Garry McPeek cut himself off.
Thinking back over one of the most thrilling and meaningful victories in recent memory for Eastern Kentucky, its acting head coach was spreading around credit to every corner of the Colonels, because that’s what experienced and media-savvy coaches do.
McPeek referenced the effort and mettle shown by Eastern Kentucky’s “kids” a couple of times, then thought better of it.
“I keep saying ‘kids’ — I think I’m in high school,” McPeek deadpanned.
It was an understandable slip of the tongue. High school is, after all, where the Russell alumnus has spent the bulk of his coaching career.
So leading Eastern Kentucky to a 59-57 win on Saturday at Bowling Green in seven overtimes was a pleasant and unexpected moment in the sun.
Never mind the historicity of the game – tied for the second-longest-ever in Division I, on the road to a school in a higher echelon, and with the victors’ coach kept off the sidelines by illness.
McPeek could be forgiven for relishing the moment and all that came with it, because he doesn’t know if he will have another one, at least in a leading role. Coach Walt Wells is set to return to the sideline today from the cardiac episode five days before Eastern Kentucky’s season opener that sent him to the hospital and McPeek into the temporary skipper’s role.
That’s OK with McPeek, who didn’t anticipate being the “designated survivor” of the Colonels coaching staff when he was hired as the assistant director of football operations in February 2021 and at age 55 is almost certainly on the back side of his coaching career.
“Being an old offensive lineman, you stay in the shadows, and when you’re called upon, do your job,” McPeek said. “It did feel good to be back in the thrill of things. I’ll be more than happy to go back. I’m just glad to be a small part of this program.”
McPeek has been a large part of other programs over the course of a 30-plus-year career, but until now none so high as the second-highest level of college football.
Instead, he’s adeptly led high school teams across northeastern Kentucky and assisted others, here and beyond, as well as minor-league area clubs.
That experience proved more relevant than he might have thought in Eastern Kentucky’s sudden moment of need. McPeek, whose title under normal circumstances is Wells’s chief of staff, was a good fit as the Colonels’ acting head coach because of his experience leading programs, Wells said, especially when it became apparent he would return and widespread staff juggling would be unnecessary.
“Garry’s the guy that can go in front of the team; Garry’s the guy that can do all these things,” Wells said. “It was an easy choice for me, it was an easy choice for (athletic director) Matt (Roan), and that’s no disrespect to anybody else. It’s just what was needed at the time.
“(McPeek) did a great job for us, and we’ll always be thankful for that.”
The Colonels faced execute-or-lose plays six times in the final moments and overtime on Saturday, McPeek said, and converted all of them.
Eastern Kentucky led 31-17 after scoring on its first possession of the second half before the Falcons reeled off 21 straight points of their own to take their first lead of the second half with 3:39 to play.
But Wells has instilled “a culture and a character” in which the Colonels metaphorically “put a cover over the scoreboard and just keep playing,” McPeek said. “To me, that always overcomes everything else.”
It did Saturday in what Eastern Kentucky hopes was a momentum-building victory, and it got McPeek’s career college coaching record back to .500 — at 1-1 — with Wells stepping back onto the sideline.
McPeek’s most recent northeastern Kentucky coaching and administrative role at Fairview ended in 2013 amidst controversy well-documented by this newspaper and beyond.
Asked and answered, though, that chapter of McPeek’s career. Life goes on, and McPeek has moved on, and his last eight years have held essentially just good moments, he said.
During that time, McPeek has been an assistant coach in three KHSAA state championship games at Lafayette and Frederick Douglass, and he coached on a Valdosta (Georgia) team featured in Netflix documentary “Titletown High,” in which he can be spotted schooling the Wildcats’ offensive line.
McPeek also added the birth of his grandsons, Macklee and Mason, to that outpouring of positivity.
“Life since 2015 has been a Disney movie for me,” McPeek said,
Complete, now, with the big win, the dramatic circumstances and the wild ending.