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Transcript of interview with Autry Denson

Matthew DeFranks | Friday, August 31, 2012

On the 1996 Navy game in Ireland:
“I remember the opportunity to go to Ireland. I had been in coach Holtz’s doghouse. I want to think for some reason we had an extra week of practice. When we were practicing at Notre Dame [leading up to the game], I literally did not practice. Every time I was in practice, coach Holtz would kick me out. For the most part, I was out there but I was in the doghouse. My faith is always that my opportunity is going to come. Sure enough, we get over [to Ireland] and Randy Kinder started the first series and after that, he puts me in the game.”

“I only fumbled a few times in my career through high school and college. I take pride in not putting the ball on the ground. But I went in, I fumbled and I came to the sideline and he said ‘You know what, that’s my fault because I haven’t allowed you to practice. You need to get hit. Go and have a good game.’ I ended up having a really good game that game. I remember just being in his doghouse and not really knowing why. That’s just typical coach Holtz, though.”

“It’s not that he’s playing mind games, he knew the type of person I was. When he kicked me out of practice, he knew I was going to prepare even harder because I knew my opportunity would come, and when it did, I wanted to knock it out the park.”

“I’ve been to Europe since then and I’ve had the chance to enjoy it. When I’m playing, that’s all that’s going on. When I’m there, it’s all business. We did the little rounds but my mindset is always on the task at hand. I wasn’t going to Ireland, I was going to beat Navy, dominate Navy. I didn’t want to beat anyone, I wanted to dominate them.”

“I wasn’t there on vacation. I was there to play a game and dominate my opponent.”

On his relationship with coach Holtz:
“I hate to call [keeping me out of practice] mind games that coach Holtz would play but now that I’m a coach I understand what he was doing. He had a great way of knowing each and every one of his players intimately, knowing what buttons to push that he could do that. He took the time, laid the foundation, built the trust and the relationship so he knew exactly what made me tick. He knew that what made me tick didn’t make someone else tick. Even now, me and coach Holtz will have conversations and you’ll bring up stuff and he’s still sharp as a tack. He would ask me how my mom is doing and if she’s still working at the hospital. It’s just little stuff that lets you know he’s always paying attention to everything. He is as detail-orientated as we thought he was.”

“I don’t need anybody to push me to something. Anything you have you in, coach Holtz will bring out of you.”

On his career at Notre Dame:
“Every game I’ve ever played, especially at Notre Dame, sticks out for me. Your teammates truly are your brothers. You live together, you go through things together. That’s an element that high school doesn’t have and the impersonal level of the NFL because it’s such a business. In college, those were my brothers, those still are my brothers. Every year that goes by now that we are removed from the game, I actually value it even more, the memories and the opportunities we had and the experiences we had on the field together.”

“My favorite Notre Dame memory would be of me breaking the record and not because it was me breaking the record. Everyone that was on that team, whether you’re a walk-on or not, we share that record together. It’s not an individual achievement. It really is a team record.”

“I hope [someone breaks my record]. If somebody breaks it, we’re doing pretty darn good. And I’m ready for us to get back to the dominating phase.”

On playing for the hometown Miami Dolphins:
“Just playing the NFL was a dream come true, a real humbling experience. That in itself was a dream come true but to play at home, that was the icing on the cake. I went to Nova High School which is literally across the street from the Dolphins’ facility. I toured that facility as a freshman in high school when they opened it up.”

“I took the same drive to work that I took years before that [to high school]. The only difference was I was making a right instead of a left, and they were actually paying me now. That drive got a whole lot better.”

On playing in the CFL:
“I had already played my years in the NFL. I always had a love for the game and still had passion and wanted to play it. The interesting thing is I got really friendly with the general manager of Montreal, Jim Popp…When it was my time, he just always kept tracking me and would say ‘I know you’re in the NFL right now but if something doesn’t work out, you can come over and have some fun. Just give me a call.’ Sure enough, I was just hanging out, I’m retired and he calls and the rest is history.”

“The CFL was the most fun I had playing football since college. It was professional and they paid me well but the atmosphere was one of a college atmosphere. It was really relaxed. It was a really fun time. I loved my time in Montreal.”

“The fact they were paying me always made me laugh. I play football for the love of the game. I didn’t need a paycheck, I didn’t need anything…I feel blessed to do something that most people couldn’t. For me, it got to a point, you could have kept the money, I just wanted to play. I just love the game. My entire life, I’ve been told what I could not do on the football field. I played varsity my freshman year, started at three positions. I started as a freshman at Notre Dame and broke every record. I’ve always been told what I couldn’t do. The NFL was the first time I was denied the opportunity. If I got the opportunity, I would make plays and I would play my way into it.”

On himself as a running back:
“I love competition. I love competition. Right now, if you said ‘Hey, we’re going to have a contest spelling my name’ I bet I’ll beat you spelling Matt. That’s just me. I love competition.”

