“HELLOOOO!” Mitch Stewart answers a phone call from an unknown number with an enthusiasm that most people can’t muster for their own family members. It’s easy to see that he knows how to make someone feel important, and I imagine that he’s a hell of a recruiter because of it. Stewart is the 36 year-old, 4th-year Head Coach of the Murray State Racers. He was born in Opelika, Alabama, but his family moved to Newnan, Georgia when he was in middle school. There he became the first quarterback for then newly opened Northgate High.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and in a little over 72 hours his team will take the field against the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. Mitch Stewart could be doing a lot of different things in this moment, but he’s talking to me. I don’t work for a big network, my real job is overseeing a couple of outdoor stores, but being the coach at Murray State means you take any chance you can to spread the word about your program. That’s just one of the ways Stewart’s job is different from that of Kirby Smart’s, the man who recruited him to Valdosta State.
I asked Stewart about his relationship with Smart, then and now, and what Smart was like as a coach when he was a player at Valdosta State... “We don’t keep in touch too much now. I mean he could pick me out of a room and when we see one another it’s familiar. He’s big time now. I mean, big, big, biiiiiiiig time. He was the one who actually recruited me to Valdosta. Kirby was responsible for recruiting my area of Georgia. At the time he was dating a girl who lived in my hometown, Ashley Martin. She was actually the first female to score a point in Division 1. (Martin kicked for Jacksonville State and kicked her first extra point in a college football game against Cumberland University on August 30, 2001) Well Kirby was in town staying at Ashley’s parents’ house, and her little brother was my mascot.”
“So he got roped into going to our game and saw me play. So that’s how he saw me play and he took my tape back down to Valdosta with him, and that’s how I ended up there. He’s just as intense now as he was back then. We were always coached up. I mean really coached up... I mean the coaches weren’t that much older than us players. So we’d go out, and Valdosta is a small town, so we’d run into them in the bars. There was kinda this unwritten rule that if the players ran into the coaches at a bar the players had to leave, even if we were there first.”
After graduating from Valdosta State, Stewart became the offensive coordinator at Newnan High School in 2006. Being familiar with high school football in the Peach State, I asked him his opinion on the talent in the state, and if Georgia is an area of focus when it comes to Murray State’s recruiting... “We’ve had some scholarship restraints in years past where out-of-state kids would cost us more money and now we’ve gotten where we can get out more and recruit those out-of-state guys. We’ve gotten a new president and athletic director and they’ve changed some things to where we’re starting to be able to do that.”
“I grew up in Georgia and still have lots of connections from ex-teammates and we’d love to get down there more going forward. It’s no secret, that’s some of the best high school football you’re going to find. Park yourself in a hotel and you’re going to have players within 30 minutes of you in every direction. You can go to a high school in South Georgia and there’s 9 players there.”
Murray State became one of the darlings of last year’s college basketball season. The team was led by Ja Morant, a consensus first-team All-American and the eventual #2 overall pick in this June’s NBA Draft. I asked Coach Stewart if that publicity has had any impact on the football program, and what it’s like recruiting at Murray State in general... “It definitely helped us from a recruiting standpoint. Automatically kids recognize our logo. We have a yellow ‘M’ on our shirts when we walk into a school so a kid gets really excited because he thinks he’s talking to University of Michigan at first. But then we say no, we’re Murray State and the kid goes ‘Oh, Ja Morant!’ And boom we have something to talk about. Ja Morant awarded us $317 million in free advertising.”
“Sometimes we’re talking to a kid and his buddy is a FBS guy but because he knows Ja or is a fan we get to build a relationship. Maybe things don’t work out for him at that big school and he decides to transfer later on and remembers us... Every kid wants to go D-1 (FBS). Our recruiting all happens in December and January when kids realize that route might not work out for them. Like we’re not recruiting for 2021 guys right now. There’d be no point. We’re definitely known as a basketball school, but we have a great athletic director and president who are supporting us and we’re working on getting the word out and our football program more known.”
I asked Coach Stewart about Georgia, and if there’s anything in particular that has stood out to him on film while scouting the Dawgs... “They’re big and faaaaassssttt. It’s one thing to be big and sloppy... It’s another thing to be big and long and rangy. ‘Backers are big but they can run. These offensive linemen are monsters. I think Vanderbilt is a great team, and I have a great respect for what Coach Mason has done there. Their O-line (Georgia’s) just engulfed them (Vanderbilt) last week and they’re a SEC team. 71 (Andrew Thomas) could be a number one pick. I mean number one overall. Plus these guys are coached up. They’re Coached up hard. Defense is sound... they’re gap sound. They don’t hurt themselves. That’s the reason why they’re the number 3 team in the country... It’s a tricky deal. One thing to play a FBS opponent, different playing a national contender. I mean like a legit, Top-5, going to see them in the College Football Playoff (type of) team. Kirby Smart has done an incredible job.”
