Medley: Clark brings subtle strengths to program with blunt goals
by Joe Medley
Dec 19, 2012 | 5297 views |  0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bill Clark speaks to a crowd Wednesday after being introduced as Jacksonville State’s new football coach. (Photo by Stephen Gross)
Bill Clark speaks to a crowd Wednesday after being introduced as Jacksonville State’s new football coach. (Photo by Stephen Gross)
JACKSONVILLE — One doesn’t expect to hear Duck Dynasty quoted at the rollout of a new football coach, at least not east of Eugene, Ore., but Jacksonville State president Dr. Bill Meehan pulled it off Wednesday.

As new football coach Bill Clark waited his turn at the podium, Meehan quoted the A&E reality series as a way to say exactly how he feels about Clark’s hiring — “happy, happy, happy.”

But looming over this happy occasion is the statement of expectation behind JSU’s Nov. 30 decision to fire 13-year coach Jack Crowe, who had produced 10 consecutive winning seasons for the first time in a proud program’s history. JSU athletics director Warren Koegel said playoff victories and championships will make JSU happy, happy, happy, so any new coach duck-walked before the public must be evaluated against that goal.

Clark might very well get it done, but to bridge him to the goal requires a look deeper than his coaching bio. It requires a belief in the subtle, because the instant shine of the obvious is missing.

Clark hasn’t been a college head coach and hasn’t been part of a championship team on the college level. He did it on the high school level, and the question becomes how it translates to success in NCAA Division I’s lower subdivision.

One might want the answer to be more obvious after what was billed as a national search, complete with a $20,000 bill from a national search firm. Then again, is it fair to judge a duck strictly by its bill?

In fairness, Clark represents change, if nothing else, and a large portion of the JSU fan base felt change was overdue. The sense was that Crowe would never quite get JSU from expectations of conference championships to actually winning them regularly.

Then there’s the matter of a program that won it all in Division II yet stands 18 seasons into its Division I era without a playoff victory.

Change raises the possibility that JSU can at least get over that hump, and Clark knows about that hump. As Prattville High School’s head coach, he took the Lions from a first-round exit in his second year to two Class 6A titles.

“Playoffs are playoffs,” he said. “First, you’ve got to get there, and then get over that mentality of one and done.”

Clark also represents change in the area where JSU most needed it — on defense. He spent five years as the defensive coordinator at upstart South Alabama, and defense was the Jaguars’ calling card.

“Defense wins championships,” Koegel said.

Clark is also an up-and-coming coach, not a retread. He’s also a local product and JSU grad, and that makes him change JSU fans can believe in, at least at the outset.

All of that is important, but the reality comes back to this — he’s never been a college head coach, and his college coaching experience at an upstart program is hard to judge.

How to make the jump from those facts to winning conference and even national championships in Football Championship Subdivision? Koegel said much of what Clark did on the high school level translates, even if subtly.

“It’s organization,” he said. “When you’re a high school coach and you’re playing at that level, 6A football in the state of Alabama, you’re playing pretty good football.

“I think his organizational skills as a head coach and coordinating both sides of the ball — not as a coordinator, but as the coordinator of the overall picture — he certainly knows what it takes to make tough decisions.”

Then there’s Clark’s X-factor, his relationships with high school coaches and how that can play into recruiting. The sense is that Crowe, known as a recruiting closer, was a more aloof figure to high school coaches, and Clark can instantly reheat those relationships.

“One of the things we’ve got a great advantage in is our relationship with high school coaches,” Clark said. “I’m a long-time high school coach. We started the Alabama Football Coaches Association, so I know a lot of high school coaches here. I’ve recruited Atlanta and South Georgia, and guys on our staff will have extensive experience in this area.

“We want to win this area, and we want to win this state in recruiting as best we can, but we know these guys. We know these people. We trust these coaches, and I think they trust us, and, hopefully, they will want to see us do well.”

Still, it all comes down to a young coach, getting his first shot as a college head coach. He’ll get that shot with a program determined to go further in Division I than a long-time veteran of the college ranks could take it.

It’s a new day at JSU. The school’s leadership says it needs playoff victories and championships to be happy, happy, happy.

Clark sounded a grounded note about all of that.

“I think the point of emphasis is not that we’re being arrogant or we’re saying that, right from day one, that we’re ready to do that,” he said, “but that’s our goal.”

Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.