Editor's note: Steve Flairty's column first appeared in Lexington's KyForward.com.
No one should ever question David Armstrong (pictured with his family), former Western Kentucky Hilltopper quarterback, UK coaching staff member, and now a football recruiting scout’s willingness to pay his dues—and to be patient–in order to find eventual lasting success.
That practice started as a youngster growing up in his Brentwood neighborhood in Nashville, where David’s buddies were star-quality athletes who had a competitive nature, like him. He was no slouch in ability, either, but he understood that he could learn from others with more knowledge or talent.
“My best friend, Clay Whitehurst, got a scholarship to play at Alabama,” he said. “Right across the street from him was a guy who got a scholarship to Georgia, Jimmy Hockaday. My brother went to the Naval Academy and finished up at East Tennessee State as a quarterback.”
Competition brought out the best in them. “That’s how we got good at it,” Armstrong added.
He also was the son of a college football player and coach. His father played at Memphis State and coached for 12 years at Arkansas State, Southern Mississippi and Vanderbilt. David learned that mobility is often a necessary part of advancing a career, a practice he demonstrated later in his professional initiatives.
He became an all-state quarterback at Brentwood and was also recognized as a third-string mid-state basketball player. There was interest from colleges for his football services, though not overwhelming. He went on an official visit to the University of Cincinnati, a Division I school, but was not offered a scholarship.
“I didn’t quite have the height (only six feet) they wanted,” he said.
He also garnered a look from Vanderbilt, along with Division 1-A schools such as Middle Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech. When the smoke cleared, he landed on scholarship not far away from Nashville in the town of Bowling Green, at Western Kentucky, and it proved to be a wonderful experience for him.
“I loved WKU,” he said. “I developed lifetime friendships on the football team and was in a fraternity my last two years. My last two years there the team started coming back after it had been down for a while.”
But oh, that thing about paying dues and being patient.
“I red-shirted my freshman year and ended up being at Western for five years,” he explained. He had the challenge of playing behind an outstanding quarterback, Jeff Cesarone, and so he saw limited action until his senior year after Cesarone graduated, during the 1988 season.
He started that year—as a left-handed quarterback–and led the Hilltoppers to a 9-4 record and a spot in the Division 1-AA playoffs, where they were defeated by Eastern Kentucky.
David reflected on that year he was WKU’s starting quarterback.
“My strength was leadership,” he said. “We had an all-time leading running back, Joe Arnold, and we had three guys who went on to be in the WKU Football Hall of Fame.”
Being behind Cesarone for a few years and playing under Coach Dave Roberts, he knew the offense well, and he knew his role. “I was a ‘game manager,’ and I just tried not to screw it up,” he noted with a grin.
Recalling those days when David was his quarterback, Coach Roberts talked about the kind of person he mentored.
“From the time Dave got there, he had such a strong work ethic and he led the team,” he said. “Anyone can lead when they are playing, but he was a tremendous leader even when he wasn’t playing. When we got there (at WKU), it was bleak. He got Western off the mat. When we left, there were people in the stands and we had upgraded facilities.”
Despite his successful senior year, a serious opportunity to play professional football after college was not available, and when David was offered a graduate assistant position on Roberts’ staff at his new coaching job at Northeast Louisiana, he happily grabbed it.
Like his father, he would now be a coach, though his mother, Libby Armstrong, preferred otherwise. She knew first-hand about the frequent moving and relatively low pay of the profession.
“She wanted me to major in business in college (rather than his chosen mass communications) so I could make some money,” he said, grinning.
He worked for two years (1989-90) with the quarterbacks at Northeast Louisiana, and the starter was Doug Pederson. Yes, the one who now is the head football coach of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and formerly backed up Bret Favre at Green Bay. David’s knowledge of the offense of Coach Roberts, gained from playing at WKU, proved invaluable.
“I would even tutor some of the coaches on the staff,” he said. The team was successful, and his coaching experience at Northeast ignited him onto a path of coaching, recruiting, scouting, and working as an administrator for now over two decades.
He joined the Austin Peay football staff in 1991, starting as a graduate assistant then hired as a regular staff member. Among other duties, he became the quarterback coach and recruiting coordinator. He is proud of the fact that a fund-raiser he started to help the football program is still going strong after a couple of decades—a bass tournament held on the Kentucky Lake that involves over a hundred boats.
When Peay’s head coach and his staff were replaced after the ’96 season, he spent the next year as an assistant football coach and teacher at Bainbridge High School, Georgia. The switch to high school level that year was a full and varied one.
“I coordinated all responsibilities on the offensive side of the ball, formulated the game plan, organized a bass tournament fund raiser, taught a freshman health class and was head coach of the girls’ soccer team,” he noted.
Working at a high school between college gigs showed that David Armstrong was willing to do what it took in order to move forward. As noted, he’s a guy who pays his dues.
From the short interim in the Georgia high school, he returned in ’98 to college work, taking a defensive coordinator and recruiting position at Greenville College, in Illinois, for a year.
“I had never in my life coached defense, but our team had 22 takeaways that year,” he said.
