A decade ago, when Scotty Walden arrived in Cleburne, Texas, before his junior year of high school, he had a lot to get used to. Walden had grown up near Fort Worth. Cleburne is 30 miles south of the city. The population is 29,000 people. Everyone seems to know each other — and everyone seems to know a lot about horses.
The reason behind the move from the city was simple: money. Walden's mom was a single parent and cash was tight. Cleburne was cheap. Walden had a good relationship with his father — but he lived far away.
"So, obviously just like a lot of kids, I would always look for that father figure," Walden says. "I was always looking for that man. Who's that man in my life, who's that role model that I can look up to, that male figure?"
Moving Up The Ranks
In Cleburne, Scotty Walden found that role model. His name was Phil Young, and he was the high school football coach.
"Just the most down-to-earth, family, Christian man. Off the field, would treat everyone he saw with respect and never acted like he was above anybody," Walden says. "Just the type of man I wanted to be. But then when you got on that football field, he was a fierce competitor. That's when I definitely figured out I wanted to be a coach."
"First I was excited, but then immediate stress, immediate pressure kind of set in.”
Scotty Walden imagined coaching under Phil Young at Cleburne High. But first he had his own playing career to worry about. He was good enough to quarterback at Div. III Sul Ross State University in West Texas. But even then, Walden day-dreamed of being on the sidelines with a clipboard.
"I'd be in class in college and stuff — I was a history major so you'd have those long lectures — and so sometimes I'd start drawing up plays in my notebook," Walden recalls.
Those scribbled plays would come in handy much sooner than Scotty Walden could have predicted.
Because after his playing career ended in 2011, Walden took a low-paying gig as a graduate assistant at Sul Ross. A nice way to ease into the coaching profession, he must've thought — but when the team's offensive coordinator stepped down, the Sul Ross head coach surprised Walden and everybody else: He handed over control of the offense to the 22-year-old.
"I can see that whole picture right now. Sitting in his office and him telling me, 'You go do you,' and 'I trust you.' And I was just like, 'You gotta be kidding me,'" Walden says. "I mean, first I was excited, but then immediate stress, immediate pressure kind of set in."
The offensive coordinator designs and calls plays for the team to run when it has the football. It's a job that requires an entire playbook. Scotty Walden had some notebook doodles from history class.
So, he went to the place most 22-year-old kids on college campuses go when they need to get a lot of work done: the library.
"I was probably there about four hours, something like that, and I just drew the numbers zero to 99 on the board, and I just started labeling the plays. 'All right, zero is gonna be this. One is gonna be this. Two is gonna be this,'" Walden says. "And by the time I left there that day that first time, I had — I can't remember if I had all zero through 99, but I had a majority of 'em. I had the formations and what I wanted to call them."
"At that point, did you think these plays would work?" I ask.
"I had no clue," he says with a laugh. "No, I didn't."
'I'm Not Your Buddy. I'm Not A Player Anymore'
Whether his plays would work wasn't the only thing weighing on Scotty Walden. The bigger question was: Would the guys on his team, who had been his teammates a few months earlier, respect him as their new coach?
He decided he had to address that issue at his first meeting with the offense.
"I'll tell you what: it was intimidating. I’m young. I’m the same age as those guys in the room. There’s actually several players on that team that were older than me," Walden says. "One of our stud receivers that I threw the ball to the year before was 26 years old. I was 22. How’s he gonna listen to me?"
But Walden's message was firm.
"I told ‘em, 'We gotta draw a line in the sand where you guys gotta realize that I’m your coach. I’m not your buddy. I’m not a player anymore.'”
"I told ‘em, 'We gotta draw a line in the sand where you guys gotta realize that I’m your coach. I’m not your buddy. I’m not a player anymore. I’m here for you and I love you and I’m gonna do everything I can for you, but you gotta realize the position I’m in.'"
The players got it – even the 26-year-old wide receiver.
"After the meeting," Walden says, "he was like, 'Coach, you know I got you. You know I’m bought in. Whatever you say, let’s roll with it. Let’s go.'"
In Sul Ross's first two games, Walden's offense put up 44 and 35 points — but the opposing offenses put up more, and the team started the season with a pair of losses.
Next up was Trinity University – the No. 11 team in the country.
"No one gave us a chance," Waldens says. "We were doing some good stuff on offense up to that point, but we hadn't exploded yet. And that day we exploded, and we beat those guys, 62-35. And that was the funnest game I've ever been a part of. And I distinctly remember when the fourth quarter was winding down, and I just remember thinking to myself, like, 'I don't want to do anything else.' I wanted to coach for the rest of my life."
The team finished out the season with a 5-5 record. But Walden's offense? Well, Sul Ross averaged 48.8 points per game and led the entire NCAA that year — Divisions I, II, and III — with 581.9 yards per game.
'What Are You Talking About, Man? What's Going On?
After the season, Walden moved across the state into the offensive coordinator position at Div. III East Texas Baptist University.
His new office reflected his age. He had posters for professional wrestling and a TV show about a zombie apocalypse. In that office, Walden drew up plays that put East Texas Baptist among the top point scorers in all of Division III.
Then, this past January, ETBU head coach Josh Eargle approached his offensive coordinator...
"Coach Eargle walks up to me and says, 'Hey, you wanna be the head football coach at ETBU?'" Walden recalls. "I said, 'What are you talking about, man? What’s going on?'"
What was going on was Eargle was leaving for a job at a Division I program. That same night, Walden was called in for an interview with the university president, provost, head of enrollment and athletic director.
By the time the interview ended a little before midnight, Walden had been offered the job.
"The very next morning I accepted the job to be the head football coach," Walden says.
At that point, did he know he was the youngest football coach in the NCAA?
"No, had no clue – and nor was I thinking about that," he says. "I was thinking about all the things I had to do, immediately. It was kinda like the Sul Ross situation again, magnified times 10. It was, all right: recruiting, academics, study hall, workouts, coaches, let’s look at the roster. I hadn’t even had time to think about, look at, 'OK, here's the players we’re losing. Here’s who we gotta replace.' So definitely a stressful time."
Ten months later, Scotty Walden – now 26 – seems to have settled comfortably into his new role.
His team started the season 5-1, and his offense continues to put up 50-plus on a regular basis.
Head Coach At East Texas
But one thing did change when Walden moved into his new role — the wrestling and zombie posters had to come down.
"Because I’m the head guy now, so I can’t, I can’t have 'em in the head coach’s office," he says with a laugh.
Perhaps the youngest football coach in America is growing up? Many are already speculating that he'll move into a Div. I head coaching job while he's still among the same generation as his players.
And, there’s been an unexpected benefit.
"You know, it’s been a blessing," Walden says. "I really believe it was in God’s plan that I came out here to East Texas to have a football job. 'Cause my dad lives out here in East Texas. So he and I, our relationship has developed even further since I’ve been out here. Sometimes I’m just, like, 'Dude, you are insanely blessed and lucky to have a career that you know you want to do.'"
To read more about Scotty Walden, check out the Vice Sports story "The Great Expectations of Scotty Walden."
This segment aired on October 22, 2016.