Ex-Miner coach is new football head coach at Division I Austin Peay.
Kirby Cannon likes being the new football head coach of Austin Peay University for many reasons.
One of them being the school's name.
"I just like the name," he said. "There is just one Austin Peay in the world. No northern this or central that. Just one.
"And we have one of the great student cheers of all time, 'Let's Go Peay!' "
Of course, there were much larger reasons he wanted the job, perhaps the two biggest being the chance to be a head coach again and the challenge.
And what a challenge!
Cannon was announced as the Austin Peay Governors' 18th football head coach on March 19, replacing Rick Christophel, who resigned in January after six seasons to become tight ends coach with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals.
Cannon wanted another rebuilding project as well as another head coaching run. And the new job at the Clarksville, Tenn. school allows him both.
For 11 seasons Cannon served as head coach of the Missouri S&T football program, overseeing the Miners' turnaround before resigning to return to the NCAA Division I ranks as an assistant coach at Central Michigan, where he has worked the past three years as the defensive secondary coach
Cannon said he was happy at Central Michigan, coaching for an old buddy in head coach Don Enos.
"I had a good job...Central Michigan was a good job," he said. "We won five of our last six games and won our bowl game (Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit). It was a quick rebuild and I think they've got a chance to be pretty good there for awhile.
"But I just wanted to get back to being a head coach. I'm kind of a rebuilder; most of the places I've coached have been in some sort of rebuilding phase."
So he couldn't pass up a chance to be a head coach at an NCAA Division I school. Austin Peay is a member of the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC). Cannon's only other collegiate head coaching experience – at S&T – was at the NCAA Division II level.
"I have a friend I coached with at Iowa State and he coached (at Austin Peay) in 1977, when they won their only OVC championship," Cannon said. "His son played here – and actually played against us (S&T) when we played them in Rolla.
"He told me the school had changed a lot, the philosophy of the football program had changed a lot and he no longer considered it a bad job."
And if Cannon wanted a rebuilding challenge, he's certainly got one in the Governors.
Austin Peay's football squad has won a total of 13 games the past five seasons, finishing 2-9 in 2012, 3-8 in 2011, 2-9 in 2010, 4-7 in 2009 and 2-9 in 2008.
Sound familiar, Miner fans? When Cannon came to Rolla the Miners had won seven games over the previous four seasons. It took a while but under Cannon S&T turned around its football fortunes and recorded winning campaigns in three of his last five seasons here, including a 7-4 mark in 2005, which was the program's first winning campaign since 1985.
And the Cannon legacy was still evident on the field this past season at S&T, as the Miners rolled up their finest season since 1980 (10-1) while using a large core of players brought in by Cannon and his staff.
He has a similar rebuilding task in front of him now on a bigger stage.
S&T defeated Austin Peay 21-14 in Rolla in 2006 and 45-3 in Clarksville in 2005. Back then Austin Peay was a NCAA Division I non-scholarship program. Now it is a scholarshiped program and is trying to get on par with other OVC squads.
And a $26 million new stadium project is part of the plan.
Cannon signed a five-year contract with the understanding he was inheriting the existing staff, schedule and recruiting class.
"I was offered the job on a Friday night and took the job with conditions," he said. "Saturday night (his wife) Lisa and I started packing for Clarksville. The announcement was on a Tuesday and we started spring practice the next Monday."
Cannon was to oversee the Govs' spring game this weekend (Saturday) to conclude spring drills.
The cupboard is not bare but it is thin, particularly on offense.
"From a 2-9 team we return quite a few players on defense and have big holes at quarterback and receiver," Cannon said. "I think we have a chance to be a good defensive football team if we don't have to play too many plays. The offense has got to have some success.
"Actually our recruiting class, without a head coach in place, is a pretty balanced class. And I'm happy with the staff; it has made for a smoother transition."
Eventually Cannon hopes the Govs can lean on a high-scoring spread offense like he did in his last several years at S&T.
"I'd like to get to the point like we were in Rolla, where you're capable of throwing the ball," Cannon said. "That's what we want to evolve to."
Cannon even has one player from his old neck of the woods. Cannon graduated from Missouri State (then Southwest Missouri State) in Springfield, Mo., where he played football and baseball. One of his probable starting linebackers next fall, Brad Noble, attended Springfield Glendale High School.
Next season Austin Peay plays a brutal schedule, including three opponents who went to bowls in 2012 (Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Ohio) in the first four weeks. Austin Peay will open the 2013 campaign against the Tennessee Volunteers Aug. 31 in Knoxville.
The games against Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Ohio are "money" games, in which the Govs will be paid handsomely to play up a level.
"We've got the three money games," Cannon said. "Two is a more logical number for a program. But with a $26 million stadium plan in play, it's difficult walking away from those games right now."
The Govs' new stadium is scheduled to be ready for the 2014 season. By then Cannon hopes to have Peay competitive with OVC rivals Southeast Missouri State, Tennessee Tech, Tennessee State, Jacksonville State, Tennessee-Martin, Murray State, Eastern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky.
"One of the first things you look at is the community," Cannon said. "And Clarksville very much reminds me of Rolla. It is right next door to Fort Campbell, like Rolla is next to Fort Leonard Wood. I really like the community. I think it and Rolla may be the best communities I've coached at. And the university is currently hitting an increase in reputation and size.
"The Austin Peay football program has never had a period of time of any length being a dominant program, unlike the Miners were (in the 1970s and early 1980s). But the new stadium is going to take us from the bottom of the list to the top athletic-wise (in the OVC).
"Austin Peay is very strong in all the other sports but football."
Cannon hopes to change that soon.