Oxford focused on Hoover, not former coach
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
Nov 25, 2011 | 4514 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
OXFORD — John Grass sees a mental minefield awaiting his Oxford team in tonight’s Class 6A semifinal clash with Hoover, but not because of the big white elephant roaming Hoover’s sideline.

It’s not even because Hoover ranks among the biggest, whitest elephants in Alabama 6A football, a program that’s equal parts mystique and substance.

Whatever appetites Oxford fans might carry into a showdown with Hoover and Josh Niblett, the coach who left Oxford for Hoover four years ago, Grass worries more about things that really affect football teams.

“A couple of things that we have to overcome as far as our football team is, one, playing on the road,” he said Tuesday. “We hadn’t played on the road in five weeks.

“Then it’s handling playing on Thanksgiving. Hopefully, we’ll handle the next few days — Wednesday, Thursday and Friday — of being out of school. That’s something Hoover kids are used to.”

One senses an Iron Bowl-like disconnect between how players and coaches view this game and what it means to fans of at least one side.

Yes, that will be Niblett over there on the home sideline. He’s the coach who showed what was possible for Oxford as a 6A program when he led the Yellow Jackets to an undefeated regular season in 2007.

Even though an ineligible player cost that team seven wins and its chance at the playoffs, Oxford fans saw the results on the field.

Then, almost as soon as Niblett showed Oxford fans what good times can look like, he left to coach what had become the state’s most iconic program. Who around Oxford can forget the picture of a grim-faced Niblett approaching the steps of Oxford’s field house, just seconds shy of an emotional farewell meeting with his team?

It was a hard pill to swallow in Oxford, where the Yellow Jackets had won state titles in Class 5A. Jacket backers so wanted to believe such heights were possible in Oxford’s latest 6A incarnation, which started in 2006, and saw Niblett as the conduit.

The pill was so hard to swallow that Oxford anted up to hire the Hoover School System’s other coach, luring Grass away from Spain Park. He was the reigning 6A coach of the year after leading Spain Park to the state finals, and Oxford made him the state’s highest paid coach.

The tit-for-tat statement couldn’t have been more clear. A dream to be like Hoover had become a vendetta.

Then vendetta met reality. Oxford was a ways from building the kind of depth needed to sustain that level of success in 6A, and it showed in the playoffs. The Yellow Jackets suffered first-round defeats in 2008 and 2009 and lost in the second round in 2010.

But Grass was developing the current crop of talent, which includes three major college recruits in linebacker Kwon Alexander, offensive lineman Michael Flint and athlete Trae Elston. The new coach challenged them by stacking the Jackets’ non-region schedule with top teams starting in 2010.

Oxford took some lumps that season, but it paid off this season. The Jackets (12-1) are making their deepest playoff run as a 6A team, besting a quarterfinal run in 1997.

Now, with Oxford backers finally realizing the good times dangled in front of them in the great tease of 2007, the Yellow Jackets once again cross paths with Niblett.

Technically, it’s not the first time. Oxford and Hoover played in the Champions Challenge jamboree in 2009.

But today’s game marks the first Oxford-Niblett meeting in a meaningful game since he left, and Oxford’s players, all eighth-graders or younger in 2007, couldn’t care less who coaches their opponent this week.

“I wasn’t ever coached by him,” senior quarterback Jackson Stephens said. “I just know that was a great team we had here at Oxford that year. Before he left, they had the 10-0 and then they had something with a player, and that was his last year. That’s all I remember.

“But he’s a great coach.”

Senior running back/receiver Coty Spurling said he remembers feeling matter-of-fact about Niblett leaving. It was more Niblett’s loss.

“I just felt like he was leaving a good team,” Spurling said.

How do the Yellow Jackets view playing Niblett’s team?

“I really don’t look at it as going against him,” Spurling said. “I look at it as going against another team and playing with my team again and trying to go out there and win a state championship.”

That’s the view from inside the Oxford field house, but one can’t help wondering about the perspective outside and how backers might view today’s outcome.

Should Oxford win, one can imagine jubilation, if not a collective “Ha!” Oxford, which beat Spain Park in the first round, would have eliminated both Hoover schools and created the first 6A final without a Hoover System team since 1999.

Hoover High made the final in all but one of those years.

Should Oxford lose to a Josh Niblett-coached Hoover team in such a high-stakes game, will fans keep perspective on the breakthrough playoff run the Jackets just made?

Grass’ perspective is all field house.

“I don’t care what nobody thinks outside of this building,” he said. “I’m going to do my job and do it the way I’m supposed to do it, and this football team is very focused on doing that job.

“I’ve never done my job worried about what anybody else thinks.”

Grass said he and Niblett have been and remain friends and emphasized that neither will suit up today.

“Either way the game turns out, we’ll be proud of what we accomplished,” he said. “And I think this team has still got some playing left to do.”

Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or jmedley@annistonstar.com. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.

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