By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
To the average viewer, Saturday’s Heisman ceremony on ESPN was nothing more than the naming of this season’s most outstanding college football player.
To locals, however, the presentation was chocked full of Cullman connections, from a special shout-out in Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston’s acceptance speech to the coaching ties of runner-up and decorated Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron.
Shortly after taking to the podium, Winston thanked God. Then each of his parents. And then Matt Scott, the Cullman native who coached the country’s No. 1 player for three seasons (2009-11) in high school.
“And I trusted in the process when coach Scott back in Hueytown, Ala., had came in and took over the program and told me he was going to make me the best quarterback in the nation, after I was running a Wing-T offense my whole life,” the redshirt freshman said onstage with one of his signature smiles.
Scott was the offensive coordinator at Spain Park for three seasons prior to joining Winston and the Golden Gophers. But before that, he spent 15 years as an assistant football coach at Cullman High, his alma mater. During the lengthy stretch, Scott sprinkled in offensive coordinating duties for five seasons and led the Bearcats’ softball team to back-to-back state championships (1997-98).
Just last month, the offensive innovator wrapped up his first season as the head football coach at Class 6A Gadsden City with a 5-6 record and first-round playoff appearance.
From the minute he took over at Hueytown, Scott knew he had a special player on his hands. He made sure most of his friends were aware of it, too, letting them know he held the Golden Gophers’ fall camps in Cullman each year.
For just a few days every offseason, there was the future Heisman Trophy winner, honing his skills at the youth league fields at West Elementary — and for the most part, no one had a clue.
“I used to tell people all the time when I was in Cullman, ‘You better come watch this guy because he’s going to be Famous Jameis one day.’” Scott said in a phone interview with The Times early Monday evening. “It’s obviously on a much larger scale, but it was a wild ride from Day 1 with him just because he’s such a phenomenal baseball and football player. It was a full-time job just to manage his recruiting alone.”
After strongly considering sticking in-state and signing with Alabama, Winston ultimately chose Florida State because of its coaches’ comfortability with him continuing to play two sports at the college level.
The Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences weren’t the only ones vying for the versatile athlete’s services, though. According to Scott, there was at least one Pac-12 institution that would’ve been more than happy to sign the elite prospect.
“Everybody knows about his athletic skills, but what a lot of people don’t know is he’s a 4.0 GPA guy. He was actually accepted to Stanford,” the coach said of Winston. “I don’t know if he was ever really, really serious about going there, but he did take an official visit. It’s a major undertaking just to do what you’ve got to do to be accepted there.”
Often lost in the shuffle of Winston’s success on the gridiron is just how talented he is on the diamond, too. Much like Auburn great Bo Jackson and former Seminoles’ star Deion Sanders, Winston has said he’d like to play both football and baseball professionally.
Knowing the superstar like he does, Scott doesn’t doubt for a second Winston will wind up pulling off the feat.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a guy that’s tried to play quarterback in the NFL and play baseball,” the former Bearcat said. “But I’d be a little surprised if he doesn’t try (chuckles). If the team he goes to will let him do it.”
Crazily enough, some of Scott’s time with his hometown team was served under none other than Mike Bates, who was the Black and Gold’s head coach from 1993-2000.
As fate would have it, Bates eventually made his way to St. Paul’s for a two-year stint, leading the Saints to the 5A state title in 2007. The catalyst on that championship squad just so happened to be McCarron, who cleaned house this week with the Maxwell Award, Unitas Golden Arm Award and second-place honors for the Heisman Trophy.
Bates, who’s currently ruling the roost at Holly Pond, could hardly fathom Winston and McCarron were both up for the greatest prize in college football, much less that he and Scott had links to each. He told his wife just how uncanny of an experience it was while tuning into the broadcast Saturday night.
“We were watching, and I said, ‘Son of a gun, Matt’s guy won it.’ She said, ‘But your guy won a national championship,’” Bates recalled of the light-hearted exchange. “What are the odds of us having that connection with those two guys. That might never happen again. It was pretty cool.”
It’s been quite some time since the two battled side by side on Friday nights, but Bates hasn’t forgotten just how valuable Scott was to his staff.
“He’s a great guy and a fantastic football coach. Very knowledgeable. Very meticulous,” Bates said. “He was as good of an assistant as you could ever hope to have, and he’s turned into a heckuva head coach, too.”
No matter the level of respect he has for Scott, Bates joked he hopes Auburn denies “his guy” — Winston — the national championship on Jan. 6 because “my guy” — McCarron — has a pair of rings as a starter and a third counting the freshman season he spent behind Greg McElroy.
“I don’t want to give that one up,” Bates said with a chuckle before raving about his former star behind center. “AJ was just a pleasure to coach and so much fun to be around. He’s hard-working, just made every throw, but he might’ve been a better kid than he was a quarterback.”
McCarron’s off-field endeavors were spotlighted by multiple prominent media outlets in the days leading up to the Heisman presentation. CNN ran a piece on a special relationship the signal-caller shares with a friend and fan with cerebal palsy, while ESPN aired a segment about a bond McCarron built with a young girl battling acute myeloid leukemia.
Bates wasn’t the least bit surprised to see either story. He said the quarterback’s “always been really good with kids” and offered a tale from St. Paul’s trip to the semifinals as proof.
Bates was set to start a team meeting but had to take off on a short search when McCarron was nowhere to be found. Lo and behold, the fun-loving standout was eventually spotted playing a small game of football with the children of some of the parents who had helped house the Saints.
“He was quarterbacking both sides,” Bates said with a laugh. “He was just a great kid. A fine young man, too.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.