Don’t play poker with Shaun Hayes.

That was the main take away from the USA South Athletic Conference’s football media luncheon on Monday.

Maryville College’s head football coach masterfully portrayed the bit part of the youngest guy seated at the head table. He used note cards where most of his colleagues were speaking off the cuff. He hit that second-year as a head coach reference with just the right emphasis to seem innocent and followed it up with a reference to how few players remain from the championship seasons just prior to his elevation. He was suited up with a freshly shaved scalp and crisp tie reflecting MC’s orange and garnet colors in muted tones.

It was almost enough to make the audience forget that there was a reason the Scot skipper was the next to last speaker in the procession of the league’s head coaches.

In the reverse pecking order the USAC utilizes, the conference’s preseason poll results are revealed by the order the coaches take the microphone on media day. Greensboro’s Greg Crum got his first taste of conference life, as the Pride’s new head coach led off the procession. Only Huntingdon College’s Mike Turk had a longer wait to address the crowd than Hayes.

That provided the coup de gras touch to the act. The contrast of the young man to Turk, the veteran gentleman — and depending on how one figures these things, the dean of the conference coaches — speaking with a little more detail about his squad that’s returning 13 starters, nine of them all-conference picks who helped the Hawks win their first ever NCAA playoff game eight months ago, left the lasting attention on Huntingdon as defending champions and Maryville as just a contender.

Which is exactly the place for a program that thrives on and relishes its role as underdog like no other.

Hayes admitted his Scots were hungry, admitted they have less than 20 men on campus wearing USA South football championship rings between the staff and players from the back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. He brought up how thin the edge from last year’s 8-2 mark was to being 4-6.

He glazed over how close that margin was to 10-0. Didn’t even offer up an eye tick give away or crease of a smile when asked about replacing a four-year, record-setting starter at quarterback, knowing that heir apparent Nick Myers has more clutch game experience than some returning starters in the league and a career marked by a similar situation where he just directed Maryville High to another state crown when he finally got handed the reigns. Didn’t even mention that Maryville College returns 14 starters of its own, which doesn’t count Myers or 1,000 yard rusher and all-conference running back Trenton Shuler who missed eight games last season.

He focused on his message of building a team that is player led, and how the staff has been pleased to see their players building those leadership skills off the field. He emphasized his mantra of being a team that doesn’t beat itself and how much of that burden falls on him and his staff.

Valid points that spoken of as genuinely heartfelt as they are to Hayes make you listen.

But give away nothing.

No material for a bulletin board. No clue as to who the coaching staff expects to return, no hint at who may be favored to earn a starting spot when camp opens in two weeks and Hayes continues the every-spot-is-up-for-grabs approach. No mention of the size of the recruiting class coming in or some of the potential gems that a casual perusal might notice.

It was on par with the masters of the mind game. Lou Holtz, who never fielded a team that stood a chance of being in spitting distance of an opponent by halftime. Steve Spurrier, who would rather teams be too mad to play well against his Gators, and laid those hooks in slow and deep starting with some well-placed media day barbs.

It was a skill Hayes has made himself master like everything else; working hard to work smart to learn all he could. Despite his youth, he has more experience in the USA South — combined as MC player, assistant and head coach — than any other coach at the table on Monday. He’s been attending this media day for more than a decade in one form or another and never displayed that wealth of experience outright, just used it all to his advantage with some misdirection so smooth it wasn’t even noticed.

The maxim goes, it isn’t what you don’t know that gets you, it’s what you think you know that isn’t so.

The chief of the Scots walked to the podium with the equivalent of a claymore ready to draw over his shoulder, a targe on his arm, a dirk in his belt and a sgian-dubh in each sock, and yet left the impression by omission that he was confident but still in search of weapons when camp opens.

Hayes wasn’t bluffing Monday, merely providing misdirection to the fact he’s got a couple of aces and his team is all in. Best not take him up on any offers for a friendly game of poker.

Email to contact Marcus Fitzsimmons.

An East Tennessee newshound since 1990, minus a few years spent working the road race circuit in D.C. , Marcus has been a reporter, copy editor and sports editor, and is now a production manager of APG's Design Hub located at The Daily Times.

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