Am I ready for this? Scotty Walden wondered.
It was June 2012. Walden was 22 years old, and he was one day removed from receiving the biggest news of his life: Sul Ross State University, in Texas, had appointed him as the football team's offensive coordinator. This wasn't supposed to happen, not yet, but everything was moving so fast. Sure, he had run a few practices and, yes, he had occasionally helped call a few scrimmages. He felt pretty good about coaxing his players into respecting him, but he hadn't even been on staff for six months.
The worries seem silly now, but four years ago Walden had yet to gain a reputation as an offensive mastermind. This was before he became the youngest college football head coach in America. Before coaches around the country, who were all much older than him, asked for his advice. At that point, in 2012, Walden was still a couple classes shy of college degree.
And so despite his initial hesitation, Walden knew he couldn't turn the job down. That would be even more ridiculous than it being available to him in the first place.
But he didn't have a playbook, and no one had ever told him how to make one. So it was time to go to the library, located on the western outskirts of the Sul Ross campus, and figure it out.
He practically lived at the library before big exams, almost always nestled inside one of the private workrooms on the first floor. This would be no different. Walden entered the building in the early afternoon, veered to the left, past a glass partition, and began to unpack his life onto a table and across a white board.
He had the football experience as a player: two high schools, three colleges, more than a few football daydreams scribbled down during class. He already had the answers; he only needed to dig them out. He would not leave the room until he had excavated them all.
By the time Walden walked out five hours later with 100 plays drawn up—the beginnings of an offense, he thought—his doubt about whether he was ready turned into another worry.
Is any of this stuff actually going to work?
Scotty Walden landed his first offensive coordinator job before he even graduated from college. Courtesy Adam Ledyard/ETBU Athletics
Josh Eargle had no expectation of making history when he first met Scotty Walden. He simply needed an offensive coordinator.
It was January 2013, seven months after the day Walden holed himself up in the library. Walden had already established himself as something of a curiosity, although Earglehad not yet heard of him.
Earglehad recently been named head coach of East Texas Baptist University, a Division III school in Marshall, Texas, a town of 25,000 located 45 minutes west of Shreveport, Louisiana. It was his first head-coaching gig, and finding an offensive coordinator was his top priority. A former offensive lineman, Eargle didn't care much about scheme beyond wanting to establish the run game. He just knew he wanted to score points, lots of them, and so he turned to the resource with all the answers: Google.
The query was simple. Which school had the best offense across any level of NCAA football? His eyebrows shot up when he learned that the answer was Sul Ross State, a rival within ETBU's home American Southwest Conference. Then he dug deeper, and uncovered something he couldn't fathom. Sul Ross' offensive coordinator was a 22-year-old graduate assistant who had just completed his first season of coaching. Walden.
"How in the world are you a graduate assistant and you're calling plays?" Eargle wondered. "I've never heard of that in my life."
He ended up hiring Walden, and together they turned around a moribund program. The year before Eargle and Walden arrived, ETBU was 3-7 and had one of the worst offenses in the ASC. Two years later, the Tigers led the country in passing offense (368.1 yards per game) and finished second nationally in total offense (566.1 yards per game). Last season, that attack propelled ETBU to its first winning season since 2005 and its second conference championship since the football program was revived in 2000.
Then, in January of this year, a family medical issue forced Eargle to resign and accept a position coaching offensive line at Austin Peay State in Nashville. Within hours, ETBU named Scotty Walden as his replacement. At 26 years old, Walden is believed by the NCAA to be the youngest college football head coach in America.
He needs no assistance in being distinctive. He listens to dubstep when he charts plays, and his blond hair is gelled in the front so that, up close, it looks like a crown of sunbeams are shooting from his forehead. He speaks in a blaring Texas drawl, often in his own distinct vernacular: players are "cats"; most everyone else is "dude" or "brother" or a "joker"; "100 percent" means an assent.
Walden prefers energy powder to coffee, but the caffeine is probably superfluous, because he pops out of bed each morning like a jack-in-the-box and then stampedes through his day. In practice, he is both conductor and occasional participant, prone to flinging himself into a drill or tearing up the sideline to celebrate when the offense—he still calls plays and coaches quarterbacks—wins a big series. Most coaches run onto the field with their players. Walden bounces up and down with them in the pregame scrum.
