Inside the first college football head-coaching hire during coronavirus

Scotty Walden knew he had to make the call, but he was dreading it.

The night before couldn’t have gone much better. Walden, the 30-year-old interim head football coach at Southern Miss, had traveled from Hattiesburg, Miss., to New Orleans to interview for the Austin Peay head-coaching job, a permanent gig. Walden and Austin Peay athletic director Gerald Harrison had talked previously over Zoom, but didn’t meet in person until Oct. 19 at the Marriott hotel adjacent to the New Orleans convention center.

“Gerald and I hit it off,” Walden said. “It felt like it flowed. It felt right.”

But something wasn’t right, at least not the next morning. Around 10 o’clock, Walden received a call in his office from Southern Miss head athletic trainer Todd McCall.

“I thought you sounded a little sniffly,” said McCall, who proceeded to break the news.

Walden had tested positive for COVID-19. Admittedly stunned, Walden called his agent, Thayer Evans, and then prepared, as best he could, to call Harrison.

“I was thinking, ‘Does that disqualify me for the job if I give the AD coronavirus?’ ” Walden said. “I was a little nervous about that conversation. I felt horrible, but you know how this deal is. You can’t really control it.”

The remorse and sincerity in Walden’s voice told Harrison everything he already knew about the guy he wanted to hire. Austin Peay on Monday is set to introduce Walden as its head football coach, an announcement delayed because both the new coach and his boss had to quarantine.

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“At some point, we’ll all look back on this and laugh and say, ‘It’s unbelievable what we were able to do under such strange circumstances,'” Austin Peay interim president Dannelle Whiteside said.

After interviewing Walden in New Orleans, Harrison caught the first flight out to Nashville, Tennessee, and then drove an hour to Austin Peay’s campus in Clarksville. He was talking with Whiteside when Walden called, and then called him back.

“I did say a few four-letter words, not to him, but in my head, when he told me that he had tested positive,” Harrison said.

After hanging up with Walden, Harrison then made the call he was dreading. Taking some time to calm down, Harrison phoned his wife, Lisa, to let her know that he had been exposed.

During the next few days, both Harrison and Walden stayed at their respective homes, away from their families. Walden’s 7-month-old son, Luca, would roll his walker to the door and stare at his dad, who couldn’t pick him up. Walden’s wife, Callie, and Luca never contracted the virus.

Harrison’s test also came back negative, as he isolated himself away from his wife and two daughters,

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