Getting things started in Mobile
Road trip, South Alabama program begin in same city
MOBILE, Ala. – We reset the car’s trip odometer to zero, loaded up on sodas and snacks, cued up our favorite ’80’s tunes and hit the road.
Five football games. In five days. In five states. It’s any football fan’s dream.
“You get paid to do that?”
We’ve already heard that too many times to count.
The perfect way to spend Labor Day weekend. Sounds too good to be true, right? If Thursday night in Mobile, Ala., was any indication, this is going to be five days and nights of pure bliss.
The weather wasn’t great. But the squalls off the Gulf of Mexico held off long enough to let the home team remain just the opposite – perfect – in game one of our adventure.
South Alabama defeated West Alabama 20-10 to kick off the 2011 season and improve its all-time record to 18-0.
Yes, that’s right. Eighteen wins, zero losses.
These Jaguars are relatively new to the college football world. Head coach Joey Jones – a former Alabama wide receiver -- started the program in 2009 and they are ready to make the leap from FCS Independent to a cozy conference home with the big boys in FBS.
“It was always the vision since we started to move up,” Jones said. “It’s a fast-paced deal. We know we have to do a lot of things correctly along the way in order to get to that point. There are a lot of steps to do it the right way.”
The Jags have a Sun Belt Conference logo already embroidered into the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, home of the annual Senior Bowl. They fly all of the Sun Belt team flags out front off Virginia Street. But South Alabama isn’t part of the league just yet.
That’ll have to wait until 2013. In the meantime, South Alabama will mix in Division II schools like UWA with FBS opponents such as North Carolina State and Kent State. With of course teams of its own size – Georgia State and Cal Poly.
Jones’ squad spent the first two years dominating fellow FCS programs and DII, NAIA and junior college opponents, outscoring them 734-171. But the bar has been raised. The Jaguars will play a full FBS schedule in 2012, its final season as a transitioning program.
So what’s it like to build a program from scratch? It’s extremely satisfying.
“It has its great ups and its great downs,” Jones said. “Overall it’s one of the best experiences I’ve been around. It’s been great.”
There are a ton of factors that are in South Alabama’s favor to turn into a successful FBS program.
The school averaged nearly 20,000 fans in 2010, and saw Thursday’s night’s attendance of 21,158 held down from what it could have been thanks to threatening weather.
But the fans that stayed home were able to watch on local television or on ESPN3.com. That was a first in program history. As we all know, that’s big in the world of recruiting. You need to be seen. And the Mobile market is really an untapped resource. The fans are hungry for a team of their own, and they have one.
“I’m very excited about our fans,” Jones said. “They’re a great group and bring a lot to each game to get us going.”
And while Ladd-Peebles Stadium isn’t the swankiest facility in the nation, it has history and allure with which a lot of programs cannot compete. There’s some good karma in the 63-year old building. It’s where Paul “Bear” Bryant coached his first game for Alabama in 1958 when the Crimson Tide lost their season opener to LSU.
It will take at least another week for Jones to lose his first game there. Something that will inevitably happen, but for now the Jags are still a perfect program.
As for us, it’s off to Atlanta for a stop with another guy that knows a little bit about Alabama and building a program from scratch – former ’Bama head coach Bill Curry. We’ll meet up with him and his Georgia State Panthers as they open the season at the Georgia Dome against Clark Atlanta.