The school had made a statement in firing Jack Crowe, the coach who had delivered JSU’s only conference titles and playoff berths in the post-Division II era. JSU’s decision makers said they believed JSU can do better.
“Our vision and mission are winning conference championships and advancing to the postseason on a regular basis,” JSU athletics director Warren Koegel said at the time.
A year later, Koegel’s decision and JSU’s hire of Bill Clark have netted reason to believe the vision is within JSU’s reach.
Clark’s first team has already gone farther than JSU ever had in Football Championship Subdivision, reaching Saturday’s FCS quarterfinal at Eastern Washington.
No, the Gamecocks didn’t win the Ohio Valley Conference but were picked fourth and finished third in an improved league that got three teams in the playoffs and has two in the quarterfinals. That’s called beating expectations.
Beating expectations in the OVC marks improvement for JSU. Though the Gamecocks won OVC titles in 2003 and 2004 under Crowe and shared another title in 2011, they came up short as the league favorite more than JSU fans care to remember.
As for the playoffs, the best JSU did under Crowe was to back into a first-round bye and home game in 2010, then lose to Wofford 17-14. This season, the Gamecocks got a first-round home game and beat Samford 55-14.
Then they beat No. 6 national seed McNeese State 31-10 in the second round, on the road.
Yes, it would have been nice to see how far that 2009 JSU team would have gone. Arguably Crowe’s most talented team, those Gamecocks nearly beat Florida State and had the OVC’s best record but weren’t eligible for the playoffs because of sanctions related to the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate.
But the fact remains that JSU has done in one season under Clark what it couldn’t in 13 under Crowe — win a playoff game. Then it won another one.
The Gamecocks are 11-3, reaching double-digit victories for the first time since leaving Division II in 1992.
They played themselves into at least one week of football without the shadow of bowl-subdivision state powers Auburn and Alabama, which have hit their downtime before postseason games. Three Birmingham-area television stations sent personnel to the Gamecocks’ weekly news conference Monday.
“I think it’s huge,” Clark said. “It all goes back to recruiting. It’s our life blood, so to get notoriety and to get seen, I think that’s got to help us.”
Clark and the Gamecocks have helped themselves. The year since making a coaching change could only go better if they continue to advance in the playoffs.
“The thing that I’m really excited about is the direction is so good,” Koegel said. “I was listening to a radio show in McNeese, and these were McNeese reporters, and they kept talking about the exuberance on our sideline and the difference between our kids and our sideline and the excitement level and McNeese’s level.
“Everybody, at first, when you make the change, nobody’s really sure what’s going to happen. There’s always that doubt, but I always felt, in my mind, that we were going to get a good coach in here, somebody who can really be a good fit for Jacksonville State.”
What has this football season meant to people who care most about JSU? Just ask the alum in charge of the team.
“It means a lot, just to have the texts, the emails,” Clark said. “You want your school to do good, and to feel like you’re helping in that process, and then just getting into all the things that go with it.
“I’m real tickled for our players, because we’ve worked them awfully hard, and this staff. Validation is a big deal. Some people say it’s not, but it is. We all want to be validated, and what we’re doing worked, and it’s such a neat thing to go, ‘OK they do know what they’re doing.’”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.