March 2, 2015
Autry Denson owns a special place in the pantheon of the University of Notre Dame’s storied football history.
Denson sprinted into the Fighting Irish record books, rushing for a total of 4,318 yards in his illustrious career (1995-98).
He crashed into the end zone 43 times to the roar of Irish nation.
One of Denson’s last acts in a Fighting Irish uniform was holding the MVP trophy in the 1999 Gator Bowl.
Now Denson’s mission is to cultivate future Irish running backs who can carve out their own legacies of greatness.
Denson will once again wear Irish colors, accepting a position on Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly’s staff as the running backs coach.
“I’ve never been a person to live in the past,” Denson said. “I’ve always been a person to live in the present. This is my Notre Dame moment, being the running backs coach here.
“Notre Dame played such a huge part in making me the man that I am, and to be rewarded and brought back and use those qualities that Notre Dame instilled and developed in me is a blessing.”
Denson’s path in life has been blazed by his Notre Dame experience. The values he embraced at the University have guided him–and now he guides others.
“Notre Dame is why I am who I am,” Denson said. “I believe in holistically developing young people, and that’s what Notre Dame did for me. Notre Dame touched me socially, spiritually, academically and athletically. Every aspect of a student-athlete is developed at Notre Dame. That’s what Notre Dame does.
“Coaching, for me, is my ministry,” Denson said. “It is how I’m able to teach young men about God, Christ and life. It’s how I mentor them.”
Denson brings a strong personality to the Irish staff. He made a mark at Notre Dame and in the National Football League with the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins as a player who added confidence and preparation to rare talent.
Drawn to coaching as a way of mentoring youth, Denson started out as the head coach at Pope John II High School in Boca Raton, Florida. He was an assistant coach at Bethune-Cookman for three seasons and was at Miami University (under former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin) for one season in 2014.
“When I got into coaching, it was always in the back of my mind that getting back to Notre Dame would be my dream job,” Denson said. “Being at Notre Dame marries both of my passions, my passion for mentoring young people and my passion for Notre Dame.
“Your four years here, when you are 18, 19, 20, 21, you don’t realize how special Notre Dame is because you’re around it every day,” Denson said. “You’re in a race to get out of college and start doing whatever it is you’re going to do. Then, when you get into the world, you spend a lot of time trying to get back because you realize how truly special it is. You realize that everywhere is not like Notre Dame.”
Denson will take his passion for Notre Dame on the recruiting trail.
“You come to Notre Dame–and I made that decision as a player–because you embrace the fact that you win national championships at Notre Dame, not conference championships,” Denson said. “As a coach you come for the same reason. That’s who I am. I made that decision as an 18-year-old, and those are the same things that are attracting me now. You don’t come to Notre Dame because you think there’s going to be pressure. You come because you want the opportunity to play on that kind of stage.
“I lived the Notre Dame experience,” Denson said. “It’s who I am. I made the same decision that I’m asking a young man to do today. I think it speaks to the credibility of the fact of how much I believe in Notre Dame. I have walked in the shoes of a young man who is thinking about going to Notre Dame. If I’m talking to a running back from Florida, I can talk to him about the pros and cons of the decision from the experience of someone who has lived through that.”
Denson said he will rely on his Notre Dame values and experiences to direct his coaching.
“I make my players tough through love,” Denson said. “That is what was done for me, guys like Charlie Strong, Urban Meyer, Lou Holtz, Bob Davie. We knew they really cared about us. My players know I care about them, and they play to not let me down or their unit down. They know they care about each other. I make sure they are cohesive as a unit. That’s the first thing for me as a coach.”
Denson said the running back position is one where you’re going to have athletes with strong personalities. His intention is to mentor players and create a framework and structure in which they can thrive in the Notre Dame system without inhibiting those strong personalities.
“I think so many times you can over-coach because you want things a certain way, and you can take away the attributes that make a certain player who he is,” Denson said. “The biggest thing for me is creating an environment where they can be themselves and be successful within the framework of what we’re doing offensively and what we’re doing as a program.”
Denson honed his coaching talents by starting out at the high school level, then taking on multiple responsibilities at Bethune-Cookman.
“My previous coaching experiences instilled in me an unbelievable appreciation for resources, and it laid a foundation that I pride myself on, being a teacher,” Denson said. “Those places, I had to be so much more with so much less. I had to develop as a coach. I had to deal with logistics. I understand how the total operation of how a program runs. As a head coach, even though it wasn’t a big program, it allowed me to see things that a position coach might not see.
“Going to Bethune-Cookman allowed me to work with great athletes, but not have the resources like you would find at a Notre Dame or a Miami or a South Florida. That helped me become a better teacher. It helped me build that foundation a teacher must have. I feel that experience has allowed me to do my job more efficiently.”
Jim Pry, the offensive coordinator at Bethune-Cookman, said Denson has special talents as a coach.
“Autry is someone I would call a student of the game and a student of the running back position,” Pry said. “Autry was a great running back when he was there at Notre Dame, and he tries to relate what he remembers when he was playing to the players. He certainly has had a lot of experiences. He can tell them about something that could happen to the players. In the years I was with him, he grew into that person who used his experiences to teach.”
Pry loves the personality that Denson will bring into the staff room of the Irish and the living room of a recruit.
“I’ve been a college coach for 33 years, and I’ve been on 13 staffs,” Pry said. “You can tell who the guys are with a charisma about them. They’re comfortable in speaking and comfortable in teaching. There have been a few I’ve met in my career. (Former New Orleans Saints head coach) Jim Haslett is one of them. (Current Penn State head coach) James Franklin is one of them. I believe my son (Brent, a Penn State assistant coach), is another.
“Autry has that ability to teach and that ability to communicate. He’s also a very genuine person. When he tells you something, there’s no embellishment of it. That’s the way it is. To me, that’s what you look for in a great college coach, somebody who is not going to exaggerate. They’re going to tell you like it is. I can see Autry in a recruit’s living room, talking to the parents, and they’ll be very impressed by his nature and how he presents himself.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent