Austin Peay football coach Scott Walden half-jokes that when he goes to shake his counterpart’s hand from Tennessee State during pre-game warmups in October, he will be star-stuck and seek an autograph.
Tennessee State’s new coach is Eddie George, the 1995 Heisman Trophy recipient who later rushed for more than 10,000 yards while teaming up on the Tennessee Titans with Steve McNair, who won the Walter Payton Award – the Heisman of FCS college football.
George’s hiring as a first-time college head coach just over three months ago is perfect timing for the Ohio Valley Conference. Jacksonville State, the top program over the last decade, and Eastern Kentucky, an original member and by far the winningest program in conference history, departed on July 1 for ASUN membership, dropping the football programs from nine to seven.
OVC virtual media day on Monday provided an opportunity for conference members to turn the page and look forward to all the good ahead in their 74th season, from George’s arrival at TSU to veteran teams to likely a competitive title race.
What’s old in the OVC also is new again. Murray State, one of the founding members, was selected as the preseason favorite for the first time in 25 years and just the third time overall:
OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE
Preseason Poll (with fall 2020/spring 2021 season record)
1. Murray State (5-2, 5-2 OVC), 64 points (7 first-place votes)
2.(tie) Austin Peay (4-5, 4-2), 60 (4)
2.(tie) Southeast Missouri (4-4, 4-3), 60 (3)
4. UT Martin (3-4, 3-4), 38
5. Tennessee State (2-5, 2-5), 32
6. Tennessee Tech (2-5, 2-5), 28
7. Eastern Illinois (1-5, 1-5), 12
Preseason Offensive Player of the Year – Austin Peay QB Draylen Ellis
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year – Austin Peay DB Kordell Jackson
Walden was new to the OVC during the recent spring season and learned something that surely is music to George’s ears:
“It’s a physical, downhill, vertical run league. I think it’s a tight end-oriented, hey-we’re-going-to-pound-you-type league,” Walden said.
With Tennessee State returning rushing champion Devon Starling, the OVC co-freshman of the year along with Ellis, to work behind bulldozers in offensive lineman Cam Durley and fullback Benjamin Johnson, the Tigers will run the ball, then run it some more, like the 47-year-old George in his prime.
“Our identity, our culture will be made by how we run the football,” said the former Ohio State Buckeye, whose offensive coordinator is former Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson. “And we’re going to be unapologetic about it, we’re not going to be secretive about it.”
Having experienced the sport’s grind, George never set out to be a coach. When the page turned to 2021 and OVC schools were going through the spring campaign, he was still focused on his businesses, an aspiring acting career and family.
But George played most of his career in Nashville, where Tennessee State is located, and was quite familiar with the HBCU. When approached about the head coaching position, he was hesitant at first, but after further due diligence, he could see the rewards in the opportunity, and became the fourth well-known former NFL player since 2019 to become a first-time head coach on the FCS level (see graphic). His Tigers are even going back to playing home games at Nissan Stadium, the Titans’ home field.
Both of George’s parents died within two months of his hiring at Tennessee State, and during this difficult time, “I realized I needed this opportunity more than (the players) needed me,” he said.
“It’s truly become a family in a short amount of time.”
TSU had eight selections on the OVC preseason team, the second most to Murray State’s 10. Such respect bodes well for a team that was 2-5 in the spring and has underachieved with four straight losing seasons.
Southeast Missouri coach Tom Matukewicz noted how there are experienced lineups up and down the conference, but added the hungrier teams that want to be coached could have the most success.
That factor plays into what George feels he has at Tennessee State.
“What I found is that this team is resilient, they’re tough, they are hungry for success, they’re hungry to learn,” he said. “It was important for me to bring in the right coaching staff that was going to be teachers to help them excel.”