“[I’m a] hard worker [that] loves the game and does whatever needs to be done. My dad always told me there are two phases to your life. One, you work your butt off to become No. 1. Phase two is to work your butt of to leave everybody as far in your dust as you can. I don’t do well not being the best but I’m not a baby about it. That just means I haven’t worked my butt off.”

On his coaching career:
“I felt like God wanted me to do something more. I started seeing what I didn’t like. If coaching is done correctly, the relationship the coach and a player has transcends sports … and I saw kids not have coaches that care for them. My high school coach is like my second dad. I had really good men in my life through sports as well as my father. I’ve always been the type of person that there’s no need to complain about it, you have to do something about it.”

“I had met an athletic director from a high school called Pope John Paul II in [Boca Raton, Fla.]. We just started talking about sports and he asked me what I would do if I was the head coach. I told him my spiel, especially the relationship part of it. No one is teaching these young men how to be better young men. To me, they’re just exploiting them.”

“I get a phone call and it’s [Pope John Paul II High School director of athletics] Scott Baker. I had never coached, just played. He said ‘My football coach is leaving and I would like for you to be head coach.'”

“I took the job and I was there for one year and we really improved the culture and then this opportunity [at Bethune-Cookman] came up…I thought that was the only place I wanted to be, coaching high school. [I thought I] can’t go to college or the pros because it would take time away from my family.”

“It gives you instant credibility [when you’ve played the position]. Every one of my players knows I played at Notre Dame and in the NFL. It helps to be able to know that your coach knows what he’s talking about. I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it’s natural. This is what I was created to do. I was created to mentor and help young men and spread the word through sports.”

On his relationship with former coaches:
“For years, coach [Urban] Meyer and me have been in contact and Charlie Strong. I still keep in contact with a lot of coaches. I’ve had opportunities for the NFL and college for years. Coach Meyer tried to get me to join him at Florida every year. Even Notre Dame with coach Weis had it set up. I just had to say yay or nay and I said nay because of the time.”

“Notre Dame can call me anytime, that goes without saying. Now that I’m in it and I understand the gig for what it is, without a doubt, I see myself as a head coach either in the NFL or in college. I don’t do anything to just be okay at it. I don’t do anything to be good at it or even great. I want to be legendary at it, but not for me. It’s a platform for me to influence more young men and more people.”

“[Coach Meyer and I] talked all the time anyways…Because I played receiver at the end of my sophomore year, we always had a connection. They are the reason I knew something was wrong with coaching. If it was not for Charlie Strong, Earle Mosley, Urban Meyer, it would not have been a family environment. They are the reasons I am the coach I am. Desmond Robinson, my running backs coach who I keep in contact with [influenced me]. If I call coach Holtz, I’m going to get a call back from coach Holtz within 48 hours, no matter what.”

“Even when I got offered this job, I called Urban Meyer for advice and he gave it to me. That’s the type of relationship we’ve always had.”

“Coach Meyer told me ‘AD, you’ll be a great coach because of the kind of person you are and the kind of player you were. You’ll be that kind of coach. You just need to get in.'”

On his Notre Dame experience and the recent changes around the program:
“Best experience of my life besides my wife and my children. I truly do love my school. I was actually a little hurt by the whole uniform thing.”

“When I went to Notre Dame on my visit, I was committed to Florida State. Every time Dave Roberts called me, this is what I would tell him ‘Coach, I don’t know what Notre Dame is, don’t want to know. I’m going to Florida State.’ I was still mad at Notre Dame for beating Florida State two years before that. Notre Dame was the worst visit I had. It was snowing and it was boring. But from the time that plane landed, I had this feeling that I was going to Notre Dame. You truly either loved it or you hated it. There is no in between for Notre Dame. Coach Holtz told us when we got there ‘Notre Dame doesn’t change for you. You change for Notre Dame.'”

“Certain things are a certain way. To me, that’s not us. You go to Notre Dame to be different. There’s nothing wrong with being different. When you leave Notre Dame, you realize how truly valuable being different is being from Notre Dame. I’m not the other guys that went to Florida State and Miami. When you say Notre Dame, heads turn. There’s a level of respect there. Even the people that hate us, that’s why they hate us. I tell my kids there are two kinds of people: those that went to Notre Dame and those that wanted to.’ I’m going to make sure they are the ones that go there.”

“You have to have people that understand and know that. The dome is the dome. The helmet is the dome. It represents something. Notre Dame’s tradition, it represents something. I just feel like there’s been a lot of compromises over the last few years for the sake of trying to get a spark.”

“Notre Dame is Notre Dame. There is no other and I don’t want to see us come down as opposed to having others come up. The right people that are supposed to be there will be there. That’s Notre Dame. They weed you out. Some people can’t understand it and that’s good, they’re not supposed to. Nothing against them, it is what it is. We are ND for a reason. You understand that once you go through there.”