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Here’s how college football just saw an active head coach leave for another job mid-season

Hint: 2020

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society Illustration.

At 30 years old, Scotty Walden is now the youngest head coach in Division 1 football, taking over FCS Austin Peay this week. The hire itself makes plenty of sense, but the fact that Austin Peay is currently 0-3 and not playing another game on their schedule until February is strange. When you consider that last week Walden was the head coach of a FBS program that’s still playing, well that’s some peak 2020.

Never in college football’s modern era (I usually define that as the formation of the BCS, but this hasn’t happened since television) has an active head coach left a team in-season to become the active head coach of another team that’s (technically!) in-season.

It started way back during the Fourth of July holiday weekend when former Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth resigned from Austin Peay after one season while already serving a suspension for “unacceptable conduct.” Assistant coach Marquase Lovings was named interim head coach for what at the time would’ve been a full 2020 season.

Peay plays in the Ohio Valley Conference, which postponed its season to February 2021 but encouraged members to take any out-of-conference games they felt necessary in the fall. That last part translates to: “Hey, go get beat up for paychecks to keep your athletic departments solvent.”

The Governors did just that, and Lovings coached AP to their current 0-3 record, which included blowout losses to Pitt and Cincinnati. AP lost 55-20 to the Bearcats on Sept. 19. Their next game on the 2020-’21 schedule is February 21, creating a 155-day bye between opponents. Hope they keep their legs fresh.

Meanwhile, by virtue of COVID rescheduling, Southern Miss ended up hosting the very first game of the 2020 FBS season, losing to South Alabama on Sept. 3. The following day head coach Jay Hopson resigned, a move executed at an odd time (a single game into the season, huh?) but one long in the making at a program that’s lost its luster.

Walden, USM’s offensive coordinator, was named the interim. While USM athletic director Jeremy McClain promised a national search, there was some reason to believe Walden, a fast-rising, offensive-minded assistant, had a shot at the permanent gig.

Walden’s progress as interim head coach is nearly impossible to measure, as 2020 happened next. USM beat North Texas, had two games postponed because of COVID-19, lost by one point to rival Louisiana Tech and was blown out by rival Tulane.

And in the course of a single week, Walden tested positive for COVID (Oct. 20), missed USM’s loss to Liberty (Oct. 24) and was then announced as Austin Peay’s new head coach (Oct. 27).

So yeah, absolutely none of this happens without the bizarre combination of a worldwide pandemic, college football’s inertia of a response and two ill-fit head coaches resigning at weird times.

If you’re a USM fan, congrats, the season is now officially a meaningless slog. But while it might be funny for observers to point Southern is on their third head coach this season (USC did that and HIRED the third guy! He’s still there today!), the pending hire by McClain is far more important. I’ve heard that a long list of names is being vetted, with an emphasis (but not exclusivity) on offensive-minded head coaches. One name to watch out for is North Carolina assistant Robert Gillespie, a Hattiesburg, Miss., native.

Don’t read too much into Walden leaving, While he was a valued and arguably worthy candidate, he was never a lock nor was he a favorite. Neither was he capable of mounting a proper audition two weeks into a pandemic season where Conference USA has been pocked with sudden game postponements. By going to Austin Peay, he’s got a chance to start a head coaching career in a much more suitable environment.

“The bottom line is that he had a bird in the hand. Southern [Miss] wasn’t going to give him that assurance and take the interim tag off in October. He won one game during COVID. They want a full search. It makes sense for everyone,” an industry source said.

For Peay, it’s a much, much smarter move than going the Hudspeth route and catching a retread former FBS head coach (which they initially wanted to do with Memphis defensive coordinator and former Colorado head coach Mike McIntyre.). Peay is a historic doormat with a small budget, and the energy, fundraising and publicity brought by wonderkid head coach Will Healy, now at Charlotte, is the only blueprint for success we’ve seen at that school. Healy’s time in Clarksville changed the fundamental perception of the Governors program to, at the very least, a potential launching pad for young, energetic coaches “willing to work the 30 hour days,” one source described to me.

In a year in which it’s unlikely as many major programs will pull the trigger on big, expensive buyouts and big, expensive contracts for new hires, there’s likely to be far less movement on the coaching market. That’s not to say Walden’s interim-to-HC move between two in-season programs and USM’s subsequent will be the only moves, but this is certainly the strangest in years.