One night, after a community event at the local Whataburger—this is rural Texas, remember—a college kid approached Walden midway through dinner and inquired about an old classmate on the team. Only after a bombastic greeting and several minutes of boisterous chatter did it become apparent Walden had never met this person in his life.
It's all part of the Scotty Walden experience, which according to his wife of two years, Callie, is literally exhaustingly energetic.
"He goes 90 to nothing," she says. "He'll give it all he's got, all day long, and as soon as his head hits that pillow, he's out."
That lifestyle has won Walden a level of acclaim that goes well beyond his years. ETBU defensive line coach Marquis Bowling calls his boss "Phenom." Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury answers Walden's calls. Coaches are flocking to his speaking engagements.
Scott Highsmith, Walden's wide receivers coach, has four decades of experience and once served as the University of Kentucky's offensive coordinator under close friend Hal Mumme, who is considered one of football's greatest offensive innovators. He recalled a coaching convention in Dallas when Walden was in his early 20s. "I had three people in my room and he had 103 people in his room," Highsmith said. "That's when I began to realize this kid is up to something."
Every single coach interviewed for this story said that he would be surprised if Walden wasn't an FBS head coach within a decade. Most expect it to take far less time than that. They say this not with reverence but with matter-of-factness, as if they're merely sharing an open secret: deep in East Texas, the head coach of a D-III program nobody has heard of is a prodigy who could change the course of college football.
"In my recruiting tool, I tell the offensive kids, 'One day, you're going to be able to tell people you played for him," Bowling says.
"'You don't know it yet. But you will.'"
If any of this scans as hyperbole to you, just know that Walden agrees. A rabid pro-wrestling fan—he made a clandestine trip to Dallas in the middle of spring ball to take his mother to WrestleMania—he cringes at the "Phenom" moniker especially. "I'm not The Undertaker," he cracks, referencing the nickname of the iconic WWE performer.
But Walden isn't shy about his ambition.
"I want to be a Division I coach one day. I'm not going to hide that," he says, proud and defiant. "Whether that happens at 30 or it happens at 60, I want to step in the ring with the big boys and mix it up. And if I get thrown over the top rope, then, hey, I got eliminated!"
He is exactly the type of coach major programs are looking to hire. The college game currently prizes nothing more than young, spread-oriented offensive minds, and no state has pushed the system's evolution further than Texas. Since the beginning of the decade, more and more coaches with Walden's profile have found themselves in charge of power schools (Texas Tech's Kingsbury and Cal's Sonny Dykes), appointed mid-major saviors (SMU's Chad Morris), regarded as future superstars (Oklahoma OC Lincoln Riley), and looked to as job savers (new Texas OC Sterlin Gilbert).
The search to discover the next offensive genius is never-ending, so it makes sense that Walden has already been labeled the next Kingsbury. He just happened to be the next name on the assembly line.
At the same time, colleagues who know Walden know that the Kingsbury comparison may not go far enough. While ETBU rests squarely on the lower rungs of the college football ladder, Walden's coaching staff is overwhelmingly composed of men who either coached or played at the sport's highest level. They've been where he wants to go, and along the way they have encountered the sort of icons they are certain Walden can become.
Bowling was a two-time All-American at Memphis. Josh Cochran, ETBU's 23-year-old offensive line coach, started three years at Texas and believes that Walden shares Mack Brown's care for people and his flair for recruiting. Special teams coach Tarence Calais says that Walden's discipline reminds him of Nick Saban, who at LSU personally offered and recruited Calais as a sophomore.
Already, Highsmith believes that Walden has a mind for offensive strategy is on par with Mumme. He harbors little doubt that what's gotten Walden this far will succeed on any level.
"Football's football," he said. "If you really know what you're doing and you really believe it, it's going to work.... A lot of people are going to look at that age, 26, and say 'Well, I don't know about it.' But he'll prove it."
Eargle, who spent a year coaching at LSU, sees Les Miles in Walden's cult of personality, the way he can rally everyone behind his singular vision.
"Young men nowadays, they want to have something to believe in," he said. "His passion draws men to him, to believe in him.... He's so focused and determined on what he wants to do that you jump right in. Those young men follow him and do exactly what he wants."
People in Marshall need something to believe in, too. At the very least, they need something to move toward. And if Walden is to fulfill whatever FBS destiny awaits him, he must first show he can handle a different sort of pressure in Marshall.
