(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Sports)
College football may be a place notorious for its control freak coaches, but imagine a world where in addition to making all the big decisions, a head coach had to literally make every single decision in regards to his program.
Doesn’t sound so fun, does it? Only for University of South Alabama head coach Joey Jones, that is exactly what the job description entailed when he accepted the gig in 2007. For Jones, there was no blueprint for success to follow in Mobile, mainly because there was no blueprint at all. Jones was hired as the school’s first head coach six years ago, meaning that he had the enviable, yet incredibly challenging task of starting a Division I football program from scratch.
That also meant in addition to recruiting players and hiring a coaching staff, Jones also had to deal with all the ancillary responsibilities that Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or Les Miles could never imagine. You know, like ordering the school’s business cards and helping design the team’s workout facilities.
Even for a football-lifer like Jones- who played for Bear Bryant at Alabama, before successful head coaching stints at the high school level and at Division III Birmingham Southern (where, ironically, he started that program from scratch too) – it was exhausting.
“Truly every decision in that football program came across my table,” Jones told Crystal Ball Run. “It was overwhelming at times. Not any of those things individually, but that they were all happening at the same time. It was hard to manage, but it worked out really well.”
For South Alabama, the decision to play FBS football had been nearly a decade in the making before it ever tabbed Jones as its first head coach. The university had done feasibility studies in 1999, before scratching the plan at the time, and eventually returning to them just a few years later. Jones came on board in 2007 with full support from the university, and two falls later, the school fielded its first team in 2009. Now, four years after that, they're getting set to make a full-time move to the Sun Belt in their first season as a full-fledged FBS football program. No school has ever made the move from “non-existent” to the highest level of college football faster.
Along the way there have been a number of steps for Jones, starting with, you know, actually convincing players to come to the school. Things weren’t necessarily easy for South Alabama at the beginning, mainly because they were competing with schools that could offer the opportunity to play in bowl games and for conference titles right away.
But in addition to the opportunity to make history at South Alabama, Jones did have one trump card that virtually no other school could offer: Immediate playing time. For any recruit who came to South Alabama, it wasn’t hard to move up the depth chart, mainly because a depth chart didn’t exist.
“That was one of the things we sold, playing time,” Jones said with a laugh. “There were no seniors, no juniors, sophomores that you had to beat out. If you come in, you’re gonna play.”
And apparently the pitch worked, since despite their youth, South Alabama found immediate success once they took the field.
The Jaguars competed as a “non-classified” program in 2009 (non-classified essentially means that you’re not allowed to play an NCAA programs, including FBS, FCS or Division II) and went 6-0, before following it up with a 10-0 mark against a schedule comprised mostly of FCS and Division II schools a year later. It took until 2011 before South Alabama suffered its first loss, but even that season’s 6-4 record was impressive in its own right. The Jaguars played a schedule almost exclusively comprised of FCS programs, and hung tough with they went up against much bigger and more established FBS programs. Specifically, there was a 35-13 loss at NC State (a club which finished that season 8-5 and won the Belk Bowl), not to mention a 33-25 loss a week later at Kent State.
Last season the Jaguars continued their ascent to FBS football with a 2-10 mark overall. On paper the win-loss record was disappointing, but looking at it in the big-picture gave fans signs for hope. For one, South Alabama played a full-scale Sun Belt schedule, despite not actually being a full-fledged FBS program. And there, they played virtually team on their schedule tough, with four losses by eight points or less. The school also notched its first victory over an FBS opponent, with a 37-34 double-overtime victory over Florida Atlantic.
“I was very proud of our guys,” Jones said. “We played Arkansas State who won the league, and they beat us by seven points. We played Middle Tennessee who finished (tied for) second in the league and they beat us by eight points. FIU, who was the champion the year before beat us by eight points. And we beat FAU.”
Football is a game of inches, and Jones knows just how close his club was to having a truly spectacular season.
“We were about 10 plays from having a miracle season,” he said.
Now entering 2013 with official FBS status, Jones sees no reason that miracle become a reality. With upwards of eight seniors starting on their defense, that unit will be a strong suit at South Alabama, and with a number of playmakers at receiver and running back, the Jaguars should improve on their 18 point per game average on offense as well. Most importantly, Jones brought in a number of junior college transfers this off-season with hopes of bolstering his depth. It was a move that he had never made before, but something he felt comfortable doing, thanks to the overall development of his program in other places.
Add it all up, and there is optimism around the South Alabama football program that the program has never seen before.
“To be honest with you, at times I felt like we were playing with three bullets in the gun and they had six bullets this past year,” Jones said.” We had to do everything perfect. We had to make every play. “My challenge to them this off-season was that ‘if we take care of ourselves good things will happen. That’s what we have to do to have a successful season in the Sun Belt.”
Successful in the Sun Belt?
That was an idea that was laughable as recently as just six or seven years ago.
But at South Alabama, it’s the new reality.
College football’s newest program is set to take the sport by storm in 2013.
For all his insight, analysis and opinion on college football, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.
Follow Crystal Ball Run on Twitter @CrystalBallRun.