Former equipment manager now position coach

UNA running backs coach Courtland Hays looks for a signal during practice Sept. 20. Hays began his football career as an equipment manager for UNA in 2007 and is now the running backs coach.

Courtland Hays, the running backs coach for the UNA Football team, has been a mainstay in the program for nearly a decade, but his journey is seemingly far from standard.

Hays worked his way up the ladder under the tutelage of three former or current Division-I head coaches since 2007. The current 27-year-old graduate assistant coach started his nine-year journey as an 18-year-old equipment manager and college freshman.

After Hays’ first semester, former head coach Mark Hudsbeth, who is now coaching Division-I’s Louisiana-Lafeyette, quickly promoted him to head equipment manager.

“I always wanted to go somewhere where I knew I was going to be needed, where I could be used and where I was going to mean something,” Hays said. “For Coach Hud and his staff at the time, they needed someone to come in and do a lot of work. I love being in a place where I was needed.”

Hays continued his nine-year journey when the Lions hired Terry Bowden in 2009, but experienced a setback.

Hays entered his final year of undergraduate school in 2011 when the program could no longer pay the same amount for his head equipment position.

“It was tough,” Hays said. “But I just understood that everything happens for a reason. I knew that I loved football and I loved being a part of this program.”

But the door of opportunity did not stay closed for long.

Although Hays did not receive any scholarship money, Bowden offered him a volunteer spot in the front office to work with former Director of Football Operations Ben Murphy. Hays said he could not refuse.

“I knew this was the right place for me at the time,” Hays said. “I knew I wanted to finish my school here, and Coach Bowden allowed me to be a part of the program. That’s all I needed.”

After Bowden left for the University of Akron after the 2011 season, Bobby Wallace returned to the helm for his second stint. Hays said Wallace found him a spot on the staff as a quality control coach.

“The first year as a volunteer coach was hard,” Hays said. “It was a learning curve because I hadn’t done as much X’s and O’s work. A lot of the stuff I had done was behind-the-scenes. Coming in and learning the X’s and O’s was a challenge for me, but it was what I wanted.”

Hays transitioned to the field in 2012, coaching tight ends before moving to coach running backs the following year. As a graduate assistant, Hays is now in his fourth year coaching and signaling plays.

One of the keys to Hays’ success is his work ethic, said offensive coordinator Steadman Campbell.

“He’s been one of those guys that’s been willing to do whatever’s asked of him,” Campbell said. “He’s had his hand in a lot of different areas over the years.”

Linebackers coach Gabe Poe, who played for the Lions in 2013, said Hays immediately took him under his wing after transferring from West Alabama. The two lived together for nearly two years.

“A lot of people don’t know it, but when I first got here, I spent my first weekend with Courtland,” Poe said. “I didn’t know anybody, and was just hanging out in my room. He texted me and asked me to hang out with him. He was the first person I met that I didn’t already know, and he’s still a good friend of mine.”

Poe said he has enjoyed watching Hays develop as a coach.

“He’s come a long way as far as picking up knowledge of the game,” Poe said. “He’s a really smart football coach. I’m not going to say he’s overlooked, but he’s just waiting on his time to come. He can do whatever he wants to if he sets his mind to it.”

Seth Bullock, who spent six seasons at UNA as an equipment manager, was Hays’ roommate from 2008-11. Bullock said working under Hays from 2007-08 helped him learn the importance of serving others.

“When I came to UNA, he was my best friend from Day 1,” Bullock said. “I’ve always considered him a brother. He’d give you the shirt off his back, and you won’t find a more dedicated person to the football team than Courtland.”

Hays leaves a lasting impact on his position players, said former running back Diamond Simmons.

“He’s closer to our age, so he could relate to us and could coach in a way we could understand it,” Simmons said. “If it wasn’t for him breaking the film down for us and doing all the behind-the-scenes work he did, we might not have been conference champions.”

Hays said while his journey has been a roller coaster, he is looking forward to helping UNA win its fourth conference championship in a row, all while continuing through the coaching carousel.

“It’s not been conventional,” Hays said. “Not everybody’s story is the same. It doesn’t really matter where you start as long as you know where you want to go and stay determined. You have to have good people around you, and I’ve been fortunate to have that here.”