They knew the personality of the team they were about to face and planned accordingly.
Not this year. There’s a new sheriff in town around the JSU football program and the change is forcing the OVC coaches — for the short term, at least — to reexamine what they think about the way the Gamecocks will play.
Bill Clark took the reins and brings with him a new offense, a new staff and a new approach to the game.
For football coaches who live on routine, change can be disruptive. The coaches face the same circumstance with Austin Peay, as Kirby Cannon replaces Rick Christophel, but the Governors don’t figure to be the contender JSU could be.
“Jacksonville State will be a completely different animal now,” Tennessee Tech coach Watson Brown said during Monday’s OVC Media Day. “I don’t know what it means, but it will be different.
“I wouldn’t say it’s going to be harder, but it makes you prepare in a different way. It has nothing to do with worse or better. It’s going to be a difference — what offense, what defense, the personality of the team. There are so many things that come into play.”
What the OVC coaches have come to expect in the 10 years Jack Crowe guided the Gamecocks through the league was a JSU team that was going to play physical and run the football.
Based on what Brown remembers from recruiting Clark’s high school teams during his days at UAB, the Tennessee Tech coach doesn’t expect that to change under the new coach. But Clark’s background is defense and his offense is expected to be the up-tempo spread approach that has worked well for the league teams that use it.
“I think we’ll have an advantage early because we don’t have a ton of tendencies and that’s what football is — a lot of tendencies and history,” Clark said.
Being a first-year head coach in the OVC isn’t necessarily limiting. Tennessee Martin’s Jason Simpson, Eastern Kentucky’s Dean Hood, Eastern Illinois’ Dino Babers last year and Austin Peay’s Boots Donnelly way back in 1976 all won conference titles in their first year as a head coach and first year in the league.
Not only is Clark in his first year with the Gamecocks, this is his first collegiate head coaching job.
“There’s something to be said about having the element of surprise, not only in your first game but throughout the season because the tendencies are not going to be ready,” Simpson said. “You look at film and you don’t know if they won that game because of blind luck or did they outcoach the other team.
“To some extent it is an advantage because when I was a head coach my first year I didn’t know how good Eastern Illinois had been in the past, so sometimes you just concentrate on the things you can control as a first-year coach and sometimes it works in your favor.”
The Gamecocks will play four games before opening their OVC schedule against Murray State. They may have some of their tendencies in place by then, but even a month into the season, they aren’t likely to have their true personality in place.
EIU and Southeast Missouri have the best chances to figure out what the Gamecocks are about under Clark. They are JSU’s last two opponents.
“If we had them early, it would be concerning, but we’re far enough down the road we should have a pretty good handle on what they’re doing,” SEMO coach Tony Samuel said. “The early phase is always the most difficult, new coach or not; it just increases the degree of difficulty with the new coach and a different style.”
It doesn’t matter to Hood who is pushing the buttons on the other sideline. His focus is on the players being moved.
“It really makes no difference if it’s Bill, Jack or the Pillsbury Dough Boy,” he said. “You watch the film, say this is what they do and how do we have to line up against it.
“It doesn’t matter who’s at the helm. It matters where you’re going to put your guys to match up what they’re doing.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.