The ETBU campus sits on the north end of town and looks like it was spit out by a 3D printer, with endless rows of red brick and white trim stretching across 250 acres of hilly land. The great exception, and among the more unusual features on a college campus in America, lies in the dead center of campus. Greenwood Cemetery was built in 1840, when the land was then the private estate of Isaac Van Zandt, the county's namesake and third great grandfather of country music legend Townes Van Zandt. The Van Zandt family donated the land to found the college in 1912, but the interned bodies remained. Isaac Van Zandt is buried here, as are Sam Houston's infant grandson, a Confederate brigadier general, and a host of other Texans dating back to the 1840s.
All of that information is displayed on an iron plaque outside the cemetery gates. There are dozens of plaques across town, each commemorating a chunk of a place that trades on its history and immutability. Marshall was an important city, once. It was a Confederate hub during the Civil War and a railway hub for the Texas and Pacific Railroad Company after that. Marshall Pottery handcrafted red clay pots better than anyone in the country and attracted thousands of tourists annually to its famous Old World Store. It boasted a pair of historic hotels, the Ginocchio and, later, the Hotel Marshall, which were among the most prestigious in the region and hosted four different presidents. Marshall gave the world Y.A. Tittle and George Foreman.
Things are different now. Tourism mostly amounts to lawyers who float in and out to try patent lawsuits, thanks to Marshall's reputation for plaintiff-friendly juries. Texas and Pacific went under years ago. The Old World Store closed its doors last year. No one has stayed at the hotels since the 1970s—they've been abandoned for entire decades. At least half the shop windows in the historic downtown are vacant. But all of these structures stand in relatively good repair, at least from the outside; go to the right part of town and it feels like time has stood still in Marshall. That's not much of an illusion: as of 2010, the local population was barely 1,000 people more than what it was in 1950.
"Marshall was about 25,000 when we moved here, 28 years ago" ETBU Athletic Director Kent Reeves says in a slight deadpan, "and it's about 25,000 now."
That's why the graveyard on campus isn't as bizarre as it might otherwise seem. There's no point in attempting to outrun Marshall's ghosts.
ETBU, however, has the lofty goal of turning Marshall back into a destination.
"There's a lot of big dreamers around here," says Highsmith, and none of them dream bigger than the school's new president, Dr. J. Blair Blackburn, who was inaugurated in February.
Point by point, Blackburn lays down his agenda. ETBU has begun a neighborhood renewal initiative, which Blackburn wants to expand by tearing down and rebuilding more than 200 homes as low-income housing. The school purchased the Hotel Marshall and plans to staff it with students from hospitality management programs. Downstairs, there will be a coffee shop open late, a rarity for any institution in sleepy Marshall. A new program mandates that all freshmen and all students on scholarship commit at least one hour a week toward community service somewhere in town. Back on campus, Blackburn wants to balloon the student body to 2,000 students within the next five years, essentially doubling the enrollment. Athletic facilities will be comprehensively upgraded, with the goal of matching a Division I standard in every sport.
Ideas this grand require capital, both financial and human. That capital is a byproduct of visibility, something that does not come easy for a school with a hair over a thousand students in a town that people have stopped visiting. The solution is athletics. Athletes comprise nearly 40 percent of the student body, and they can be enticed by opportunity, a resource ETBU already has in spades. Throw in spruced-up facilities and other perks—such as a newly established missionary program that guarantees every athlete a trip overseas during their four years on campus—and suddenly Marshall has a destination. That, in turn, allows ETBU to fulfill its mission of helping to revive the town itself.
"Being in a small town like Marshall, there's not always a diversity of things to do," Blackburn says. "We serve a unique population, being a smaller institution. We have a lot of athletes that are coming here because they're interested in continuing their athletic experience in college. And it contributes to the community, not only the Marshall community but the campus community."
Nobody has told Scotty Walden to spearhead this effort, at least not in quite so many words. His role is implicit: bringing exposure. Blackburn claims that ETBU has no flagship sport. Football may be big, but softball won a national championship in 2010 and men's basketball is on the upswing. Yet the president knows the score. He readily allows that "there's no doubt" football is the most profitable and significant sport at almost every college in America, let alone ones based in Texas. It's hard to imagine softball attracting a serious buzz, no matter how impressive or deserving the team may be.
