Autry Denson has never met a bend in the road that he didn’t cherish. Change is just another challenge to do God’s work, which, in the college coaching profession, is putting every ounce of energy and love into maximizing the opportunities with the young men he instructs.
After a successful three-year stint at Bethune-Cookman, and then a year with former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin at Miami (Ohio), Denson, 38, Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher with 4,318 yards and 43 rushing touchdowns, is headed to his alma mater.
Denson, who accepted a position at South Florida in December, will replace Tony Alford, a member of the Notre Dame coaching staff for the past six years before accepting a position with Ohio State less two weeks ago.
Denson began his coaching career in 2010 at Pope John Paul II High School in Boca Raton, Fla. A Lauderhill, Fla., product in south Florida and a former seventh-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Denson moved up to the college coaching ranks in 2011 at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach.
As running backs coach for the Wildcats, Denson’s troops averaged 259.3 yards rushing per game in 2011, which was fifth overall in the FCS. In 2012, Isidore Jackson became Bethune-Cookman’s first 1,000-yard rusher in 15 seasons. In 2013, the Wildcats rushed for nearly 2,200 yards and made the playoffs.
It was tougher sledding at Miami (Ohio) where Martin and his staff took over a program that did not win a game in 2013 and entered the 2014 season with 16 straight losses.
The RedHawks narrowed the gap considerably, winning twice and losing seven games by 10 points or less, although the rushing attack struggled to less than 100 yards rushing per game and the third fewest rushing attempts in the FBS.
“It was tough (to leave) because forget the fact that he’s a very knowledgeable coach; he’s just a great guy,” said Denson of Martin in December. “Chuck is the man. We’ll continue to talk. He never ceased to amaze me with the way he gave me advice. Chuck is a great man.”
While Denson admitted being back at his old Florida stomping grounds felt like the right fit during his brief off-season tenure at South Florida, he also said he’s comfortable wherever he and wife Elaine and four children -- Ashley, Autry III, Elijah and Asia – are.
Denson described his coaching approach to Irish Illustrated in December. (Editor’s note: Efforts to reach Denson Tuesday, Feb. 17, were unsuccessful.)
“Coach them up to not just be satisfied being good or even being great; I’m trying to coach them to be legendary,” said Denson of his approach. “That’s the way we practice. More than anything, leading by example and holistically developing these guys, which is in my formula for success.”
Denson keeps those who helped him be his best along the way at the forefront of his coaching style.
“That’s what Lou Holtz did for me,” Denson said. “That’s what (ND running back coaches) Desmond Robinson and Early Mosley did for me. That’s what my high school coach did for me. It came natural because I had so many people pour that into me. Urban Meyer, Charlie Strong…I don’t know any other way to do it because that’s what they did for me. I’m here because somebody else took the time to care.
“My guys will know I love ‘em, so they play not to let me down. To get them to do that stuff is who I am, but I can’t take credit for it.”
Denson was impressed with the way Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes dismantled Oregon in the national championship game.
“People take shots at (him), but what they don’t realize is the reason why Coach Meyer always has a chance to win,” Denson said. “It’s because his players aren’t going to run through one brick wall for him; they’re going to run through 10 brick walls for him because that’s who he is and that’s how he inspires the people around him.
“Guys want to play for Coach Meyer. He gives so much of himself that he doesn’t have any limits. I’m always trying to make sure he’s taking care of himself because he’s so selfless that that’s also his Achilles Heel.”
Denson was just as impressed with his alma mater’s 31-28 victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl.
“More than anything, it was overcoming adversity,” Denson said. “There was no flinching. As a fan, that’s all you want to see. You want to see guys compete at the highest level and then see what happens.
“Sometimes you’re going to give everything you have and it’s not going to work out. But the key is guys competing, and for me, as an alumnus, it starts with guys going out and competing.”