On Tuesday, Jacksonville State tabbed the South Alabama defensive coordinator — an Anniston native and JSU graduate — to be its next head football coach. He will be formally introduced today at a 4 p.m. news conference on the fifth floor of JSU Stadium.
"This is one of those deals you don't know you're going to come back home and it wasn't necessarily the plan," Clark said, "but it's something in the back of your mind.
"It's not a thing I said, ‘I've got to come back home;’ It's getting an opportunity to. You feel like you're representing more than just yourself."
Clark succeeds Jack Crowe, who was fired Nov. 30 in what may be the shortest coaching search in school history after the second-longest coaching tenure in the football program's history. The vacancy remained open 19 days, a process expedited by the hiring of an external search firm, CarrSports Consulting LLC.
Sources close to the program said JSU officials interviewed candidates Sunday in Birmingham from an initial pool athletics director Warren Koegel placed at more 90 inquiries. Koegel didn't disclose the finalists. West Alabama head coach Will Hall and North Alabama head coach Bobby Wallace were reported by state papers as top candidates.
“Our vision and mission are winning conference championships and advancing to the postseason on a regular basis, and we feel like Bill Clark brings the experience and skills to help us achieve our goals,” Koegel said. “When you look at the success that Bill has enjoyed in our state, both on the collegiate and high school levels, we feel like he is the perfect fit to be our head football coach."
The Gamecocks have enjoyed 10 consecutive winning seasons, but they have been to the NCAA Division I playoffs only once since winning back-to-back Ohio Valley Conference championships (2003 and 2004). They have never won a Division I playoff game, but South Alabama head coach Joey Jones believes his former coordinator can turn that around.
"I think he's going to a place where they can truly win a national championship in the future," Jones said. "Jacksonville State has always been able to get great players; they won a championship in Division II. If he can get the people (at JSU) to commit to excellence — and I know he will — they have a chance there to win an FCS national championship.
"That was the biggest thing (in their discussions), the commitment level that he needed to be able to try to win a championship there. I think they've done that from what I've gathered from them."
Details of Clark's contract continue to be finalized, but Koegel described it as a "standard Division I football contract." A high-level JSU source, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the deal wasn't done, told The Star it was expected to be a four-year deal with a base salary in the same range as Crowe's. The former head coach's most recent contract carried a base salary of more than $162,000 when signed in 2011, which was at least third-highest among head coaches in the OVC.
There is also expected to be an increase in the salary pool for assistants. Meanwhile, athletics department officials were still looking for one more game to complete the new coach's 12-game first schedule.
This may be Clark's first college head coaching job, but he is no stranger to running a program. Prior to helping South Alabama get its program off the ground, he was head coach at Prattville High School, where he won more than 100 games and two state championships. He also has coached at Piedmont, Tuscaloosa County, Coffee County (Ga.) and Dothan High School.
His father, Ragan, was a former all-county player at Alexandria High School and won more than 100 games as a longtime head coach in Northeast Alabama.
In terms of building a coaching staff, Clark is likely to bring defensive backs coach Duwan Walker with him from South Alabama, Jones said. Walker was Clark's defensive coordinator at Prattville and has been a trusted aide since 1999.
While he wouldn't confirm any potential assistants, Clark described the ideal candidates as "guys who reflect my personality — high energy guys." He said he has spoken to coaches who have "a wide array of experience."
It is uncertain how many — if any — of Crowe's assistants might be retained. Running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Jimmy Ogle, a Crowe staffer from the beginning, was named interim head coach in the wake of Crowe's departure.
"That's one thing we talked about," Clark said. "I would interview those guys; I think that's fair. No promises. I know it'd be good to have somebody give you carryover, but you've got to see if they mesh."
Once he assembles the staff, one of the first items on his agenda is to find a way to keep Coty Blanchard in the program. Blanchard will be the most experienced quarterback Clark will have available — if he sticks around — but he also has a future in baseball and will be eligible for the major-league draft at the end of this college season. His family has said returning is in the mix, but former coach Jack Crowe was making a plan in the event he didn't return.
"I know a lot of his family and his head high school coach," Clark said of Blanchard. "The first thing is you've got to get the guys you've got on board and keep them on board and make sure they're working in the same direction.
"The last time I saw (Blanchard) play was at the state championship in high school. I know what he's about. We've got some talented guys on the roster from what I understand. Not slighting them any — I hear good things about them — but when you've got a guy who's been in the wars, you've got to keep them around."
Clark was on the ground floor in helping coach Jones build the South Alabama program. The Jaguars were only 2-10 this past season — their first full season of competition in the Sun Belt Conference — but led the league in total defense and would have ranked among the top 50 nationally in total defense and against the pass had it had full FBS status.
The Jags posted the best record of any Division I FCS Independent in 2011 after winning the first 17 games in the program's history in 2009 and 2010. His defense allowed 13 points and 254.6 yards per game in 2010 (10-0) and only 5.9 points and 234 yards per game in seven games in 2009, forcing 25 sacks and 23 turnovers.
At his last high school stop, his Prattville teams went 107-11. His last two teams won 30 straight games and his 2007 team was ranked No. 2 nationally by USA Today.
"He does a good job motivating players and also with the Xs and Os," Jones said. "He did a really good job for us and I thought we played some really good defense the last three years."
Like his predecessor, Clark did not play college football. He was a two-year starter and a first-team all-state offensive lineman for Piedmont coach George Hoblitzell, but a back injury cut his playing career short.
But as the son of a coach, he long planned to follow in his father’s footsteps, and the premature end to his playing career accelerated the process.
"I knew that's what I was going to do since I was 6 years old," he said. "That was my hobby, getting to hang out with my dad and drawing up plays. I knew that's what I wanted to do. I don't want to sit here and say I did great things as a player, I don't think I was a great player, and when Dr. (James) Andrews said if you play anymore you might not be walking, I said, ‘Let's go coach.’”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.