The dean of high school football coaches in far Southwest Virginia will try to guide his team to the Black Diamond District championship on Friday night.
On the other sideline, the youngest coach in far Southwest Virginia will attempt to lead his squad to the top of the BDD standings.
Tonight’s matchup between 59-year-old Doug Hubbard of Honaker and 25-year-old Austin Cooper of Hurley certainly adds to the intrigue as Hubbard’s Tigers (3-3) clash with Cooper’s Rebels (4-2) in an important contest.
It was just eight years ago that Cooper was the starting quarterback for the Rebels and facing Honaker, a team he never was able to beat on the gridiron.
“I do remember playing against Coach Hubbard’s teams in high school,” Cooper said. “I have always had great respect for him not only as a coach, but as a person. He knows what it takes to be a champion and a winner. Year after year, Honaker continues to be at the top of our district and have really good football teams.
“Coach Hubbard has those kids dialed in each week and you know you are going to have to play your absolute best to have a chance at beating them. It should be a great atmosphere in Honaker on Friday night and I know Coach Hubbard will have them ready. We have to match that and be extra prepared and focused.”
Cooper spent three seasons as an assistant coach at Giles prior to returning to his alma mater last year as the offensive coordinator. After Anthony Church stepped down after one season as the head coach of the Rebels, Cooper got his first head-coaching gig.
J.I. Burton’s Jacob Caudill and Holston’s Derrick Patterson are 30-years-old, the closest in age to Cooper among the fraternity of local head coaches.
“I think age is just a number,” Cooper said. “It’s the heart and passion you have for something that defines your career.”
You could say Austin Cooper was born to coach.
His father, Mark, was a highly-successful hoops coach at Hurley and also was the head football coach at the Buchanan County school from 1998-2001. Mark Cooper also had a stint as the head football coach at now-defunct Whitewood from 1994-97 and is currently an assistant on his son’s staff.
“He’s been my biggest influence,” Cooper said of his father. “I knew from the time that I could play that I wanted to be standing in his shoes some day. To have him on the staff with me in my first year is exactly how I wanted it. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to model my life after.”
Austin Cooper was actually known more for his basketball exploits in high school and was the Bristol Herald Courier’s boys hoops player of the year in 2011.
“As a freshman we played him at wide receiver and he was also the backup QB,” said Greg Tester, who coached Cooper at Hurley. “He didn’t even like football at that time. His freshman year we let him throw the ball a little in a scrimmage at Twin Springs. He launched that thing about 60 yards in the air on his first throw so effortlessly. All of us coaches just looked at each other. We knew we had our guy. I think people always saw him as a basketball player, but I always told him he was a football player and he would just look at me and grin.”
Hurley has relied on a relentless rushing attack this season, averaging 304.2 yards per game on the ground. Matt Blankenship, John Matt Justus and Dustin Stinson have shared the bulk of the carries in the Wing-T offense.
“I thought he would actually be a pass-first guy where he played QB,” Tester said. “But he is relying on his strengths, which is his offensive line and running game right now. He is running the Wing-T well. I have been very impressed.”
So has Hubbard, who can relate to his coaching counterpart.
He was just 23 when he took over Honaker’s program in 1983 and has been at the helm ever since.
“Looking back on everything, it’s hard to be a head coach so young,” Hubbard said. “I only had one year as an assistant coach. You learn more from your mistakes more than you do anything else. … But with good assistant coaches on your staff and a good administration, it can make the job so much more enjoyable.”
Cooper has a good support system of his own and is a student of the game.
“He always takes advice and suggestions well,” Tester said. “He is not one that gets offended or is too proud to ask for input.”
Sixteen of the 29 guys on Hurley’s roster are seniors, a significant number for one of the smallest football playing schools in the entire state.
“There’s something about Hurley that’s different – 10-and-0 or 0-and-10 this community will support these boys,” Cooper said. “Football is king around here. That’s why I love it so much. There’s no other place in the world like it.”
Cooper also holds a certain status in the eyes of his players, who are old enough to remember when their coach was a two-sport star at Hurley.
“We all grew up watching Austin Cooper play quarterback for the Rebels and we looked up to him and we still do to this day,” said Hurley senior center John A. Justus. “I have known him personally my whole life because he played football and was friends with my cousin. I never dreamed that this larger than life guy would be my head football coach. I am extremely blessed to have Coach Cooper as my coach and all the others feel the same. It is easy to give 110 percent effort for him, because he gives 110 percent effort for our team, our community and our school.”
Cooper will go for his biggest win to date as a head coach against a mainstay with more than 200 victories on his resume.
“Austin was a smart football player,” Hubbard said. “So I am not surprised to see Hurley have success with him as the head coach.”