By Trey Williams
Former Unicoi County receiver Corey Headley snagged a Division I coaching job right before life essentially put the nation in a holding pattern.
Headley, a three-sport standout for the Blue Devils (class of 2009), was hired at Gardner-Webb in mid-March and had about a week of normalcy with the new gig before the coronavirus pandemic put everything in a fog. Oh, by the way, he’s also set to marry Whitley True on July 4 in Johnson City.
“I’ll give you some advice: never make a life-changing decision right before you’re getting married right before a pandemic hits,” Headley said. “It’s not good for the sanity of your fiancé, I promise you that.”
Headley played at Carson-Newman, where he spent a year as a graduate assistant afterward. He returned to Unicoi County as an assistant for the 2014 season before spending two seasons at Rose-Hulman College (Terre Haute, Indiana) and the past three seasons at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. True remains there while looking for a job.
“The problem is most of the country has a hiring freeze,” Headley said. “So she’s stuck in Virginia seven and a half hours away and I’m in North Carolina. And we’re trying to plan a wedding. So it’s been a very eventful couple of weeks.
“We’re going to get married on July 4. Now, that might be in front of 200 people and it might be in front of two people.”
All the uncertainty hasn’t dampened the personable Headley’s spirit. He’s joining the staff of first-year head coach Tre Lamb, a 30-year-old that excelled as offensive coordinator at Tennessee Tech. Lamb’s offensive line coach is Jake Thornton, who played a year at Carson-Newman with Headley.
“We became good friends that year together,” Headley said. “Jake’s a great guy. He won a national championship with Alabama as a GA and then he actually went to Tennessee Tech and was there for two years and came here when Tre Lamb got the job from Tennessee Tech.”
Opportunity knocked at the right time.
“We were looking around trying to find some things and a couple of things fell through,” Headley said. “And (Thornton) called me up on a Monday and was like, ‘Hey, I got the Gardner-Webb (job) and they want a tight ends coach and you’re the first guy I want to call.’ He asked me if I wanted the job and I was like, ‘No brainer.’”
Headley quickly sells you on Lamb while throwing out words like confident, sharp, articulate and smooth in a flurry of praise that couldn’t sound more sincere. The Bulldogs won three games last season.
“I firmly believe we’re gonna shake things up next year,” Headley said. “The staff we have is amazing.”
Unicoi County head coach Drew Rice played with Headley in high school and college. He recalled their Blue Devils beating Elizabethton in football, but they produced a more memorable moment while helping John English’s basketball team hold off Johnson County for a district tournament title at Daniel Boone.
The Blue Devils were up by a point or two late and preparing in a timeout huddle to play defense against the Austin Phipps-led Longhorns.
“I was guarding Phipps,” Rice said. “Coach English lays it all out … and Corey looks at me and says, ‘Let him go by you and I’ll take a charge.’ And I just looked at Coach English like, ‘What do you think?’ And he says, ‘Let him go.’ I said, ‘Okay,’ and I just kind of stepped out of the way and he went in there and Corey slid over, stepped under one and took a charge. That sealed the game. …
“We went with his plan there and it worked. That’s something we always kind of laugh about when we talk about it. … Corey was a competitor.”
Indeed, the thought of losing weighed heavily on Headley. Rice said Phipps was considerably heavier than Headley.
“Yea, I’d say Phipps was a solid 225 pounds,” Headley said. “I was probably weighing 150 soaking wet. … Coach (Michael) Smith tells that story the best, because supposedly I was very frantic about it and English didn’t wanna do it. And then Drew did it and it worked and I came back to the bench and said, ‘I told you so.’”
Headley would’ve told you that you were crazy if you’d said he’d become a college football coach. He planned to play college baseball and then become a college professor. He was the Watauga Conference player of the year as a senior after hitting .486 and leading Northeast Tennessee with 51 RBIs.
But an offer never materialized from ETSU, where his grandfather Tom was a professor in the communications department.
Rice, a freshman at Carson-Newman when Headley was a senior in high school, recommended Headley as a player to the Carson-Newman football staff.
“We had a lot of fun playing together,” Rice said. “When we were in college we’d come home and train here, lift and run and all that stuff. We spent a whole lot of time together over the years.
“He paid his dues. He’s been at some Division III schools and had to kind of work his way up, and he’s now landed at an FCS place. I’m proud of him and really happy for him.”
Headley became especially intrigued with coaching at Carson-Newman thanks primarily to teammate Jared Olive, whose father John is the football coach at Tullahoma High School. He won his 200th game this past season.
Headley also credited college coaches Ken Sparks, Mike Turner and David Needs as well as his coach at Unicoi County, Doug Cooper, for guidance and inspiration.
“Coach Sparks was genuine and the definition of a gentleman and an amazing coach,” Headley said. “He changed a lot of lives for the betterment of society.”
Headley described Cooper as a “great influence” that “helped raise me” and “speaks in movie quotes.”
Cooper might’ve sounded like a Tarantino movie when he got ejected in a heartbreaking loss to Hampton. The following week a hard-fought setback against Tennessee High – without the suspended Cooper – produced one of Headley’s most gratifying moments.
“It was fun,” Headley said. “The whole town of Erwin was there. It was the game right after Doug Cooper got suspended for getting tossed out at Hampton.
“Tennessee High was probably one of the top 10 teams in the state at the time and we hadn’t won a game, and they only beat us by four. If you looked at a stat board they’d say I played well. But their head coach (Greg Stubbs) came over to me and a couple of their players (after the game) and I was lying in the field and they picked me up and they’re like, ‘You’re an amazing football player. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.’
“(I lived) with the guy in college who came over there and talked to me. His name is Alex Taylor. He was an All-American lineman at Carson-Newman.”
The immediate future of college football, like seemingly everything else in the United States, is up in the air. Speculation of delayed, if not shortened seasons has surfaced.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried,” Headley said.
But whenever football returns, Headley will be a husband and Division I football coach.
“It’s a blessing, for sure,” Headley said.