Blakeney content at Troy, doesn’t ask what if
TROY, Ala. – Troy football coach Larry Blakeney works in a modest, cramped office, strolls around campus for exercise and is a regular at “The Pig,” a cafe at the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store.
Though Blakeney’s post is a few football fields – and tax brackets – removed from the seven-figure glamour jobs of major college football, only Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer and Penn State’s Joe Paterno have led their FBS teams for longer.
He’s had a career that could have landed him one of those big-time jobs, and paychecks to match, but he doesn’t waste time wondering what might have been if his reputation hadn’t been tarnished following a stint as an assistant at Auburn.
Instead, Blakeney is preparing for his 20th season at Troy, having led the Trojans up from Division II to FBS and to the past four Sun Belt Conference titles.
It’s a low-key job in a low-key town in a state where college football is anything but; Alabama’s Nick Saban rakes in $4 million a year a few hours away.
Displaying his trademark humor, the 62-year-old Blakeney points out that there are benefits to his longevity at Troy.
“You sort of know where everything is, I guess. When you get to be my age, you need a good hold on how to get in the building and how many steps there are before you open the door,” he said. “There are advantages, because you get into a routine. And especially if you’re able to win and be successful along the way, that routine is one that you sort of want to maintain if you can.”
It’s worked so far. Blakeney has a 153-77-1 record in his only college head coaching job with seven conference titles and two FCS semifinal appearances before moving up to FBS in 2001. He has won back-to-back Sun Belt coach of the year honors and led the Trojans to a 26-3 league mark during the four-year title run.
Of course, all that got a fraction of the attention of Saban & Co.’s national title last season.
Blakeney has enjoyed enough success at each level on the way up to have possibly earned a shot at a bigger, more well-known program.
The offers haven’t come. Blakeney knows of at least one reason why: His reputation took a hit soon after he started at Troy following 14 seasons as an assistant at alma mater Auburn, where he played quarterback.
He was banned from contact with the university for his role in violations that led to NCAA probation in 1993. Former player Eric Ramsey admitted that he took money from Blakeney and other assistants.
The ban was lifted a decade ago, but Blakeney believes “there’s no question” the episode hindered him from being a candidate for a high-profile job.
“I harbor no ill will toward anybody, not even the guy that produced all this problem,” Blakeney said, referring to Ramsey. “Not at all. I still love Auburn and I still have a high regard for the University of Alabama. I’m not a hater of different people. I’m not the least bit bitter, not one iota.”
In fact, he seems quite content. Blakeney’s three daughters have graduated from Charles Henderson High School near campus and then from Troy. His wife, Janice, sells real estate in the town of 15,000, 45 minutes south of Montgomery.
Plus, they can eat at the cafe they’ve dubbed “The Pig” once a week or so. Saban, meanwhile, seldom ventures into Tuscaloosa restaurants because he gets mobbed by fans.
“I’ve been able to get to know and maintain a relationship with the townspeople and the folks in the area,” Blakeney said. “I’ve been certainly part of the small-town environment. We both sort of grew up that way. We’ve really enjoyed living here.”
Troy defensive coordinator Jeremy Rowell played on Blakeney’s first Troy team. He calls him a “fabulous coach,” but talks mostly about his personality and folksy charm.
“I’m sure he’d be offended if anybody says he’s a celebrity in this town,” Rowell said. “Everybody throughout the public knows him. He talks to everybody he sees. He’ll go out and eat lunch and people say, ‘Hey coach.’ And he’ll say hey and know who they are. That’s just been from being here so long.”
And that longevity comes from winning. Last season, the Trojans were the first Sun Belt team to go 8-0 in the league before falling 44-41 to Central Michigan in the GMAC Bowl. They have pulled upsets of Missouri and Oklahoma State since moving up to FBS, the former Division I-A.
And Blakeney & Co. also have landed underrated recruiting gems like Osi Umenyiora and DeMarcus Ware, now in the NFL.
Former players don’t talk so much about his football acumen, though.
“He’s just such a people person,” said Mike Turk, a former Troy quarterback and assistant coach. “If you’re around him five minutes you want to be around him for 10 more. At a place like Troy where there’s a lot of good people, they recognize a good person, a genuine person.
“There have been a lot of people willing to help him with the program. It takes that. For a school like Troy in a small town to be as successful as it has on the ultimate level of football, you kind of have to have everybody on board. And he is that guy.”
Blakeney also has changed with the times, switching from a run-oriented option attack to a fast-paced spread offense.
“The way he termed it was he was going to put the cart before the horse,” said Turk, now head coach at Division III Huntingdon in Montgomery. “We were going to start running that style of offense before we had the players to run it. We took a lump or two along the way.
“You see the results now.”
Blakeney couldn’t have mapped out his career track, even minus the Ramsey situation.
After graduating from Auburn, he spent three months with a paper company in Atlanta. It was the last time he worked out of the state. He came back to sell insurance for a company partly owned by Bear Bryant.
Blakeney was sitting in a barbershop in his tiny hometown of Gordo, just outside Tuscaloosa, when a friend told him the Southern Academy coach had quit about a week before the season. Another friend recommended him for the job even though he had never coached.
Eight days later, they won their first game, 6-0, he said. They played for the state title in AISA, a private schools league, the second year. Two more high school stops led him back to Auburn.
“A lot of things happen and sometimes you don’t know why,” Blakeney said. “I think I was being manipulated a little bit by forces that knew what I needed to do. It’s turned out to be right 40 years later, at least from the standpoint of being happy, having a little success and being around some great folks along the way.”
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