Like a pigskin nomad, David was off the next year to another stop, this one in South Carolina, and at a place sounding like the previous one. North Greenville University hired him as their offensive coordinator and a recruiter, along with duties such as maintaining the playing field and overseeing player academics. He also had fund-raising duties. In 1999, the team he coached played in its first ever bowl game, the KWTO Bowl.
It was on to Copiah-Lincoln Community College, in Wesson, Mississippi, next where he coached offense, was the recruiting coordinator and signed future NFL player Tim Dobbins. He then spent three years in Alabama at Samford University and coached Cortland Finnegan, who also later played in the NFL.
He moved from there to become head coach at Louisiana College, but was swept out after that year when, said David, “a new president who wanted his own people came in.” He was let go despite overseeing an offense that averaged 512 yards per game, second in the nation among all college football divisions.
Undaunted, he landed next at East Mississippi Community College as an offensive assistant and coached future Super Bowl running back Lagarrette Blount.
Hinds College, in Mississippi, beckoned and he continued a very busy schedule, having similar duties as in the other locations. He stayed almost three years at Hinds and liked the school. But by now, his 1991 marriage had ended in divorce and he had custody of three young boys: Jackson, Andrew, and Isaac (who now are 21, 18, and 15 respectively).
It was a difficult, stressful time in his life, with “super dad” duties on his back. He often picked his boys up at school and brought them to the football field. He was paying his dues as a father, as well as his work.
“I went through a pivotal time,” he said. “I had kind of gotten burned out by all the moving.”
He had been on the football treadmill for over 20 years, was raising his kids, and so he decided to get out of the coaching part of it. At first, he said, “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
But remembering his mother’s advice years before to pursue a business career, the dues payer guy decided to do that very thing.
“I started a business called Southeastscout.com,” he said. He was well aware, as a college coach, of the need to gather critical information about player recruiting. It needed to be concise, on the mark information, and it needed to help make good use of a recruiter’s limited resources and time. He had the experience to understand those needs.
Rather than doing much of the scouting in person of hundreds of prospects by him and a small staff, he gathered DVDs from high school and junior college coaches, a win-win situation for both David and his business, plus it gave exposure to a school’s players. He started working Mississippi; then he expanded the outreach of his small company.
“I had equipment in my truck that I could burn the DVDs, and I’d prepare reports and sell package deals to colleges,” he said. “My first client was Marshall, and the next three were Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Southern Mississippi.”
Buoyed by his success with his business, he figured he’d stick to that for a long while. But seemingly out of the blue, he received a surprise phone call from head UK football coach Joker Phillips, who was starting his second year there.
“I was putting gas in my car down in Ruston, Louisiana, and received the call,” David recalled. “We talked 15-20 minutes and he told me he had a job opening and to come up and see him if interested.”
In 2011, he accepted the position of Director of Recruiting Administration on the UK staff. Though the opportunity afforded him greater exposure and the excitement of SEC caliber football, the year proved difficult for Phillips and the UK program, along with David. The team finished 5-7, and in August, 2012, David resigned before the start of the 2012 season.
And though the team wasn’t winning consistently and there was some involvement of the staff, including him, with what were self-reported by the school as “secondary recruiting violations,” that had no bearing on his leaving, he insists. With the myriad of NCAA regulations, he asserted, misunderstandings develop frequently—even when the intention is to comply by the rules.
“I believe I was able to move the program along with some changes I made. It was a positive experience for me at UK, and I thank Coach Phillips for allowing me to be there. I just had a great opportunity come along to go elsewhere later, and I decided to take it,” he said.
The opportunity turned out to be joining another football recruiting service, Collegiate Sports Data (collegiatesportsdata.com), a respected business directed fully by women, according to the Web site. He’s still there today. He’s enjoyed his work with the company since leaving UK, and according to his former coach Roberts, he’s gained quite a good name for his work there and previously.
“He’s a rock star in the recruiting business,” said Roberts. “People know he can find those prospects out there that others miss. He’s done very well.”
David explained what he does with CSD, and it appears to be a passionate endeavor.
“I help colleges find players,” he said. “We put together massive data bases over all 50 states. I’m gratified by helping kids get opportunities that maybe wouldn’t have gotten a look, and I like helping coaches find players. I have been blessed a lot over the years for all my experiences I had.”
He would consider a return to college coaching only if it was “a great offer.” That’s because he is very happy where he is at this stage of his life—both with his career and family life. Moving on from UK—a place he speaks highly of for his opportunity and the people he met there–may have been a huge blessing for the persevering father of three boys, two stepchildren, Tanner, 23, and Haley, 20, and his wife, Wilma. David married her in 2014 and speaks of with great adoration and respect. They are both devout church members.
For sure, the college football world can certainly bring on challenges, but for former Hilltopper David Armstrong, he’s happy with the recent success on the football field of his alma mater, which–after a long and difficult growing process–has made a successful transition to D-I football; he’s happy with his own life these days, too. And why shouldn’t that be true…and in both situations?
After all, it’s just a simple matter of paying one’s dues.
Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.”