As Clark's opener nears, he follows a trail of first-game struggles by previous JSU head coaches
by Al Muskewitz
Aug 28, 2013 | 2530 views |  0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bill Clark will make his debut as Jacksonville State's head coach Saturday. (Photo by Steve Latham/Jacksonville State University)
Bill Clark will make his debut as Jacksonville State's head coach Saturday. (Photo by Steve Latham/Jacksonville State University)
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Bill Clark has worked all of his professional life to get to the place he is today. All the meetings and all the games, the practices, the wins, the high school championships, the college apprenticeships, they've all led to this seminal moment — his first game as Jacksonville State's football coach and his first game as a Division I head coach.

There's only one first time, and there's only two ways it can turn out Saturday at Alabama State — you win or you lose.

After all that's gone into it, he would like to start off with a W. It won't be the end all if he doesn't, but it would be nice way to start.

"It goes back to how you're wired," Clark said. "There are guys out there who say it's not important to win, what's important is the process. I agree with that — the process allows you to win — but ultimately we get judged on those wins and losses.

"I'm wired to — since the day we got here — to get everything ready to win. We're going to be one-at-a-time, but that's our ultimate goal — to win. I can't do it any other way than put everything we've got into it to win."

All the JSU coaches who preceded him wanted to win that first game, too, but truth is, not many of them have. Only three of the previous 23 did. If Clark doesn't win his debut — and he is realistic in considering, the opponent — his most immediate predecessor said it shouldn't be taken as a sign he won't be effective in the long run.

In fact, some of the longest-tenured and most successful head coaches in Jacksonville State football history didn't win the first game they coached at the school.

Jack Crowe didn't. Don Salls didn't, and he became the longest tenured and winningest coach in school history. Bill Burgess, who coached the only national championship the Gamecocks ever won in football, didn't.

"I think you'll find guys who had a long legacy probably lost that first game because they came into situations that were really down and they had to build them up," Crowe said. "I don’t think win or lose either way will say anything about Bill Clark's future. Bill is going to be successful whether he wins that first game or not. The season will bear out the reality whatever happens in that Alabama State game."

The only three previous head football coaches since 1904 to win their first JSU game are Jim Fuller, Charley Pell and J.W. Stephenson.

Fuller beat Western Carolina 21-16 in 1977, while Pell beat Samford 20-10 in 1969, and Stephenson beat Centre 35-0 in 1920. The others are a combined 0-17-3.

Since Fuller's debut win, Joe Hollis and Burgess both tied their first games, while Mike Williams lost a 47-42 shootout to Southwest Missouri in 1997. Jeff Richards lost to Sam Houston 51-17 five days after replacing Williams in the middle of the 1999 season, and Crowe lost to South Florida 40-0 in 2000.

"First games are tough," Crowe said. "It will be very difficult with everything that's new to truly be as good as they can be by the first game. I don't care how many players you have, how good a coach you are, there are things that have to be learned in a game. It'll get done, but that first one is tough."

Crowe remembers his first game with the Gamecocks in 2000 being a "serious mismatch" with a South Florida team about to enter the national conversation.

He had been a head coach before — at Livingston and Arkansas — so he wasn't much concerned about whether he was ready for such an undertaking. Of bigger concern was putting together a competitive team against an FBS opponent.

The Gamecocks collected $40,000 for the experience, a mere pittance of what they would demand for a guarantee game these days. They were held to only 27 net rushing yards (151 total) and gave up 531 yards defensively. They crossed midfield only three times and never reached the USF 30.

The defense gave up only one touchdown in the first half, but the Bulls scored 17 points in the final 3:04 of the third quarter to put it away.

"I can remember just how confused we became and I'm not used to coaching a confused football team,” Crowe said. “We didn't have them very well prepared, we didn't know how good South Florida was and we didn't really know who the guys were on our team we could depend on, either.

"I don't think Bill's got that situation. He's got a challenge, but he's got players who have played there. Not everywhere, but most places. They've got a history to know what he needs to know. It's a lot different game than that game, I'll tell you."

Williams' JSU debut three years earlier featured a lot more offense, but the same trouble stopping their opponent — and the same end result.

The Gamecocks compiled nearly 500 yards of offense and scored first, but it was their only lead of the game.

The teams combined for six touchdowns in their first seven possessions. Southwest Missouri broke the third tie of the half by turning a blocked punt into a touchdown 29 seconds before halftime and scored a safety and touchdown in the first five minutes of the second half to take control of the game. The Gamecocks did close within five and had the ball in the final two minutes, but ran out of downs at the SMS 35 with 30 seconds left.

Williams, now a girls high school golf coach in Panama City, Fla., declined an interview request, telling an intermediary he has put JSU behind him but wished the Gamecocks well and continued growth.

Fuller's rise to head coach was different than the others. Crowe was brought in from private business. Williams was an assistant at Southern Mississippi who wowed the search committee late in the process. Burgess was hired from Oxford High.

Fuller already was on the JSU staff and was promoted to the head coaching position following Clarkie Mayfield's death a few months before camp opened. He had coached the players he inherited, so he knew the lay of the land, but it was still a difficult situation.

"I think everybody would like to win their first game, me at least to show Gov. Stone (university president Ernest Stone) maybe you were right (in selecting him)," Fuller said. "As excited as I was to be there, I knew I had to prove I was worthy, but that was the least of it. I thought more about the team and what they went through than I felt something personal."

Getting to that first game was even more of an adventure. The team's bus broke down trying to negotiate the western North Carolina mountains. Fuller remembered troopers calling for help and the first truck that came along to offer assistance was a rubbish collector.

"It had 'First Class Garbage Pick Up' on the side," Fuller said. "I turned around and said Clarkie always told us you guys only travel first class."

Of his first game Burgess remembers being "scared to death and trying real hard not to let anybody know it."

It didn't have anything to do with any perceptions of him as the coach. He was more concerned that the coaching staff had the game with Alabama A&M covered from every possible angle so not to be surprised. What helped was a familiarity within the staff Burgess had assembled, bringing his top assistants along from Oxford.

Ultimately, they fought to a 24-24 tie in that first game. Win No. 1 came two weeks later at West Georgia. Four years later, Burgess had the Gamecocks playing for the Division II national championship. And again two years later. The next year, they won it all.

"I was worried to death if our players would have any confidence in us. That worried me a lot," Burgess recalled. "Do we have them prepared for everything that's going to happen? The other part, I never really wasted time worrying about it, because it wouldn't make any difference. The young men are the ones you have to worry about."

Salls was worried, too, but because he was stepping into a completely foreign environment when he took over the JSU program.

He coached JSU's first team with a full schedule after the war. He coached more years and won more games than anyone in school history, but his tenure sure didn't start out memorably. He lost his first game, 21-0 at Middle Tennessee, got slammed at Mississippi Southern the next week 65-0 and won only two games the whole season.

The next year, his team went 9-0 and beat Florida State 7-0, and he had only two losing seasons the rest of his 18-year tenure.

"The first year was the worst year of my life," he said. "I was just a young kid. They hired me as a head coach at a college and an associate professor (in health and physical education) and I never coached a day in my life or taught a class in my life. I was a young green kid who played at Alabama and that was about all the credit I had.

"The whole first year was such a new experience. When they said 'Coach,' I started looking around and said, 'Oh, you're talking to me.' It was such a tough, new experience. I knew I had played some solid football and I knew certain things, I had confidence in myself, but I didn't have any help and you can't coach a team by yourself."

Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.

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