Editor's Note: This article is an edited version of a story that first appeared in the January issue of Blue & Gold Illustrated's print magazine.
Autry Denson just finished his first year coaching the running backs at Bethune-Cookman.
There isn’t any one play that sticks out in the career of Irish running back Autry Denson. It would be hard to pin down a single game or even a season when he reached his peak. The 5-10, 180-pound back just kept coming back. Denson played the role of workhorse with pride for Notre Dame in the late 1990s and along the way grinded out a program-record 4,318 rushing yards.
Denson topped 100 yards in a game 21 times during his four years in the backfield at Notre Dame, which is just two behind record holder Allen Pinkett. Teammates agree with Denson when he says that a genuine love for the game was the key to his consistent success. Four years of playing in college and six more on the professional level weren’t enough to get his fill. After a few years in the business world, Denson got back into the game as a coach. He just finished his first season as the running backs coach at Bethune-Cookman University, a member of the Football Championship Subdivision.
“The game has been good to me,” Denson said. “I’ve been blessed to have so many successes, and I’ve learned so many life lessons from the game of football that it was a natural transition to feel obligated or responsible to give back to the same game that gave so much to me.”
The Wildcats won their last six games of the season to finish with an 8-3 record and improved their run game despite losing their leading rusher from an undefeated 2010 season. Redshirt sophomore Isidore Jackson led the team with 866 rushing yards. As a group, Denson’s backs led a rushing attack that averaged 259 yards per game, which was key for a team that started three different quarterbacks this year.
Denson said his past experience on the field gave him some instant credibility in the locker room. After finishing his record-setting career at Notre Dame, the undersized Denson was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and bounced around the NFL for four years.
He returned to his native Florida when his playing days were done to spend more time with his wife and four kids. Denson put his business degree to use in a managerial position at Merrill Lynch. He tried to stay connected with the game by volunteering, but soon found he wanted to give coaching his full attention. Denson thinks his experience at Merrill Lynch and on the field will help him in the long run. He said he has no doubt that he will land a head coaching job at a Div. I school before he is done.
“I say that not to be arrogant, I say that because I understand that what I’m doing is a bigger cause. I’m not just coaching football. I’m using this platform in athletics to influence lives positively,” he said.
Denson’s coaching career began three years ago without a team. He left Merrill Lynch with no plans other than to return to football and soon formed his own youth program called Poise — an acronym for Perseverance, Opportunity, Intelligence, Sacrifice and Effort. The program helped several hundred teenage student-athletes with everything from bible study to on-the-field development. The program morphed into his approach to football in 2010 when he took the head job for one year at Pope John Paul II High School in Boca Raton, Fla.
Denson rushed for 4,318 yards at Notre Dame and topped the 100-yard mark 21 times.
“You go to work in the office in the business world and you do your job and then you go home at night and that’s the end of it. In coaching there’s so much more,” said former Irish quarterback Ron Powlus, who shared a backfield with Denson for three seasons. “You have so much more responsibility for a young person’s development in life, and that is what is one of the great aspects of coaching is having the chance to help mold a young man. I think Autry would be terrific at that.”
Powlus has worked as an assistant coach himself since 2005 at Notre Dame, Akron and now Kansas.
Powlus and Denson actually started their careers on opposite sides of the ball. Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz recruited Denson as a running back out of high school, but slid him over to cornerback when he arrived for training camp as a freshman. That experiment lasted one weekend once the season got started. Northwestern upset the Irish 17-15 in their opening game that year. In the locker room after the game Holtz told Denson to practice with the running backs on Monday. He ran for 695 yards that year and earned a starting spot by the end of the season.
The following fall he was moved again, this time to wide receiver to try to add some speed to that position.
“A lot of our receivers graduated so he moved me to wide receiver, cried like a baby again, but I said you know what I have to trust in the process,” Denson said.
This time the position change lasted only one half before he got bumped back to his natural spot at running back.
Holtz never took him out of the backfield again, but the old coach known for his mind games did threaten to move him much further during the season. Denson recalled a meeting with Holtz in late September leading up to a big game against No. 4 Ohio State. The coach called him into his office and told the sophomore to pick any school in the country to transfer to because he didn’t have what it takes to play at Notre Dame.
“I’m sitting here really hurt, like, ‘Coach what is going on?’ because you don’t know how to respond to this. We went through all of that and he finally said, ‘OK, just go ahead back to class and we’ll talk about this later,” Denson said. “It was all just to get fired up for Ohio State.”
Notre Dame lost that game 29-16. Denson broke his finger early in the game, but stuck around and returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown in the final minutes only to have it called back for a holding penalty. Holtz never questioned his spot on the team again. He went on to post three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and score 43 touchdowns in an Irish uniform.
In today’s game a pair of four-digit years as a running back is usually a ticket to the NFL Draft and passing is becoming the dominant mode of transportation for college offenses, making it hard for any back to approach the 4,000-yard mark. Since Denson graduated in 1998, no other Notre Dame runner has come within 1,000 yards of catching him. Nonetheless, he is at least hopeful that his 14-year-old record will fall soon.
“I pray that somebody breaks that thing soon,” he said. “I love my University and if somebody breaks that record that means we’re playing some pretty good football and winning a lot of games. I need somebody to step up and break that thing because I want us to start winning more football games