Sept. 22, 2015
By Todd Burlage
Calling on advice from family and friends — but insisting on final approval from a Higher Power — Autry Denson remains certain his incredible journey back to the University of Notre Dame was mapped out all along.
The older-guard of Irish fans know Denson as a durable 1990’s tailback and the program’s all-time leading rusher.
A younger demographic knows Denson as Notre Dame’s rookie running backs coach.
Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly simply knows Denson as the perfect man for his new job.
“We’re [both] much accustomed to the lifestyle here at Notre Dame, this year-round commitment to academics and athletics. Autry was very familiar with that,” Kelly said when asked what most influenced his decision to hire Denson last March.
Denson acknowledges that his first-hand knowledge of the demands asked to succeed as a student-athlete at the University helped to separate him from the candidate cluster, and rightfully so.
“I lived it, and I continue to live it, so it gives you instant credibility with the players,” says Denson, 38, a 1999 Notre Dame graduate. “I was so humbled when I got here because so many of the guys knew who I was, and I’m old. I went through this place a long time ago.”
Denson’s ties to fertile recruiting grounds in his home state of Florida, coupled with his legacy as a Notre Dame and NFL player, helped land him an interview for the Irish opening last February in what was basically described as a cursory meeting. In an ultra-competitive business, Denson’s resumé included only four years of college coaching and recruiting experience — just one at the Division I level — and none that rose to the performance pressure of Notre Dame’s.
But after becoming immediately impressed by Denson’s character, presence, insight and vision during the interview, Kelly essentially extended a job offer on the spot.
“His attention to detail at the running back position, how he was teaching the running backs, the depth and knowledge at the position and his philosophy matched mine in terms of development of the student-athlete both on and off the field,” says Kelly, who canceled all subsequent candidate interviews.
The job was there, if he wanted it, but before any life-changing decisions are ever reached, Denson explained that all facts and circumstances are run through “a process.”
“So even though it was Notre Dame, I had to go pray on it,” says Denson, who had accepted an assistant job in Tampa at the University of South Florida (his wife’s alma mater) only a few weeks before Kelly came calling. “I was locked into my new job. I wasn’t just going to jump at [Notre Dame] because it was what I wanted. I had to make sure it was aligning with everything.”
So calling on the approval of his Lord and the blessing of his wife and family, Denson found the courage to uproot, leave a job he had recently taken, and return to a school he holds so dearly.
The Densons have four children. Their oldest, a daughter Ashley, will transfer from Miami University in Ohio, to Indiana University South Bend to stay close to her family. Their oldest son, Autry III, is a sophomore and a budding football star at nearby Penn High School in Mishawaka.
“I would say it is a dream come true, but that is very cliche’ to put it that way,” Denson says when asked about rising from a high school coach to a Notre Dame coach in only five years. “I am very thankful for the opportunity and it is definitely part of God’s plan.”
Putting faith into each important decision and everyday life very much defines Denson as a person, coach and mentor. It always has. All the way back to his playing days at Notre Dame 20 years ago, Denson devoted five days a week and countless hours during his off-seasons serving as a volunteer counselor for the National Youth Sports Program where he preached against substance abuse, while unknowingly, sprouting the roots to his “coaching ministry.”
“Football and coaching is the platform that I use to reach out,” says Denson, who takes online seminary courses through Liberty University.
And more recently — not long after ending a five-year professional football career in 2004 — Denson formed a youth program back home in Broward County (Florida) called POISE, an acronym for Perseverance, Opportunity, Intelligence, Sacrifice and Effort.
Through academics, athletics and Bible study, Denson’s POISE program helped hundreds of teenage student-athletes in South Florida find their way and hold life’s course.
“I’ve been blessed to have so many successes with a game I love, and I’ve learned so many life lessons from the game of football,” Denson says. “It was a natural transition to feel obligated or responsible to give back to the same game that gave so much to me.”
COMING FULL CIRCLE
As the 1994 Florida state prep player of the year out of Nova High School in talent-rich Broward County, Denson had no intention of playing college football out of state. Comfortable at home and loyal to mom, Denson had already pledged his services to Bobby Bowden at nearby Florida State University when Irish head coach Lou Holtz paid a visit.
Expecting the usual recruiting rhetoric of playing time promises and NFL dreams, Denson became impressed and intrigued when Holtz kept the visit low-key and their conversation centered on everything other than football.
“[Holtz] had to be at my house until about midnight, he was there for a long time,” Denson recalled. “He was doing magic tricks and we were just talking, having fun. And when he got ready to leave he said, `Hey, by the way, we’d like you to come up on a visit.'”
Still firmly committed to Florida State, Denson, nonetheless, took Holtz up on his invitation, made his way to South Bend, and through what he calls “positive peer pressure” from his campus host Allen Rossum and other Irish players, he changed his college commitment, and life’s course.
“I kept hearing through the recruiting process that Notre Dame is not a four-year decision, it’s a 40-year decision,” Denson says. “And to have that message come from your peers, it really resonated with me. And once you see this place, it’s a no-brainer … The rest is history.”
And history making.
Denson piled up accolades and awards right along with his program-record 4,318 rushing yards and 43 career rushing touchdowns, still the second-most all-time.
He was a two-time Irish Most Valuable Player, an AP All-American as a senior in 1998, and the Gator Bowl MVP on New Year’s Day 1999 after rushing for 130 yards and three touchdowns in his final game for Notre Dame.
These are just a few of many individual honors Denson never imagined possible as a freshman when recruiting remorse and homesickness set in so far away from South Florida.
Listed as a backup cornerback and not a running back before his first career game in 1995, Denson was devastated over the depth-chart decision and became regretful he ever chose Notre Dame. Through God’s guidance and a mother’s calming words, Denson found the strength and stability to accept.
“My mother’s response was always the same: Let’s pray first and understand you went there for a reason,” says Denson, who returned to running back the following week and rushed for 72 yards on nine carries in a win over Purdue, marking the unofficial start of a legendary college career.
Denson finished with 695 rushing yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman before eclipsing the 1,000-yard rushing mark in each of his final three seasons as the starting Irish tailback.
“The game has been so good to me,” Denson succinctly said. After five years playing professionally — four seasons in the NFL and one in Canada — Denson parlayed his business administration degree from Notre Dame into a successful career as a financial analyst for Merrill Lynch, a comfortable living, for sure, but not necessarily a fulfilling one.
“You’d see the kids out there practicing and it would be agonizing,” Denson said of driving by the Florida high school fields each fall. “I’d be watching games, and I’ve got so much I want to give, and nowhere to give it.”
So as a side gig and a chance to scratch his football itch, Denson took the head-coaching job in 2010 at Pope John Paul II High School in Boca Raton, Florida. The itch became a full-blown rash, and in 2011, Denson traded his suit and tie for a whistle and cleats to become the running backs coach at Bethune-Cookman University,a Football Championship Subdivision School, in Daytona Beach, Florida.
A small college job was still a major career step for Denson, but it came with one “minor” monetary catch — it was volunteer work. So he prayed.
“God has a heckuva sense of humor,” Denson said. “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. … But 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.”
It’s obvious that Denson didn’t enjoy any financial gain at his first coaching stop. “I had to do more with less,” he says. But the knowledge gained through experience and sacrifice was worth much more than a lucrative paycheck could have ever provided.
“I didn’t want to miss a step in my progression as a coach,” Denson added. “And I felt going [to Bethune-Cookman] allowed me exactly what it afforded me. I had to do more with less.”
After three years of doing more with less, the next coaching break came when Miami (Ohio) head coach Chuck Martin — a former Notre Dame assistant and a long-time coaching colleague of Kelly’s — hired Denson in 2014 as his running backs coach.
“Unbelievably genuine and he’s coaching for the right reasons,” is how Martin describes Denson. “He’s not in coaching for a paycheck, not in coaching so he can be at a high level and everybody can be impressed with him. He’s truly in coaching for the kids, and how he can develop kids. Everything about him I loved. We were super pleased we hired him.”
Denson amicably left Martin and Miami after one season to get closer to home and work as the running backs coach at South Florida. While settling into a new position, Kelly’s unexpected offer abruptly brought Denson to South Bend again, under similar circumstances that pulled him away from Florida and to Notre Dame as a high school player almost exactly 20 years earlier.
Much is left to learn and the challenges are great for Denson at his new but familiar home. Through message, mission and faith, the program and players that he leads and represents are in great hands.
“I want guys that want to be legendary,” Denson says. “That means you really want to give maximum effort in everything you do so that when you leave Notre Dame, you can be legendary. You want to be the best at everything you do.”