But a successful football team with one of most potent offenses in America, coached by a boy genius? That will draw East Texas Baptist University more attention than anything else it could possibly sell.
"People know Notre Dame because of football," Reeves says. "They don't know Notre Dame because of their science department. I bet they have a wonderful science department, but that's not what they know Notre Dame for. Whether that's right or wrong, that's just the way it is."
Establishing a sports reputation is a lot to ask of someone like Walden, who can come off as endearingly—sometimes achingly—young. When he dresses up for meetings, Walden wears low-cut black athletic socks that give off the vibe of a high school senior at a school assembly. But it's more than just appearances. Walden has none of the pretense or weariness or serrated caution that so many Division I coaches wrap around themselves. The overflowing reservoir of energy doesn't ring as canned or edgy like a Jim Harbaugh. Rather, it's a blissful earnestness.
"When I first got here, I was fired up because we had a Whataburger. You've got everything!" Walden told me. "Everything you need is in Marshall, Texas. Don't get me wrong, it's not gonna be a metropolis of big towers and all these huge city-type stuff. But it's got everything you need. A Walmart, all those things."
He didn't stop to chat with the fan at Whataburger because it would be good PR. He simply enjoys interacting with people. Not to mention, he loves Whataburger.
"You know the saying, 'You treat the janitor with the same respect you'd treat the president or CEO?' He is the exact example of that," Callie says about her husband.
And he interjects himself into practice drills because when he loves something, well, he can hardly contain his enjoyment. He blanched when he found out that I never watched one of his all-time favorite TV shows. "Mike, dude, you've got to do Lost at least once in your life," he implored, as though it were like visiting the Grand Canyon.
"Sometimes I'm like, 'I'm young. I'm 23 years old and I'm working with guys just as old as me,'" Cochran, the offensive line coach, says. "But this guy is three years older than me and he's the head coach. I'm just an O-line, run game coordinator. He's The Guy. He's running this program. He's the face of this university."
Walden has no shortage of enthusiasm for his job. Courtesy Adam Ledyard/ETBU Athletics
Which, at the Division III level, isn't as glamorous as it sounds.
Even at football's highest level, coaches are speakers, fundraisers, and university figureheads. Here, they're also administrators. ETBU's coaches serve as the team's academic advisors; each one is responsible for monitoring ten to 15 players. That includes Walden, who, as the head coach, is also accountable for the entire team's eligibility. He signs off on academic registration forms and runs the team-wide study hall on Sundays. When study hall proves insufficient, he schedules "ace labs," in which students struggling in a class get matched up with a tutor who specializes in the subject.
He spends recruiting meetings harping on his assistants to make sure their respective signees send in immunization records, because there's no support staff to collect them otherwise. Walden has become well versed in FAFSA because here, with no scholarships to dole out, test scores matter far more for getting recruits financial aid than meeting NCAA minimum eligibilities. Of all the perks that will come should Walden crack Division I, perhaps the greatest is the myriad things he would no longer have to do.
By comparison, the talent acquisition part is almost straightforward. The coaches' meeting room boasts two wall-length whiteboards clouded with prospect information, but the players Walden prioritizes most are linemen. Skill is far more malleable in the lower ranks.
"The 5-8 receiver can make a living in this conference," Walden says. "The 5-10 quarterback can make a living here."
He would know. The only child of a single mother, Walden grew up playing point guard and by his own admission probably had a brighter future in basketball. But he became infatuated with Texas football culture in high school. He gave up emulating Steve Nash and instead saw himself as Cleburne High School's answer to Eric Crouch and Drew Brees, undersized wheeler-dealer types whose moxie made up for their lack of height.
"He was a scrappy little thing, just as he is now," says Highsmith, who coached against Walden for two years while at fellow ASC school McMurry University. "He plays just like he coaches."
Walden understood that a pro career wasn't in the offing, but he vowed to pursue football for as long as he could, and so he set off for Dordt College, an NAIA Division II school in Sioux Center, Iowa. He started as a freshman but homesickness made him transfer after his first year to Hardin-Simmons University, a conference rival of ETBU's based in Abilene, Texas. Two seasons later, he was a bench player searching for another change of scenery ahead of his senior year. He pined for a starting job, but his true aim was to find a program willing to transition him into coaching following graduation.
