The least surprised person when hearing that Autry Denson, 38, is back at Notre Dame as the football program’s new running backs coach is Bob Chmiel, the former coach/recruiting coordinator at Michigan and then Notre Dame, where he arrived in 1994 under Lou Holtz and transitioned into the next regime under Bob Davie.
Chmiel was at the forefront of the recruitment of Denson out of Lauderhill, Fla. He watched him develop and grow in the challenging, sometimes grueling learning environment that Holtz created. The end result was that by the time Denson concluded his collegiate career at Notre Dame in 1998, he had surpassed Allen Pinkett as the school’s all-time leading rusher.
“I talked to Autry when he was in the pros, I talked to Autry when he was a high school coach, I talked to Autry when he went to Bethune-Cookman, and I talked to him when he was with Chuck Martin at Miami (Ohio),” Chmiel told Irish Illustrated. “And when I saw that he was going to South Florida, I called him to congratulate him.
“He talked about how tough it was to leave Miami (Ohio) after a year, but it was an opportunity to come back to the state of Florida. He intimated to me at that time that there was only one place he would leave to go to, and that was Notre Dame.”
When Denson got the news via Brian Kelly that he was the Irish head coach’s choice to succeed Tony Alford as Notre Dame’s running backs coach, one of the first people he called was Chmiel.
“He was very emotional,” Chmiel said. “He said, ‘My dream is to give back to the young people what you guys gave to me and what Notre Dame gave to me while I was here.’”
Chmiel is confident that Denson will succeed at Notre Dame, including and particularly on the recruiting front.
“Autry Denson does not have a pretentious, phony bone in his body,” Chmiel said. “I think that’s what is going to make him a great recruiter – his sincerity.
“When you go into a home as a college coach and you’re kind of a huckster, people see right through that. What’s going to separate Autry from other young coaches is his sincerity. He doesn’t know how to be any other way, and when he talks about his Notre Dame experience to young people, it’s going to resonate with young people as well as the adults that what this guy is saying is coming from his heart and from his past experiences.”
The following are Chmiel’s three favorite Denson stories – in his own words -- and not surprisingly, Holtz’s involvement is intimately tied to the first two and, indirectly, the third.
SCARE (MOTIVATIONAL) TACTICS
“Coach Holtz told me that he wanted to see Autry Denson in his office. Autry came in to my office first and he said, ‘What’s up?’ I said, ‘Coach Holtz wants to see you.’ And he was like, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’
“Obviously, when Coach Holtz called for you, whether you were a coach or a player, you’d probably get a little nervous and anxious. So I walked Autry to Coach Holtz’s office and he said, ‘Bob, I want you to stay here while I talk to Autry.’
“He said, ‘You know, Autry, you’re a great runner.’ Autry’s eyes lit up and he said, ‘Thank you, coach.’ And then Holtz said, ‘But you’re not a great running back.’ So at the height of a compliment, all of a sudden it was bam!
“And Autry said, ‘I’m not a great running back?’ And Holtz said, ‘No, you don’t carry out your fakes. You really haven’t worked much on your blocking, your blitz pickup, your routes…you’re not breaking them off sharply. So you probably just want to be a runner with the football.
“‘So I made a list of the elite coaches at three schools that are closer to home for you where you can transfer. Maybe they’ll let you just be a good runner and not do all the things I want you to do.
“Here’s Bobby Bowden, the head coach at Florida State, here’s his phone number. Here’s the head coach at Florida and his phone number, and here’s the head coach at Miami and his number. Which one of these schools would you like me to call?’
“Both Autry and I are standing there and his eyes are like, ‘What’s this about? What’s going on here?’ And Autry says, ‘Coach, I don’t want to transfer anywhere.’ And Holtz said, ‘Why not? You’re a runner. Maybe I’m putting too much pressure on you to do all these other things. I think it would be best if you let me call Bobby Bowden. I’ll put you on the phone with him.’
“Now you’ve got to understand, Coach Holtz is talking like it’s a normal conversation, and Autry and I are standing there like, ‘What is this?’ We were dumbfounded. So Coach Holtz grabs the phone and starts to dial Bobby Bowden’s phone number and Autry’s like, ‘No, no, coach, don’t call! I’ll be fine! What do you want me to do?’
“And Holtz said, ‘Autry, I want you to work on being a great running back. I want you to work on carrying out your fakes. I want you to work on your pass routes. I want you to work on blitz pickup, and I want you to be a complete running back…Let’s just call Bobby Bowden.’
“And again, Autry is like, ‘No, coach, don’t do this! I’ll do all those things!’ Coach Holtz looked at me and said, ‘Now you’re a witness to this, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes sir.’ And he said, ‘Autry, I want you to start doing these things at practice,’ and Autry said, ‘Coach, I will. I’ll be doing it today. I’ll be fine.’
“Autry said, ‘Is there anything else, coach?’ And Holtz said, ‘No, but I’ll keep these phone numbers right here in case things don’t work out.’ And Autry said something to the effect of, ‘Coach, you won’t need to.’
“Autry shot out the door and I looked at Coach Holtz. He gave me a wink and I followed Autry out the door, and he ended up being Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher.”
THE MOVE TO RUNNING BACK
“In camp of Autry’s freshman year, Coach Holtz had him playing defensive back. We had a scrimmage and Coach Holtz was not pleased with our running backs at all. It was a tough, tough scrimmage. I shouldn’t say scrimmage; it was an inside drill. We called it ‘inside.’ It was tackle-to-tight end, no secondary players, but there were linebackers. It wasn’t going very well and it was really grinding.
“Coach Holtz finally blew the whistle and he screamed down to the defense, ‘Send Denson down here! Send him here right now!’ Denson comes running down there. He’s a freshman. Starry-eyed. Coach Holtz says, ‘Get in the huddle!’ Ron Powlus was the quarterback and Holtz told Ron to call an off-tackle play.
“Autry had no clue what the play was, so Ron said to Autry, ‘I’m just going to turn around and hand the ball off to you. You run off the right tackle.’ So they snapped the ball on the count – Autry didn’t know the cadence or anything – and he just kind of stood there a second. So to say it was a smooth handoff would not be the truth.
“But when he got the ball, I don’t know if it was out of excitement or fear of Coach Holtz or what, but he shot off tackle like a rocket. And that was that. Autry never went back to defense. That was the initiation of Autry Denson as a running back.
“I don’t believe that thought came to mind while that particular drill was being run. I think that was in Coach Holtz’s mind the whole time and was predetermined that the first time that one of our backs wasn’t doing what he wanted him to do, this was how the transition for Autry Denson from a defensive back to a running back would happen.
“I qualify it as the genius of Coach Holtz, not only coaching players below the shoulders, but above the shoulders.”
THE COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE
“We had a 6 a.m. workout one morning, and I got there about 5:30, quarter to six at our indoor facility, the Loftus. I walk in the door and down the hall a little bit, and there was Autry Denson sleeping on the floor up against the wall. He had books, a notebook, and he had a blanket over him.
“So I gave him a shake and I said, ‘Autry, what are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Coach, I have a big test this morning. I pulled an all-nighter and I was afraid if I stayed in my room and fell asleep, I’d sleep through the workout and maybe even the exam. I’ve got to get a good grade on this exam and I knew I had to be at the workout, so I just came here and studied here most of the night.’
“Thinking about where Autry came from and at that point in time, from a maturity standpoint, it was, to me, a real testament to what he was becoming and what he was about to become.”