Life Lessons

 

Tom Austin's gridiron career leaves legacy of pride, trust and hard work

By Ernie Clark
 

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When Colby's football team walked off Whittier Field in Brunswick at the end of the 1988 season, not only a 24-0 victor over Bowdoin but winner of the CBB championship for just the second time since 1972, the Mules left something behind. "We were all on the bus," recalled then-coach Tom Austin, "and [Bowdoin] coach [Howard] Vandersea came on board with a bag and said, 'I thought you might want this.' We opened the bag, and there was the CBB trophy. We didn't even know there was one."

Such were the depths of Colby football when Austin arrived two years earlier as head coach of a program that had languished in the competitive shadows of in-state rivals Bowdoin and Bates. Eighteen years later, there are no such depths, no such shadows.

Austin announced his retirement from coaching in November, just after leading Colby to a 5-3 record and a 12th CBB title under his guidance. "Colby's been the perfect place for him," said Chris White '90, a member of Austin's first recruiting class and now an assistant coach at Syracuse. "He wasn't someone who wanted to go to the big time. Colby was the big time for him, and it was in Maine, which he loved."

Austin leaves as the school's career leader in football coaching wins, his 67-76-1 record including a 1-15 start in 1986 and 1987 as he began to rebuild the Mules from gridiron ground zero. "I learned a lot of lessons from Coach Austin, things he preached daily," said Eric DeCosta '93, director of college scouting for the National Football League's Baltimore Ravens. "Detail, preparation, discipline, toughness, compassion and trust were all paramount."

At the peak of Austin's Colby tenure were 7-1 seasons in 1994 and 2000 that earned the Mules top-five rankings in New England. The 2000 finish also gave Colby a share of the first-ever New England Small College Athletic Conference football title and Austin accolades as NESCAC Coach of the Year and Division II-III Coach of the Year by the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston.

"Tom's been a tremendous role model for all of us," said Ed Mestieri, a 15-year Colby assistant coach who replaced Austin on January 1. "The enthusiasm he has for life, the game, Colby football and, most of all, his players has impacted all of us in a very special way."

Mestieri sees little reason to alter much of what Austin has built, a legacy that includes leadership within the CBB and competitiveness within the NESCAC. "When you're with someone for 15 years like myself and [assistant coach] Tom Dexter have been with Coach Austin, you have input into the way things have gone," Mestieri said. "We hope to build on the tradition of excellence that is symbolic of how our program is viewed."

For Austin, an Ohio native who grew up in Maine and played free safety and quarterback at the University of Maine in the early 1960s, rebuilding Colby football was a gradual process. The 1988 campaign, a 4-4 season capped by the Mules' first shutout win over Bowdoin since 1933, seemingly put the program back on solid footing.

That growth was challenged in 1990 when underground fraternities were discovered on campus and a number of students, including football players, were suspended from the College. "There was talk we were the worst team in the country," said Sean Devine '94, a freshman defensive end on the 1990 team who is now an assistant coach at the University of New Hampshire. "I was one of thirteen freshmen who started, but Coach Austin always remained positive.

"We started 0-5, but he and the other coaches made me want to come out every day for practice. We wound up winning our last three games, and the CBB, and that really was the springboard for some good years. Even though we were young and only had 40 players, Coach Austin always talked about 'Blue Team Pride,' and even now I don't go a day without thinking about it."

"Blue Team Pride," at the core of Austin's football philosophy, is the belief that individuals working as a team toward common goals can produce great results. "It's a wonderful life to come to work every day and to work with human beings," Austin said. "The challenge is to reach out to them. With football, there are so many people involved, it's a challenge to get everyone on the same page. I don't think there's anything that equals the satisfaction of seeing that goal reached.

"How you do it is pretty simple, really. I think the big thing is to treat people like you would like to be treated."

That has involved some unique bonding adventures, like beaver trapping and paintball sojourns, all designed to develop the sense that football is as much about camaraderie as it is about competition.

"His warmth and love of family is something that was always evident," said Mark Jackson '95, director of football operations for the reigning NCAA Division I national co-champion University of Southern California. "He built a family atmosphere around the program that allows each one of us to still feel connected to Colby football today."