Swarco Raider HC Kevin Herron eager to end long wait for Austrian head coaching debut

When the Swarco Raiders announced the promotion of defensive coordinator Kevin Herron to the role of head coach in December of 2019, it was one of the most intriguing European coaching hires of what was supposed to be the 2020 season.

Taking over for one of the most highly regarded coaches on the continent in Shuan Fatah, Herron inherited a team that had won back-to-back Austrian championships and three straight Central European Football League titles. It was expected to be a smooth transition and Herron was eager to build his own legacy, but the year since he took the job has been anything but easy.

“It’s been challenging in terms of organization and in terms of patience,” Herron admits. “I mean, I took over the job thinking let’s try to keep everything very similar and just put a little bit of my spice on it. Then three days before the kickoff of the first game, it’s postponed indefinitely and then canceled.”

The COVID-19 pandemic was a variable that no one in Europe could have predicted and Herron has yet to take the field on gameday in his new role, but the Raiders may have unknowingly hired the perfect man to guide them through a year of isolation. While other organizations with old school leadership struggled to adjust to the technological demands of communicating with players and staff, Herron was already an expert with the software.

“My background is I was a software developer for 20 years before I went full time into this football job,” Herron says with a smile. “I could utilize my expertise in that field to kind of set up the whole digitalization of the coaches’ office, front office and the club.”

Photo: © Bernhard Hortnagel

Those tools were used to great advantage over the past 14 months. The Raiders did everything from video workouts together to socially distanced practices to keep themselves engaged in 2020 before eventually returning to relative normalcy, but they didn’t play games.

While the Dacia Vienna Vikings and Graz Giants battled it out for the Austrian championship in a five-game series last year, the pre-season favorites to three-peat as national champions sat at home. Not playing was a devastating decision for all involved, but one Herron left up to his player’s council.

“There was still so much uncertainty about what was actually going to happen. A lot of players said if we have to do this because the club needs this financially then we’ll go out and play, but we’d rather not. The board also thought it wasn’t very responsible while everybody’s in lockdown for us to go out and actually play in that situation. Both of those opinions came together and we decided not to do the fall season,” Herron explains.

“What was a big factor for me was that young guys that needed the season to prove themselves were also insecure. Normally, they’re really hungry and say ‘who cares? I wanna play, I wanna prove myself’ but  even they were kind of  unsure.”

Going into off-season conditioning without ever playing a game was not what Herron expected when he signed on to be head coach of the Raiders, but the whole organization has made the best of it.

“It’s been a challenge but it gave myself and the staff time to grow together,” Herron says. “Although, the staff from last year to this year has changed again, it gave us time to do a couple of projects within the club that we wouldn’t have had time for until the offseason.”

They’ve honed their skills as coaches and hit the recruiting trail hard. While the Raiders have the same high expectations as ever, the team in Tirol is almost unrecognizable thanks to an influx of young talent.

“It’s a completely transformed team. I mean, I had two former players from 2019 who’ve since retired come by training camp and they’re like ‘who are these guys? I don’t even recognize anybody anymore’,” Herron says.

Kevin Herron attending Oakland Raiders training camp in 2013

Now practicing full steam ahead with rigorous testing protocols and mask policies in place, the challenge is getting those new player up to speed after a year without action. The Raiders will have some extra time to do that following the cancelation of their season opener, but everything won’t truly slide into place until they get a real opponent across from them.

“I’m putting the guys in a lot of stress situations so we can kind of simulate what a game day would look like, but of course you can’t really simulate that until the true bullets are flying,” Herron acknowledges. “There’s going to be some rust in the beginning.”

Rusty football is better than no football however and Herron is grateful that his wait to take the field will finally be over when the Austrian season begins. Others, he knows, will not be so lucky.

“We’re just very fortunate. You hear France canceled their season and the Swiss postponed their league and, you know, the stability that Sport Austria was able to give us by giving us more or less that pro status so that we’re able to practice was so important,” he stresses.

“Just to have a little bit more security and to be able to plan ahead, because that was the thing with the pandemic, you could only plan like a week or two ahead because then everything changed again. That gave us a little bit more stability and I feel very fortunate for that and that we are having a season.”

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.