With Media Day in Nashville the official start of his 13th season at the Gamecocks’ helm, Crowe now becomes JSU’s second-longest tenured football coach, passing Bill Burgess on its longevity list. Only Don Salls has held the position longer (18 years).
“It’s not something on the front end I was thinking about,” Crowe, 65, said of his longevity. “It doesn’t fit a master plan, but because I felt like we kept progressing, kept going forward — although some times we take a step back — I felt the next year was going to be the best year every year.
“Looking back I’m surprised time has passed like it has. I’m really amazed. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been here that long, to be honest with you. There was a time if you told me I’d be coaching at this age I couldn’t have conceived of it, but it doesn’t feel like I’m across any barriers. It seems like an extension.”
Crowe was hired in 1999 to clean up the mess left by Mike Williams’ mid-season departure and return the program’s winning tradition. It was his wish to make them a part of the national conversation.
The process that got him here involved self-examination after Year 3, then Year 5, then Year 7. It has now gone well past a decade. He’s working on his fifth athletics director.
He’s now the longest tenured active football coach in the Ohio Valley Conference — this is his 10th OVC season at the same school — taking over the dean-of-coaches role vacated by Bob Spoo’s retirement at Eastern Illinois. He’s only the 14th coach in conference history (among 83 total) with at least 10 OVC seasons at his school, in a league where the average coaching stay is six years.
There have been 22 head coaches at the league’s other full-scholarship football schools during Crowe’s OVC tenure.
“In some sports it’s possible (to stay at one place a long time), but in football it doesn’t happen as often,” JSU athletics director Warren Koegel said.
“It’s rare for a couple of reasons — people are waving that big buck and going somewhere else, you might not have success and people say you have to make a change, health issues, burnout. When you jumble all that together, being at some place for 13 years is very, very good. It’s hard to do that, not just in football, but every job.
“It says a lot that somebody has been able to work through some adversity and some change and what-have-you. There’s a lot of perseverance that goes on with that, a lot of give and take, but I would say ‘Good for Jack.’ I take my hat off to him to be able to withstand some of those early bumps in the road. I think it’s admirable.”
A lot has happened in Crowe’s previous dozen seasons.
On the positive side, his Gamecocks have won 81 games (54 in the OVC — 7th on the all-time list), won three official conference championships, made three NCAA playoff appearances, been ranked as high as No. 2 nationally, made national headlines by beating Ole Miss and are working on a string of nine consecutive winning seasons. They’ve talked about moving up to the Football Championship Subdivision — an idea that may or may not still be on the table — and refurbished their stadium to make themselves more appealing to any would-be FCS suitors.
On the negative side, they’re still looking for their first Division I playoff win, suffered several embarrassing league losses that kept them from reaching their potential and, in the darkest hour of his tenure, incurred a ban from postseason play for repeated failures to meet NCAA academic benchmarks.
There’s still more to do.
“I wouldn’t be here right now for my own motivation if we hadn’t passed certain milestones along the way,” Crowe said.
“But the milestones in front of me are the strongest of all and they are about what the national scope of the program is. That’s the carrot that’s still out there. I had to feel like we gained to become part of the national landscape of FCS football and to some degree we are, but not at the level I want to be.”
His current contract takes him to the end of the 2014-15 academic year. Any thought of sticking around long enough to pass Salls’ record or going for 20?
He answers that by saying he’s recruiting harder than he’s ever done before — for the team four years down the road.
“I would have said at one time no, but I read the (Tuesday morning) paper and (SEC commissioner) Mike Slive is changing college athletics at 72 and says he’s going to be around a couple more years,” he said. “As long as you’re making a difference.
“As long as players and coaches keep coming in and performing because I’m providing leadership, why would I not continue to do that? When the players don’t keep coming and the coaches don’t want to be here, I won’t want to be here. They call recruiting the lifeblood of the sport. As long as I’m energized to keep that blood flowing, that’s what I’m feeding off of. I don’t have a hobby. I don’t have anything else to do.”
In case you’re wondering how lucky Season 13 was for Salls at JSU, he went 6-2-1, winning or tying the last six games, including whipping Troy 35-14.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.