“Now make us No. 1 in the USA,” athletics committee chairman Jim Coxwell said as he handed over the gift.
Welcome to the world of JSU’s expectations, coach.
Grass was introduced as the 14th head coach of the Gamecocks’ modern era of football Thursday, two days after being promoted from offensive coordinator to succeed Bill Clark in the fastest coaching search in JSU history.
Clark resigned late Tuesday afternoon to become head coach at UAB. A few hours later Grass, 45, was announced as the new JSU coach.
Only two years earlier he was roaming the sideline as Oxford High’s head coach. When good friend and JSU roommate Clark hired him to become the Gamecocks’ offensive coordinator, he was coaching in the college ranks for the first time.
“I told somebody today I haven’t quit spinning yet; yesterday seemed like it was probably three days,” Grass said from the same position Clark stood to address the JSU faithful 13 months ago. “It has been a whirlwind and I’m glad to have closure to that. I’m so thankful to be here and thank (the administration) for having the confidence in me to lead this program forward. We’re looking forward to the future here.
“Our goal moving forward is to make the Gamecock Nation proud (of) the product that you see on the field. Our goal right now is to be better today than we were yesterday. Last year we were good, we want to be better than that. Our goal here, just like Mr. Coxwell said — no pressure — win a national championship. That will continue. Daily we’re going to work that process to win the national championship and anything short of that is not going to be acceptable.”
The Gamecocks made a run at it last year, reaching the FCS quarterfinals, and have the bulk of that team back — particularly on Grass’ offense. They are expected to be favored to win the Ohio Valley Conference this season.
Grass, 45, will receive a three-year contract with an automatic rollover after the first year “if everything goes well” at an annual salary athletics director Warren Koegel said was “very similar” to the $175,000 the previous coach was making. The Star has submitted an Alabama Open Records request for a copy of the contract.
It took JSU about three weeks to hire Clark to replace Jack Crowe following the 2012 season. It took less than three days to choose Grass — making what university president Bill Meehan called a “quick and I believe concise and correct decision” — although Grass had been approached two days earlier about the possibility of interviewing as Clark’s move to UAB was becoming less of a mystery.
Grass is JSU’s first hire-from-within for a permanent head coaching position in the school’s Division I era. Dave Dagostino was promoted from Dana Austin’s staff to take over the women’s basketball program in 2003, but he was considered an interim coach throughout his three seasons at that helm.
Koegel said more than 100 calls were received from individuals expressing an interest in the job when the possibility of Clark’s leaving surfaced. He said he spoke to other potential candidates about the job he declined to identify.
Expediency was the keyword in the search with National Signing Day three weeks away. Grass wasn’t hired just because he was handy and the clock was ticking, although time was of the essence.
“We weren’t in a diehard panic mode or anything like that,” Koegel said. “John and I talked about this; the idea was let’s keep this thing rolling and keep this thing moving.
“What I liked is our football team is ecstatic and excited and they’re not going to miss a beat. For a couple days there, they were missing a beat.”
Meehan said when the trustees announced their decision to the players Tuesday night he saw “great joy” on their faces. The players, many of whom will be working with their third head coach in 14 months, were glad the administration acted quickly.
Athletics department officials made the players off limits to the media Tuesday night “until we have a chance to talk with them” after Clark’s resignation became official. But several players attended Thursday’s press conference and to a man expressed their pleasure over the speed of the hire and the choice for the man who would become their head coach.
“That was definitely the biggest thing; they made a quick decision to keep that unity on the team,” receiver Dalton Screws said. “You know how it is when you have a coaching change: There’s uncertainty, people start doing their own thing and groups start forming and it takes away from that team unity.
“Them bringing in coach Grass as quick as they did, we kept that unity, stayed together as team, the leaders really stepped up and took charge of the team and we were back in the weight room the next day and never skipped a beat. I think that was huge for the team and huge for the future of Jacksonville State.”
It was pretty big for Grass, too, who admitted “I may not have been here” had the search been prolonged.
“You’d have lost all the foundation that’s been built here,” he said. “It’d been like starting over. It’d have been a setback.”
Instead, the Gamecocks are preparing to host 18 recruits this weekend with a head coach who can close the deal.
When he wasn’t trying to reassure recruits, Grass was spending his time trying to build a staff as most of Clark’s assistants went with him to UAB.
Longtime JSU aide Jimmy Ogle stayed and will be assistant head coach, running backs coach and possibly offensive coordinator.
The Gamecocks will promote graduate assistants Larry Smith (quarterbacks), Trey Clark (offensive line) and Nick Gentry (outside linebackers) and hired former Alabama receiver Nick Williams to coach receivers. Team sources said former Cleburne County and Alabama defensive end Todd Bates and Notre Dame recruiting intern J.R. Sandlin, a former Grass assistant at Oxford, are “strong” possibilities to join the staff as position coaches.
The biggest hire to be made, Grass said, is finding a defensive coordinator. His cell phone had received nearly 300 messages since the announcement of his hiring.
“I made a promise to the president and Coach Koegel and the trustees that anybody who leaves we’re going to replace them with as good a person or better,” Grass said. “That’ll be my goal for these players, to bring in guys who can get the job done.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.