'A football junkie' - How a series of challenges readied Scott for OC job
Larry Scott has been a ballboy, a groundskeeper, a student manager, and even the interim coach for one of the preeminent programs in college football.
He’s coached running backs, receivers, offensive linemen, tight ends and special teams. He’s a renowned recruiter and has risen recently through the coaching ranks, but now, Tennessee’s fledging 40-year-old offensive coordinator faces a brand new challenge: Engineering an offense by calling his first play.
Scott, who prefers visors over hats, isn’t simply trying on this task for size.
“Football is something that I fell in love with in at a very young age,” Scott said, beaming.
“You grab the bull by the horns and take off. … I’ve been preparing myself for 40 years, since I got into football. Every day that I’ve come to work, I’ve attacked it like I was preparing to be a Super Bowl winning head coach or be a Super Bowl winning running backs coach or a Super Bowl winning offensive line coach. I’ve always just grabbed every opportunity I’ve been given and strived to be the best.”
At some point, every college coordinator has to make their first play call, but Scott’s situation is particularly challenging as he inherits an offense in a serious transition. The Vols set school records for points and touchdowns in 2016, and Scott is tasked with moving Tennessee forward from the Josh Dobbs era into the future.
He must find a replacement at quarterback and manage a supporting cast that’s lost the production of NFL hopefuls Josh Malone and Alvin Kamara.
At a glance, Vols coach Butch Jones is asking a lot of Scott, potentially risking his own future in Knoxville by handing the keys of the offense to a first-time coordinator.
Yet Scott’s past suggests otherwise.
After all, the first black offensive coordinator in Tennessee’s 121-year history has defied the odds at every turn.
Discovering a love for football
Larry and his younger brother LaVaar — coincidentally both born on Jan. 2 two years apart — were raised by a single mom in Sebring, Fla.
Ernestine Stone, along with her mother, Mary Toney, taught Larry and LaVaar to be curious, mild-mannered but tenacious, and aspirant.
“What you see now is what you saw him portray as a young child,” Stone told Volquest.
“He was always quiet and studious. It was just Larry’s way. He had a thirst for knowledge. It was something that my mother and I both instilled in him.
“You’ve got to be curious about life because life does not offer you the best opportunities all the time. Sometimes you have to be prepared to kind of put your foot in the door in order to be successful.”
Stone, now a minister, was a nurse who as a single parent did her best to provide for her two sons.It was a struggle — at times seemingly insurmountable. The family moved into different homes more than a half-dozen times during the boys’ childhood. They didn’t have things — money, cars or clothes — that some of their schoolmates did.
Still, Larry was undeterred, using his mom’s dogged work ethic as an example and driving force for his own life.
“What we’re made of is everything she put in us,” said LaVaar Scott, a former national champion defensive end at Miami and now the head football coach at Sebring High.
“Seeing the struggle, understanding that nothing was going to be given to us. That’s what Larry did. That’s how he went from that high school coach, to that GA, to that guy at the bottom of the totem pole.
“And he just continued to grind and work, and I think seeing my mother grind and work for us and knowing that we lived in 6-7 homes coming up, just seeing that struggle, it just gave us that motivation to be something great.”
Stone keyed on academics and discipline as the springboard to give her sons a better life. She had one rule: No sports — football, basketball or baseball — unless they had at least a 3.0 GPA.
Whenever the boys would get into trouble, Stone would give them a spanking and then write them a letter afterwards explaining why they were punished.
“You’d thought she was a minister back then, too. She was just the minister of discipline,” LaVaar said, chuckling.
“Sometimes I gave them a nice little spanking,” Stone reminisced. “I was sorry that I had to. It hurt me that I had to, so I oftentimes wrote them a letter to explain ‘the why’ and hopefully they would take that letter and really understand that if I didn’t insist on them being better, then they could fall into the cracks, and I couldn’t allow that to happen.”
Still, Stone could not teach Larry and LaVaar all of life’s lessons. She knew her boys needed a male influence in their lives.
Without even asking, Gary Rapp gladly assumed the role.
Rapp had coached Stone’s brothers and cousins years earlier. As a kid, Larry became close friends with Rapp’s son, Brian. Over the years, Rapp mentored the Scotts, offering words of wisdom and giving Larry and his brother odd jobs to earn a little money.
They lined fields, washed uniforms and fixed helmets. As a middle schooler, Larry would hang the jerseys in the locker room for the varsity team. Rapp eventually asked him to be the student manager.
There — amidst cleaning grass stains off pants and memorizing plays on the chalkboard — Larry’s love for football was born. It became an outlet and a goal to overcome life's adversities.
“Gary took us under his wings,” LaVaar said. “We were able to really understand football and life and what it really meant to be a coach. The passion for the game and for kids.
“Right then and there, Larry took a great interest in football. He was just a sponge for the game. … He was one of them that just wanted to talk the X’s and O’s all the time. Me, I just wanted to run into somebody as fast as I could. Just tell me how to get there, but Larry wanted to be a student of the game. That’s something he’s always been passionate about. From the beginning.”
As he grew, Larry developed into a budding college football prospect.
He had interest from a number of schools, but his future was put on hold during the 11th grade when he learned he was going to become a father. Stone worried how her son would handle yet another adversity in life.
But Larry refused to be like his own father and immediately accepted responsibility. He prioritized his new son, giving up baseball and basketball and vowing to support his child.
He kept playing football, but he got a job and would go to work after practice while still maintaining an A-average in school.
“I was worried because I didn’t want to see my son fail,” Stone said. “But that impressed me enough to think that I had done something right.”
