Oct. 29, 2010
This is part of a series examining the influx of new Division I football programs across the nation. Today’s featured university is South Alabama.
Charlie Higgenbotham has been on two very unique ends of the college football spectrum.
While a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide, he was part of one of the sport’s most tradition-rich programs ever. Now, he has the chance to shape a brand new tradition.
“Starting a tradition of your own isn’t an opportunity many college football players get,” Higgenbotham said.
The All-Alabama prep selection went to ‘Bama out of Birmingham’s Mountain Brook High School, but in 2009 left to join his high school coach, Joey Jones, at South Alabama.
Higgenbotham was one of those who got on board with a concept, an idea of being history makers.
“When recruiting, [the coaching staff] sold that 10 to 20 years down the road, ‘You can always say you’re the team that started that program.’ They know we’ll be Division I, and they were the foundation of the program,” Jones said. “The next biggest thing we sold is that they’d have a great chance at playing time early in their career.
“We had kids from Alabama, Auburn, Va. Tech in a back-up role, knew they would come in and start,” he added.
Like Higgenbotham. The linebacker is having an impact with 19 tackles, when otherwise he might be relegated to the sidelines. That’s an opportunity the new program offers.
The Mobile, Ala. based university launched football for the first time in university history. The announcement came in late 2007, and the Jones hire was made in the winter of ’08.
Jones was no stranger to Mobile. Prior to playing wide receiver at Alabama, he lived there. And he was no stranger to building a college football program, having helped do so at Division III Birmingham Southern. So the fit was natural.
“It takes a special person, a special coach to commit to leading a program that doesn’t even yet exist,” said USA athletic director Joel Erdmann. “It takes strong deal of confidence to execute what needs to get done.
“It’s fair to say there was strong amount of interest in the program,” Erdmann continued. “There were coaches we inquired and those who applied, who were existing assistants, existing head coaches at other programs. [The Board of Regents] went through a formal selection process with input from various campus constitutent groups, and we ultimately found Joey Jones.”
While the prospect of coaching at and building a Division I program was an exciting one for Jones, the arduous task ahead of him was evident.
“As the first person they hired in the football department, I have to hire staff, wait a year-and-a-half for a fieldhouse,” he said. “And as far as recruiting, we basically had to sell a dream, not something we already had. Those are some of the [hardships] — young players, brand new team, playing other teams with more experience.”
Despite the experience gap, the Jaguars have found success on the scoreboard through the program’s first season-and-a-half. This season’s USA squad is unbeaten, most recently knocking off UC Davis after traveling across the country. In fact, since beginning play in Sept. 2009, USA has yet to lose.
Of course, last season the program played a unique schedule since at the time, it was unclassified by the NCAA.
“Division I teams didn’t want to schedule us since beating us wouldn’t count as a win,” Jones explained. “We went the junior college route [last season], because that’s all who wanted to play us.”
Jones will have coached at four different levels in less than a decade: prep, Division III, collegiate unclassified, Championship Subdivision and come 2013, the Bowl Subdivision. USA will join the Sun Belt Conference, where its other sports are presently members.
And in a future conference rival, Jones found an ally.
“Coach Howard Schellenberger gave us the ‘dos and don’ts’ on starting a program,” Jones said. No stranger to leading an upstart program, the former national championship coach Schellenberger launched football at Florida Atlantic.
“The biggest thing he stressed was not to piece-meal the program. ‘Go in and do it all at once.’
“If you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound,” Jones said. “Starting in February 2008, we talked about only hiring four coaches initially. [Schellenberger said], ‘How are you going to recruit with four coaches? You need your full staff to recruit. The sooner you do, the sonner you’ll be competitive.’”
Another key to the Jaguars’ success, both immediately and in the long run, is the support the area. Mobile is home to nearly half-a-million people, and amid a region known for its love of football.
The university’s location made the decision to start a program, even in a rough economic climate, an easy one according to Erdmann.
“Take into consideration region in which we sit. The university’ in the midst of a region where both culturally and socially, football is paid a large amount of attention and value. That regional aspect has afforded us the ability to capitalize on the attention of our surrounding citizens,” he said.
That reception has been evident in ticket sales and merchandising revenue. Erdmann said season ticket packages sold at a 90 percent clip in 2010, and that the university’s income from merchandise has grown exponentially.
“It’s fair to say people look at us a different way,” he said. “Football fits here.”
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