Sul Ross State offered both. It meant moving west to Alpine, a blip of a town in Texas' mountainous Big Bend region. The closest Walmart was an hour away and the town's population barely scraped 6,000 people, but it proved tolerable enough when Walden quickly became the starting quarterback and a team captain. Yet the real payoff came in his exposure to a new brand of football: an offense that flummoxed opposing defenses just by hurrying to the line of scrimmage before every play.
"We had such good athletes but when we'd go fast–whoo!" Walden exclaims. "If we hadn't messed around with that, I'd have gotten to it eventually, but I don't know if I'd have done it [right away]."
In early 2012, he became an offensive assistant. He got his feet wet in spring ball, where offensive coordinator John Tyree would sometimes let him run drills and organize scrimmages. In May, Wayne Schroeder, the team's head coach, delivered the news: Tyree was stepping down, and Schroeder wanted to appoint Walden as his replacement. He accepted the job on June 1st. He was holed up in the library on June 2nd.
The only thing he knew walking into the building was his offense's operating speed.
He figured out the rest on the whiteboard. He wrote out numbers from 0 to 99, and dug into each play he could remember from all those different schools, leveraging his nomadic past to his advantage. Everything was represented: Sul Ross's frenetic pistol sets, Hardin-Simmons' intricate no-huddle signaling, Dordt's Rich Rodriguez–inspired triple-option, Cleburne High's four-wide looks—"even a few junior-high things I liked," he recalls.
In his very first game, Walden's offense carved up Western New Mexico, a scholarship school, for 473 yards of total offense and 44 points. By season's end, Sul Ross had the most prolific attack in America, leading all NCAA schools in yards (581.9) and points (48.8) per game. Eargle hired him at ETBU after the year. In Walden's three full seasons in Marshall, the Tigers have averaged 4,910 yards of offense per season, almost 1,000 more than the previous three-year average.
But how? Every great play caller has a signature and that's especially true within the spread, which is less a technical football term than a bloated catch-all for any offense that positions its weapons wide of the hash marks and tends to operate with some degree of speed. In Walden's case, there's plenty of speed: the only times ETBU takes more than 12 seconds between snaps are when referees can't reset the chains quickly enough.
"I can tell you countless stories of us trying to snap the ball and I've got D-linemen running behind me," says Joshua Warbington, a two-time All-American quarterback under Walden at ETBU. "A big play happens, we're going so fast that people are literally running trying to get to the line of scrimmage and we're already ten yards ahead of them snapping the ball."
Yet Walden's most obvious flourish is a determination to balance his offense's passing with an old-school power run game. The Tigers carried the ball nearly 200 times more than they threw in 2015, and ended the year with similar yardage on the ground (2,101) and the air (2,428).
Of course, there is a chasm between holding that ideal and achieving it in a manner that wins games. That's especially true given that, according to Highsmith, "when we go to the line of scrimmage, we don't know if we're going to run the ball or throw the ball." Walden wields a laminated play sheet like other coordinators, but the Tigers' best performances usually coincide with him barely glancing at it. "I tell my guys all the time, 'If I'm looking at the sheet during a drive, probably something bad's happening,'" he says. "I'm trying to search for answers as opposed to just calling and going."
What happens instead amounts to institutionalized backyard football. It is Walden reviving his inner point guard within the ethos of his offense—making quick decisions off even quicker reads, perpetually mapping out the defense's tendencies and adjusting in kind. Then, once Walden has isolated the patterns, he'll further discombobulate his opponent by eschewing what they expect him to do.
He treats his old position, the quarterback, like an extension of himself on the field. While the rest of the team is only required to learn their own assignments on a given play, Walden expects the player under center to be cognizant of what everyone on offense is doing at all times. Warbington calls the offense "quarterback dependent," which, at least at first, is daunting. "That's what it comes down to a lot," he says, "people just overthinking too much." And while the learning curve eventually flattens for the player running it, there are simply too many things happening too quickly, and sometimes too unconventionally, for a defense to keep up.
"There's never one little read," Warbington says. "There's options on everything.... There's a lot of freedom. I didn't really change plays because there are so many options that the defense was always wrong, whatever they did."
"Scotty doesn't necessarily stick to the rules," says Bowling, the defensive line coach. "His [run-pass options], a lot of people will read your outside linebackers. He'll read your defensive end and your defensive tackle with some stuff.... He's a guy that will go trips to the boundary and he'll orbit motion his back to put you in quads to the boundary. It's not normal. Most people say, 'I need space to run all of this stuff.' Scotty doesn't do that. He's unique."