Larry played right tackle for Sebring, and Kansas State’s Jim Leavitt was particularly interested in bringing the hefty offensive tackle across the country to Manhattan.
So when Leavitt accepted the grueling challenge of building a program from scratch at South Florida, Larry was one of his first in-home recruiting visits.
Stone remembers the meeting fondly, saying coach Leavitt didn’t try to steer Larry to USF, but simply presented a unique opportunity to make history.
Just a day later, Larry decided to stay home. “I believe in the coach,” he told his mom. “We’re going to do something special.”
"A football junkie"
Larry arrived at USF in 1996, and the inaugural team meeting was held under a giant shade tree.
Practicing in brutal heat, the Bulls barely had any equipment, no practice field or locker room and the players watched film in trailers. USF didn’t play a real game the first year of the program, and by the time Larry Scott left Tampa, he was one of just 14 guys — out of 75 players at the initial meeting — who made it until the end.
“I don’t know how they survived,” said Tennessee’s quarterbacks coach Mike Canales, then USF’s receivers coach.
“If you’re one of the 14 who made it through, you knew how special it was because when we got there we didn’t have helmets, equipment, a practice field. Nothing. It was nothing. Larry was bound and determined to put his stamp on the program.”
According to those around Larry, It was evident early on — even if he didn’t exactly realize at the time — that Larry was playing football to learn how to coach. He was always competitive, but he was constantly focused on leading, encouraging and mentoring other players.
“You watched as Larry was one of the players on that inaugural team, you could tell that he had coaching in him,” Canales told Volquest.
“He was a football junkie. He was always in the trailers watching film, asking questions. He wanted to know football. He had that craving or hunger that you wanted in a young player.”
After graduating from USF, Leavitt tried to convince Larry to immediately jump into coaching. Larry balked at the idea, wanting to make a living in the business world. He dabbled in real estate before quickly realizing he missed being around young people. He then took a job as a child-abuse investigator and spent his evenings as part-time coach at a Florida high school.
Stepping back between the white lines gave Larry an itch he couldn’t stop scratching, though.
He spent time at a couple Sunshine State high schools, including reconnecting with Rapp at Sebring. He was his alma mater's offensive coordinator in 2004 — the last time he called plays.
“It was old-school football,” LaVaar said. “Pro-style, power run game.”
A year later, Leavitt asked Larry to return to USF, and the Vols new offensive coordinator worked his way up the ladder as a high school relations administrator, graduate assistant and then a full-time position coach.
All the while, Larry maintained his curiosity and craving to learn. He bounced around coaching the o-line, tight ends and tailbacks, building a foundation for his offensive philosophy from Greg Gregory, and later James Coley at Miami.
“That’s why I say he’s a football junkie,” Canales explained. “He was constantly in the office. You could just see, here I come back as the pass coordinator, coaching receivers, and he was in those rooms and he would ask question after question after question.
“Almost like everyday he came in with a new question: ‘What about this? Where did you get that idea from? How does that work? He always wanted to learn. That’s when you can tell the mark of a good coach, because he said, ‘I don’t know it all, but I want to learn it all.’”
After a three-year stint at Miami, including leading the Hurricanes to four wins in their final five games as the interim head coach, Scott accepted the opportunity to come to Tennessee last season.
Most saw the hire as Jones simply trying to upgrade his staff’s recruiting, but in hindsight, it’s clear that Tennessee’s head coach saw potential in Scott.
When Mike DeBord opted to return to the Midwest to be near his kids and grandchildren, Jones had an immediate replacement sitting down the hall from his office.
“Butch got to know what Larry brings to the table firsthand,” LaVaar said. “He’s always been known as a great recruiter and a great position coach, but over time, Larry developed into a great offensive mind. He was able to come in and show his worth with Butch.
“He always been a part of every facet of the offense, no matter what hat he was wearing. Obviously, Butch looked at him that this guy is bringing some different elements, that if we figure out a way to make it all mesh then we really got something here.”
While many still believe that this remains Jones’ offense, Tennessee’s coach certainly ceded some control when he promoted Scott. The OC’s fingerprints are all over the Vols’ new staff now, with connections to quality control assistants to assistant coaches like Canales, Kevin Beard and Walt Wells.
Jones is entrusting that Scott’s hardened background, amiable personality and competitive spirit will take Tennessee’s offense to new heights. After all, a first-time offensive coordinator who’d never called plays has made his mark in Knoxville before.
David Cutcliffe, the offensive coordinator for Peyton Manning and the 1998 national title team, was new to the role himself back in 1993.
“He’ll do a great job. He’s so sharp,” Canales said of Scott. “Larry knows what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. And that’s half the battle.”
On Jan. 20, Scott was officially announced as Tennessee’s new offensive coordinator.
It may have been a formality at that point, but stuck in the Charlotte airport after a week on the road recruiting, Scott — who maintains a constant smile anyways — was bubbling with excitement when the news became official.
After word leaked, his phone didn’t stop buzzing, as a flurry of congratulatory texts and calls from Vols to former players at Miami filled his hour-long plane delay.
Just before boarding the flight back to Knoxville, Scott called the person who had been instrumental in helping him get to this point.
“Hey Mom, what you doing?”
“Nothing son, how are you doing?'"
"Well, I’m stuck in the airport, but listen to this…”
“When he told me, I started screaming,” Stone said.
“Oh my gosh. He really got it. He did it.
“All I could think was, this is what my mother had been instilling in him since he was two-and three-years-old. You can achieve anything. Stay humble. Stay ready to learn. Keep your mouth closed sometimes and just push forward. Larry stuck to it.