JACKSONVILLE— It seems a long way from Oxford to East Lansing, Mich., from Lamar Field to Spartan Stadium, from Class 6A high school football to high-class college football.
It seems hard to believe that John Grass will have covered the distance in less than two years. Think about it; he called plays from Oxford’s sideline just 22 months ago.
But there will come a point where Grass’ first game as a college head coach will settle into another football game Friday. He’ll just call plays from another sideline.
He’ll do it in a bigger stadium, but the stands will have long faded into a blurry backdrop surrounding a white-lined, green field. He’ll just see his 11 players finding footing and any tactical edge they can against the 11 in green.
Grass has a saying for it. He said it at his introductory news conference, when Jacksonville State promoted him from offensive coordinator, and repeated it after Monday’s game-week meeting with media.
“Ball is ball,” he said.
We read into everything coaches say in the public domain, and it’s tempting to read too much into Grass’ seeming shrug. He gets it.
Grass gets that the other team is the defending Big Ten Conference champion and Rose Bowl winner. He gets the depth difference between a Football Bowl Subdivision team with 85 scholarships to give and his 63-scholarship crew from Football Championship Subdivision.
Then again, he’s taking a team that returns most of an offense that broke dozens of school records a year ago. His defensive line goes two-deep on SEC pedigree.
Maybe Grass just believes his team can represent itself well.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good football team, and I think we’ll show that on Friday,” he said. “I think they’ll be surprised at the caliber of our players, the size of our players and the speed of our players. So, I think it’s going to be a good football game.”
Grass also gets that he’ll lead a team into a much different environment than he saw during, say, the Super Six at Legion Field, back in his Spain Park days. Though he experienced high-stakes games on the college level, JSU’s three FCS playoff games last season don’t exactly compare to what’s coming Friday.
“This stage — Big Ten, Big Ten Network, nationally televised, you know, 85,000 people — it’s going to be pretty special to be out there,” he said.
But while being a college head coach might be new to Grass, coaching is not. Ball is ball, after all, and a veteran coach knows to compartmentalize his emotional indulgences.
That’s why Grass plans to indulge in pregame warmups.
“When the specialists come out and our kickers and punters come out there on the field to where we punt the ball in the end zone and we run off the field in pregame warmups, that’s going to be pretty special,” he said. “Now, when we come back out and we run out the tunnel to get ready to play, a ballgame is a ballgame.
“I’ll be back to calling ball plays and being a coach and caught up in the moment of coaching a game.”
Truth told, Grass’ debut as a college head coach brings more opportunity than worry. There’s more range for success than failure, because the world expects a lopsided Michigan State victory.
Grass can win just by his team showing out better than expected, competition considered.
So why not go from having a Jefferson’s down the street to humming The Jeffersons theme in warmups?
His background is more Friday night lights than Saturday highlights, but why get the Friday night frights in East Lansing?
It’ll all be right there, the plays in the game plan and players on the field. Grass and his staff have pored over it and had their players rep it for weeks.
“I’m not a big worrier, as far as being nervous in big games,” he said. “I’m way past that.
“If you haven’t done your job during the week, then there’s room to worry. I feel like we haven’t left any stone unturned, and we’re just going to go out and enjoy the fun part now.”