Prayer guided Autry Denson's coaching path back to Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The road home started with a leap of faith, just as it had at almost every other critical juncture in Autry Denson’s life.

Like when Notre Dame’s freshly unveiled running backs coach took a recruiting visit to ND as a high school senior two decades ago, convinced when he got on the plane he’d ultimately end up at Florida State.

Or when the South Florida product bawled to his mother over the phone a year later about making the decision to come to Notre Dame, when coaching icon Lou Holtz plopped him into the depth chart at cornerback for the 1995 season opener against Northwestern instead of running back.

“I cried real tears,” said the man who got switched back to the position he loved the following week, ran for 72 yards on nine carries against Purdue in a college career that would end with him as the school’s all-time leading rusher (4,318 yards, 43 TDs) — a distinction that persists today.

“And my mother’s response was always the same. ‘Let’s pray first and understand you went there for a reason.’''

Denson remembered those words when he found out his first college coaching job, at FCS school Bethune-Cookman in the fall of 2011, would be devoid of paychecks that season.

It’s one thing to chase a dream. It’s another to do it with a wife and four kids in tow and pushing away a steady and comfortable income as a financial analyst for Merrill Lynch — his post-NFL landing spot after four years in the League.

“I prayed on it,” Denson said of what coaxed him to not only start on college football’s back roads but to do it with such a snub of pragmatism. “There’s a process I go through, and it begins and ends with prayer.

“So I pray for clarity. And I’m like, ‘God has a heck of a sense of humor, because you’re not only telling me to go into coaching, which is going to be a pay cut in itself, you’re telling me to go to ground zero.’ ”

Denson actually had dipped his toe in the coaching waters the season before, as the head coach at Pope John Paul II High School in Boca Raton, Fla., following a trend of ex-NFLers Keith Byars, Jesse Hester and Steve Walsh at high schools in the same area.

But his heart was in the college ranks.

“What happened around football season, I would get that itch (coaching itch) every year,” Denson said. “You’d see the people out there practicing. And it would be agonizing. I’d be watching games, and I’ve got so much I want to give, and nowhere to give it.

“My desire went beyond my desire to coach. When I accepted my calling to go into ministry was the same time that simultaneously God showed me athletics was the platform I was going to use. So it went to just wanting to, to putting the effort behind making it happen.”

The ministry, for the record, isn’t a metaphor. Denson is enrolled in seminary school at Liberty University and takes his classes online.

Ground zero at Bethune-Cookman, where Denson ended up staying three years, wasn’t entirely figurative either. At least many times it seemed that way. Now in the rear-view mirror, it looks like a blessing and that Densons’s mother’s words were right.

“I didn’t want to miss a step in my progression as a coach,” he said, “and I felt going there allowed me exactly what it afforded me. I had to do more with less. I had to really go in and learn how to be able to recruit organically.

“You don’t have a ton of kids beating your door down. You’ve got to go out. You’ve got to ID kids. You’ve got to have a great relationship.

“It was that foundation that I relied so much on and I’m building upon. I felt like the road had to go from there. And I thank God for showing me the clarity to be able to make that decision.”

And perhaps some of that experience and what Denson drew from it was what resonated with Irish sixth-year head coach Brian Kelly in the interview process last month.

Kelly went into it figuring he owed Notre Dame’s all-time rusher the courtesy of an interview. Instead he was so blown away, Kelly canceled the subsequent interviews he had scheduled and hired Denson on the spot, or more accurately started the university’s protracted vetting process preceding all hirings.

“His attention to detail at the running back position, techniques, how he was teaching the running backs, the depth and knowledge at the position both in the run game and the pass game,” Kelly listed the positives on Monday.

“His philosophy matched mine in terms of development of the student‑athlete both on and off the field.”

Their backgrounds had some parallels as well. Kelly started his coaching career at his alma mater, Assumption, as the club sport’s defensive coordinator. Along with that came the responsibility of being the school’s women’s head softball coach.

Kelly supplemented his meager income by moonlighting as a middle school girls basketball coach.

His own fork in the road came almost four years after graduation, when he had the chance to flush the coaching bug and pursue more lucrative possibilities in alignment with his political science degree. He chose to keep grinding away at coaching, as a grad assistant at Grand Valley State.

“Four years after graduation, we were still sending him care packages,” Kelly’s father, Paul, recalled. “I’m saying, ‘This is what you went to college for four years for?’ ”

Not to dream, but to live a dream, and claw and fight for it along the way. That’s what landed both men, Kelly and Denson, at Notre Dame, now joining forces.

Denson inherits four talented running backs, brimming with potential but not a finished product. Two are freshmen. Three of the four — Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams — hail from Denson’s part of the world, South Florida.

“I feel like the best example is how I live daily,” Denson said. “I put a lot on them, and I actually told them that in a meeting this morning. I put a lot on them, because I put a lot on myself.

“I don’t have a lot of rules. My mom raised me. When you’ve got a good example, you don’t need a lot of rules.”

But you do need family, and Denson wouldn’t have made yet another move if his family hadn’t been all in, especially son Autry III, who will be a sophomore at Penn High School, likely playing the position his father didn’t take a liking to — cornerback next fall.

His oldest daughter, Ashley, meanwhile, will transfer to Indiana University South Bend from Miami of Ohio, to stay close to the family.

“I thought she’d want to get away, and I was pleasantly surprised she wants to experience ND,” Denson said. “That’s pretty cool that she still wants to hang out with me. You don’t have a lot of kids that want to hang out with their parents, so I’m going to enjoy this as long as I can.”

And he’s going to enjoy the Notre Dame experience as long as he can — until the next leap of faith calls.

“There are a lot of people that can believe in values and the education at Notre Dame,” he said. “I’m living it.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame running back Autry Denson models one of the team's new green jerseys in Jacksonville, Fla., before the 1999 Gator Bowl game against Georgia Tech. (SBT File Photo)