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A Championship Culture Built On Love

By Ryan Ivey, Austin Peay State University

Back in September, we welcomed home the only Austin Peay football team to ever win an Ohio Valley Conference championship, our 1977 team. It was an honor to host so many successful, impressive individuals and their families.


That week, I had spent time thinking about what I wanted to say to the group; especially considering that we were entering that weekend on a 29-game losing streak – the longest in Division I. We knew internally that that without a doubt things were changing in football. We had full confidence that the wins were coming, but the question remained how would we convey that to a room filled with restless alumni who knew only winning and championships during their time at the university.


In the end, I decided to lead with addressing the decisions and reasoning that led me to take a leap in hiring Will Healy when he was a 30-year-old position coach with no experience as a head coach or even as a coordinator. I hired Will because of his authenticity, his passion and his love for others – something I knew these alumni would appreciate.


“We may not have a lot of wins, but that doesn’t mean we’re a bad program,” I remember telling the OVC champs at a breakfast we held inside Fortera Stadium. “Winning is a result. That’s all that is. It’s a result. It doesn’t define you, and it doesn’t define your program. Caring about one another, holding each other accountable, loving each other, doing things together, bringing people together for a common goal and a common vision … that’s what defines your program.”


This understanding is the foundation on which our entire athletics program is built upon. At Austin Peay, we will never exclusively define success through our teams’ records. Having a genuine love for one another, and seeing our student-athletes graduate and excel in their chosen profession will always be what comes first, second and third for us.


That being said, we also believe success in life will breed success on the field or the court. I do not find it coincidental at all that victories and successful seasons have followed based on our central guiding principles.


With our volleyball program’s conference titles leading the way, the athletics department just finished the fall semester third in the Ohio Valley Conference in the season-long Commissioner’s Cup. It’s our best fall finish since the competition was reformatted in 2008-09. Academically, we just turned in the highest GPA in school history at 3.106.


Football also played a large part in that fall finish. The day I addressed the 1977 team, the Governors defeated Morehead State 69-13 to emphatically end that 16 game losing streak. The goal posts came down and our fans were afforded an opportunity to celebrate for the first time in a long time. We set a stadium attendance record that day, demonstrating in a profound way our community’s deep-rooted loyalty to its university. It also told me there was a hunger and a desire to see Austin Peay win football games. Will and the team had delivered that day, and they continued to deliver.


They won the next week at Murray State, ending long conference and road losing streaks. Then they beat a ranked UT Martin team for the program’s first three-game win streak since 1986. On the heels of losing 46 of 47 games, our football program wound up winning eight of nine games against FCS competition. It won more conference games than any Austin Peay team had before it – including that 1977 team.


Healy had challenged the team in the summer to “be the first,” and those players answered the call. He inspired them all along the way and, very deservedly, he was the runaway winner for the Eddie Robinson FCS National Coach of the Year. Nationally the college athletics community took notice of the turnaround. There’s a new pride and a joy in Austin Peay football. We all feel it.


Looking back, I remember some people told me I was crazy when I hired a 30-year-old with no head-coaching experience. If you just look at that on paper, maybe it was. Even I can admit that had I not had similar experiences at McNeese State and Texas A&M University-Commerce, maybe I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger either.


The way I looked at it is that our lack of success was a blessing, strange as that might sound; athletics directors are always weighing risk and reward, and there was minimal risk for me because of the program’s history. Austin Peay had hired the same kind of football coach for 20 years. And for 20 years, it hadn’t worked. We were stuck in a doom loop, making the same (bad) decisions over and over. So instead I flipped the script and this time decided that we were going to hire the person and not the resume. Will’s experience wouldn’t necessarily earn him any head job, but he had the characteristics that lined up exactly with what we wanted and who we wanted to be.


As leaders of collegiate athletics programs, we all set a candidate profile when searching for a coach. If there’s this perfect candidate out there, these are the characteristics that he or she embodies. Then you get into the process.


Whether it’s a football or a basketball or a tennis coach, because there’s such a finite number of positions available, it seems like the entire coaching profession applies for the job. You get inundated with resumes and phone calls and much of it becomes sensory overload. You often end up forgetting the profile you created in the first place, but successful decisions only happen when you stay true to the profile and find a coach that fits your university and athletic department’s culture, resources and operating environment.


That has not been the case with just football and Healy, either. Since arriving at Austin Peay in August 2015, we’ve made five head-coaching hires – baseball, football, men’s basketball, softball and most recently women’s soccer – and many other staff additions. With each hire, we are looking for fit that goes beyond whatever a candidate’s track record says on paper. We are not just concerned with “winning the press conference.” If you add the kinds of people who embody the characteristics that you value most, and you give them time, more often than not you’re going to have success.


Given the shift in the Commissioner’s Cup standings, we firmly believe we’re on target in the pursuit of our immediate goal: being the premier athletics department in the Ohio Valley Conference – not a premier, but the premier. Even though there’s only a couple of letters’ difference between those two words, they’re miles apart. You’re talking about being the very top instead of in a group of four or five. We aim to be the best.


We’re on track. We’ve still got a ways to go, but we’re getting there. We’re seeing the progress that we need to see. Every year, I want to see measurable improvement. I think that’s the key term: progress. You always want to be improving. You can’t be stuck or become complacent. Every year, we have to be striving for something else – how do we improve moving forward? Our goal right now is to be the No. 1 athletics department in the OVC, but once we get there, we already know what’s next. We’ll talk about being the premier athletics department in the state of Tennessee, and then in the FCS. Measurable, attainable and audacious goals pushing us forward towards the greatness we are committed to achieving.


Our Govs Cup is a great example of that – the creation of healthy competition amongst our teams internally. Not only are you competing against conference schools and others around the country, but you’re also competing internally to be the very best within our department. That’s defined by what you do athletically, academically and in terms of community service; it’s all-encompassing. It defines all those things that are important and at the core of who we are.


But above all else, it starts starts with a love for people. Love is probably not something we talk about enough in this business or sports in general. But I’m telling you, at Austin Peay, there’s a deep love for one another and for the community around us.


It’s a love so deep that it pushes us to be the very best that they can be, that we’re going to hold each other accountable to the vision and expectations that we set for ourselves and our program. I’m talking about the kind of love that, after every game, you go find your head football coach and you give him a hug and you say “I love you and I’m proud of you.” I can tell you that I hugged Will Healy the same way after every loss as I do now after every win. I’m proud of him. I feel that immense pride for every one of our coaches and every one of our student-athletes, win or lose.


Don’t get me wrong – we want our student-athletes to experience the joy of victory. But for us it’s more important to prepare them as best we can for life beyond athletics. We want them to be exemplary husbands and wives. We want them to be terrific parents. We want them to be highly productive professionals. And we believe their experience at Austin Peay will lead them to do all those things and more.


That’s what the Governors are all about, and what we believe all of collegiate athletics should stand for.