Lakeland coach leaving school

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 29, 2007

SUFFOLK—In the end, it was time to go, no matter how much Tommy Austin loved football and his Lakeland Cavaliers program. Austin, the school’s second-year gridiron coach, resigned last week and today will be his final day on campus.

“I’d just reached a point where, as passionate as I am about the game and the kids, there are other things involved in teaching that I’m not passionate about,” Austin said. “But it would have been hard to walk away without something else to work at.”

That something is becoming director of physical plant operations at Chowan University, about a 40-minute drive from Lakeland and Austin’s nearby house.

The longtime coach will trade lengthy, and at times unpredictable, hours for a structured, 9-to-5 existence.

“I applied for the job not really expecting to get it, but thinking that it might work out and give me a choice,” Austin said. “When I was faced with that option, I decided to take it.”

But not without a heavy heart, for the Suffolk native poured himself into resurrecting a Lakeland program that has been the Southeastern District’s doormat most of the last 15 years. The Cavaliers were 1-9 and 3-7 under Austin, but he was widely praised by district observers for instilling discipline and getting his players to go all-out even against tremendous odds.

“We had about 32 legitimate varsity players and a lot of our starters went both ways and played special teams.” said senior end Carl Sweat, pointing out Lakeland went 0-10 the year before Austin arrived from Kecoughtan. “We did everything hard in practice and we ran afterwards and that was because of coach.”

Said Austin: “We went to war without quite enough ammunition, but the kids stayed in there and busted their humps and fought anyway.

“Some of them are talking about transferring, but I’ve asked them to give the new coach a chance and to make that decision based on reason and not emotion. I hope they all stay and see through what we’ve been working on at Lakeland.”

Austin, 47, leaves football after 24 years of coaching, 21 of them full time and 17 as a head coach. He plied his trade at Isle of Wight, Tidewater Academy and Windsor before moving to Kecoughtan, where he was 30-13 in four seasons and left because he came to dread the traffic-packed commute to the Peninsula.

“I’m going to miss the kids and the people I worked with and the day to day contact with my coaches, but this is going to be a different challenge,” Austin said of his move to Chowan.

The former coach said he will work directly for Chowan’s president and vice president of business and finance to oversee major repairs, additions and long term construction. Austin will draw on more than 20 years of construction experience that started at age 12 when he worked for his father, and then his father-in-law, both of whom were contractors. Recently, he’s worked in the trade during the summers.

“I don’t have great in-depth knowledge but they were looking for someone who can plan and direct and communicate and function as part of a team,” Austin said. “That’s what I’ve done all my life in some form or other.”

Sweat credited Austin with making football a serious endeavor at Lakeland, where previously, players could sometimes skip practice without consequence. Starting two years ago, players were required to sit in the front row of every class and two unexcused absences of any sort during the season meant they were no longer on the team.

“He changed our whole attitude,” Sweat said of Austin. “Before we had guys who cussed all the time and didn’t care what adults said to them, but he was as much a father figure as a coach and we had to start really working for him.”

Said senior lineman Jordan Rodgers: “The sophomores and juniors are really torn up about him leaving because he was bringing the program back and they were looking forward to being better next year.”