that plays in the MEAC conference. He coached there for three seasons, before moving on to Miami University in Ohio, where he coached running backs for one season. After just five years experience elsewhere, he now coaches at one of the most prestigious programs in all of college football.
Denson says there are a few challenges that come with working your way up the coaching ranks. The transition to a new job can be very difficult at the start, especially when raising children. There is also an increase in responsibilities that come with the new job.
“Because I have been blessed to receive promotions fairly fast, that also means I have had to increase my knowledge at a lot quicker rate, which many times has made me feel somewhat overwhelmed,” Denson says.
The best advice that he’s ever received about coaching is to simply be yourself: “I am a firm believer that every person has to coach through their own personality. I am very grateful for the head coaches that I have worked for that have respected and trusted me enough to not change my style, albeit not the norm in the coaching profession. I do not yell or curse. Instead, I make my players tougher through love, encouragement, and the fact that I pride myself on being a teacher.”
He believes that coaching is synonymous with being a father, mentor, advisor, and teacher. Next season will be Denson's third at Notre Dame. At the rate he has advanced in the profession, he could perhaps one day be a offensive coordinator or a head coach.
(Photo credit: Rick Stewart/Allsport)