Most of the offense's intricacies have evolved over time—an update here, an overhaul there. Walden is a compulsive notetaker, and as soon as he plops into his seat on the bus after games, he blocks out the din around him, cracks open a journal, and pours the sum total of the information he learned that day on to its pages.
He might write, Made a stupid call on 3rd and 7, and in the 4th quarter it cost us. I have to be better on third downs.
Or: They came with this blitz—I called this and this is how they got us on it, this is how they got me on it.
Maybe even: I have to get up earlier so I can get a workout in so I'll feel good on Saturday.
The last part is a feel thing, which Walden has grown increasingly comfortable embracing. In the beginning, he was too jittery to entirely trust his players or himself, so he doled out voluminous playbooks and regularly drilled every single play during practices. Now the offense is far more streamlined. Four years of work have taught him to simplify; today he operates by intuition as much as data.
"I don't think I could ever make myself do it, because I'm too OCD about it, probably," he muses, "but I feel like I could go into a game without a sheet and call it."
It encapsulates who Walden is at the earliest stage of his coaching life: already comfortable enough with himself to entertain relinquishing total control, but still too meticulous to try.
Walden's arrival has coincided with ETBU playing its best football in program history. Courtesy Adam Ledyard/ETBU Athletics
On April 28th, four months before he even coached his first game, Walden lost whatever remaining luxury he had of being young. He calls it, in no uncertain terms, the worst day of his life.
It was supposed to be the slow time of year, the easy time. Spring practice had just ended and Walden was in the throes of conducting exit interviews with each player. The day before, he enjoyed two of the best ones all month, with Darrian "DJ" McClintock and Tre Harrison. Walden had personally recruited McClintock, a freshman wide receiver and Houston native who quickly established himself as one of the most likeable players on the Tigers.
"As a coach, you always have a kid in the room that makes you laugh but you can't really show it," Walden says. "I'm trying to go over stuff and I look at him and he's smiling. He's always smiling. He's got the best smile I've seen."
Harrison, also a freshman, was one of the stars of spring practice. He was a pitbull of a defensive end, an undersized pass rusher who Bowling told Walden was the most impressive newcomer on the defensive line. Back home in Shreveport, Harrison was a youth minister in his local church.
"A high-motor cat," Walden says. "He was relentless at everything he did. He is the epitome of an underdog. He was not big enough to play D-line at probably any other level."
Walden was in the middle of meeting with another player when his cell phone rang. It was McClintock's mother. He ignored it, only to see a text from the same number flash across his screen. Please call me. Before he could, his secretary interrupted the meeting. She had a police officer on the line.
McClintock and Harrison had decided to go swimming that afternoon. They chose an off-campus pond popularly known "the clay pits," for the clay deposits that lined the bottom; the depositsalso create a suction in certain parts of the pond. One of the boys—no one will say who—struggled against the current. The other dove in to try and save him. At roughly 3 PM, Marshall police received a call that both players had gone underwater.
About 20 minutes later, Walden and Brandon Smith, his defensive coordinator, made it to the clay pits. Many of their players had arrived at the scene, too. Walden immediately tracked down the nearest police officer, desperate for an update.
"The officer told me it turned from a rescue to a recovery," he says. A dive team had been dispatched from neighboring Longview.
Around 5:30, the dive team turned up two bodies. McClintock was 20 years old. Harrison was 19.
"There's not a head coach's manual to go by, but especially nobody's written down how to deal with something like this," Walden says. "You never expect to have to deal with something like this."
He tried to feel his way through whatever came next.
Do I grieve in front of my players or try to stay strong for them?
He opted, as best he could, to remain stoic.
Finals are coming up. Do they need the structure or do I cancel team activities?
He cleared the next day and made sure each coach was available to the players, but kept that Sunday's study hall intact.
The funerals are the same day. What do I do?
He went to Harrison's wake in Shreveport on Friday, and drove to McClintock's funeral in Houston on Saturday. He split the rest of the staff up to attend both funerals.
Walden's tone flattens when he talks about Harrison and McClintock. The resonance is gone, his sentences cordoned off by pauses or heavy sighs. The usual over-caffeinated enthusiasm only creeps back in when he describes their personalities. It's important to him that they aren't sterilized the way victims often are. He does not want their deaths to fade into the usual tropes.