Saturday won’t be Stewart or the Racers’ first experience playing a Power-5 FBS opponent. In years past they’ve plated Kentucky, Louisville, Missouri, Illinois and Florida State, among other FBS teams. According to Stewart, games like the one against Georgia, and the money they bring in, are crucial to making their programs work. I asked him what it’s like to go up against Power-5 schools, and if these games can pay off down the road for Murray State once they get into conference play in the Ohio Valley Conference... “We played Kentucky last year and (eventual #7 overall draft pick) Josh Allen ran by me during warmups. I thought I hope the rest of them don’t look like that, but the rest of them came out and they did. We played FSU in 2012 when I was an assistant here and their QB depth chart had (future WVU starter) Clint Trickett, (future Alabama starter and national champion) Jacob Coker, (future first-round NFL draft pick) EJ Manuel and (future Heisman Trophy winner, national champion and #1 overall NFL draft pick) Jameis Winston... It’s a tricky thing. It can pay off in OVC play and give the team confidence if we execute at a high level, but you gotta be sure you don’t get beat up too bad in games like this so we have our guys when it matters. At the same time, there’s no moral victories, and we’re going down there (Athens) on a mission.”
I asked if the Racers have done anything different from their usual preparation before going to play Georgia in Athens... “It’s our normal prep for a game in terms of our schedule, we never change that. We are sure to work certain things like silent counts. We try to speed things up as much as we can for our guys. You come out, and that first series feels like you stuck your head in a hornet’s nest.”
So how has Mitch Stewart prepared his players for their moment on the big stage? Does he use his players’ former FBS aspirations to fuel them on Saturday? “Look, that ($500,000) check has already cashed. There’s no turning back. Once we run on the field that door is going to lock and for 30 minutes you’re out there. The only thing to do is fight your brains off. Here’s your chance men. Now is your chance to show them they missed out on you... It’s a very cool dynamic. Big game for our guys. Getting our logo on ESPN is big for us. It’s a chance for our players’ people to see them on TV. It’s a big-time stage. Look, there’s no moral victories, and we’re going down there (Athens) on a mission with a job to do.”
Stewart’s parents still live in the Atlanta area. I asked him what it’s like to be heading back to his home state to play against Georgia... “I’ve got all these people from Georgia I haven’t talked to in a long time who want tickets, but they’re Georgia fans. My brother wants tickets. I asked him ‘what color t-shirts are y’all going to be wearing?’He said, ‘blue,’ but I think they might wear blue ones into the game and then take them off and have red ones on under them. My nephew is so brainwashed for Georgia that I don’t think they could get him in anything other than red at this point.”
Despite where he grew up, Stewart challenged the notion of Georgia being home... “All week long people have been saying ‘oh, you must be excited to be going home.’ This is home. I’ve been here for 10 years. My girls were born here. When I first took the job as an assistant this was as far north as I’d been. I park at the stadium and look across the street and the sign at the bank says “9 degrees.” Mrs. Tamra, she’s our administrative assistant and kinda my Mom away from home in a lot of ways is sitting there and I say, ‘Mrs. Tamra is it usually this cold?’ She told me it snows sometimes and we still get excited about it so it isn’t the norm, but she looks at me and says, ‘Regardless of the cold, everyone that’s worked here has never wanted to leave.’ I’m young and at the time I’m thinking I’ll do this for a year or two and then keep going and leave for something bigger, but I’ve been incredibly lucky here to get great opportunities and this is home. Kids eat for free in the park, there’s the farmer’s market downtown. We were voted friendliest small-town in America by USA Today, and my parents love coming up here because of the news. It’s stuff about a quilting club meeting and things like that- it’s so simple and happy compared to what they see on the news in Atlanta. It’s a great place to live and work, and we’re trying to change this football program and grow it into something people know.”
If you’re reading this you’re probably not going to be cheering for Mitch Stewart’s team on Saturday. But it’s hard not to root in general for someone as infectiously enthusiastic and candid. Let’s just hope the Racers win every game except the one they play in Athens, okay?