"Any time a tragedy like this happens, everybody's going to come out and talk good about the people that passed away," he says. "But those guys truly—truly—were great young men."
Unsurprisingly, Walden's debut year as head coach has taken on a different pallor. D.J. and Tre are everywhere. They are splashed across players' Twitter bios and brought up daily in team activities, speeches, and pep talks. The season is about them now. Before each game, the team captains carry Harrison and McClintock's jerseys with them to the opening coin toss.
None of it has distracted Walden from delivering exactly what was hoped for, and what those closest to him anticipated, on the field. In his first game as head coach, then-unranked ETBU blew out 21st-ranked Texas Lutheran on the road, 44-20. The next game, Walden's offense set three school records and hung 85 points on Southwest Assemblies of God, the second-highest point total in the history of the conference. ETBU won again in Week 3, defeating Southwestern by ten points and cementing the first 3-0 start in school history. Most recently, Walden outdueled Mumme himself, when ETBU outscored Mumme's Belhaven team 60-47. He has done all of it while replacing Warbington, as well as last year's starting running back and leading receiver, each of whom were All-Americans.
With each passing week, it becomes more evident that Scotty Walden is not long for Marshall. It's a matter of when, not if, he outgrows his surroundings.
"ETBU will be lucky to hang on to him for the time period they have him," Eargle says. "Wherever he goes after that, they'd better be willing to invest in him, because he's going to be a hot name. Scotty Walden will be a head football coach very shortly at the highest level of college football."
Reeves, ETBU's athletic director, came to terms with that months before the season began. As far back as April, he said, "I would rather have a really good coach for three years than a mediocre one for ten."
"I want to get the best people I can, let them work their tails off to be successful, and then if they decide 'I'd rather be bigger, higher up,' or something like that, then they'll have bettered us as they've done that," he added.
That is exactly Walden's plan. He first shared and now has inherited Eargle's vision of never letting his Division III program feel diminished just because of its size. "The stigma of D-III players is you can't make to the NFL; I tell our guys that's bull," Walden says, and now he can point to Kendall Roberson, last year's graduated tailback, who earned a post-draft tryout with the Arizona Cardinals.
ETBU surrounds its players with the trappings of an ambitious program, too. They have a cornucopia of uniforms and lift weights in a 6,000-square-foot facility that came by way of the University of Mississippi. Three years ago, during a coaches clinic at Ole Miss, Eargle, then still the head coach at ETBU, learned that the Rebels were about to overhaul their locker room. In need of new stalls themselves, ETBU paid up and imported Ole Miss's old room to Marshall. The coaches had to paint and sand the lockers themselves. They had to lay down the weight-room mats and stencil in the team records on the walls. But it's theirs, and it's much closer to D-I than it is D-III.
"We love telling the story of our SEC locker room," Walden said, flashing a grin that's one part salesman chicanery, another part fatherly pride, and another part wonderment at his own good fortune to be here.
It's the same grin he flashed that night at the Whataburger. After the fundraiser, after the jovial conversation with the fan, after the cheeseburgers were finished and their wrappers crumpled up. Sitting there at a Formica table, with Callie to his left, Walden was no different from any other 26-year-old dreaming faraway dreams in small town Texas. We had talked college football throughout the day, swapping stories we heard about life at the game's highest level. He couldn't conceal the awe in his voice even if he tried.
Maybe that will be him someday, at Texas or Ohio State or Alabama or Notre Dame. Big-time FBS football is played in a far galaxy removed from this place, from this town, but why not? Why couldn't he come back to Marshall in 20 years for homecoming as a guest of honor, the coach who showed them all how there was no limit to what ETBU—or what Marshall—could do? Why couldn't he sleep at the refurbished hotel downtown, stay up late and order a drink at the new coffee house, stare out at a town that's going places again?
Everyone and everything in his world is trying to become greater than they are, from the team to the school up to Marshall itself. Why should Scotty Walden be any different?
That's all for another day, though. "It's important to take care of the job you're at," he cautioned, and for now that means his world lies a couple of miles up the road from the Whataburger, just past the old downtown. The future may be wide open but there's only so much time for Scotty Walden to dream about the next unforeseen place it takes him. He's got an early wakeup call.
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