Friday, December 19, 2014

One of the last of “Bear’s Boys” goes bowling

clip_image001The University of South Alabama, in only its second year of Division I bowl eligibility, has made it to the Camellia Bowl. With a 6-6 record for the 2014 season, coach Joey Jones is taking the Jaguars to Montgomery for what could be an interesting matchup against Bowling Green.

Joey Jones and I were classmates at Murphy High School. Although we ran with different crowds, I remember Joey as an affable, polite but competitive fella. Another thing about him was his popularity, especially among the girls. To put it bluntly, you had to wait until he’d decided who was going to the dance with him before you asked a pretty young lady for the pleasure of her company.

Oh, and he could run like the wind. I’ve never seen a white boy run that fast (that’s not racist; it’s the truth and the truth is never racist). My bet is that at age 52, he can still probably outrun most of his players.

Jones is also the last of a dying breed—coaches with ties to legendary Alabama coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant. Coach Bryant recruited Jones as a wide receiver, and he lived up to the hype. He lettered for four years, graduating in 1983. While you might look at 71 catches for 1,386 yards and 15 touchdowns as somewhat pedestrian given the work of men like Julio Jones and Amari Cooper, consider the fact that Jones was playing in the Wishbone system, which rarely featured the pass catching ability of a 5-9, 165 lb speedster. He averaged nearly 20 yards per catch, which means that every time he touched the football it was First Down Alabama.

Coach Bryant referred to him as something of a secret weapon—a player that no one would pay much attention to until he was beating every defender to the end zone for the score. He did that 15 times in his career at Alabama in a system that emphasized the ground game.

As a coach, he’s pretty much doing the same thing at South Alabama. No one paid much attention to USA until they started beating more established FBS schools like Troy and Kent State, Nick Saban’s alma mater.

A 6-6 record is certainly no world beater. USA has taken its share of beatings in so-called “paycheck games,” where a team travels to a major program’s home field, takes a whoopin’ and collects a nice fee from its host. This is the same thing Southern Miss, Florida State and others have used to build their college football programs.

But through his time at USA, Jones has served with class, dignity and integrity. There are butts in the seats at every home game, and USA doesn’t have to print tickets in the local newspaper to get them there. People in Mobile eagerly pay to go to Jag games because… well… it’s a Jag game. He’s taken a brand new program to heights that make UAB fans gasp in horror. UAB is giving up its football program, while the nascent Jags program is making gains no one really believed to be possible so early in the program’s life.

One thing about the crowds you see at Ladd Peebles on game day: There are Alabama fans, Auburn fans and LSU fans sitting right next to the fans and alumni wearing red white and blue. This is a football program embraced by the entire community.

Consider this as well: Only five years into college football, USA is actively considering probably not if, but where to build an on-campus stadium. Could this sort of speculation be happening if it weren’t for Joey Jones? I’m laying odds on “no.”

One of the great things about college football is history and tradition. You build things one brick at a time, and before you know it, you have something standing before you that is legendary and remarkable.

Coach Jones is on his way to doing just that and on December 20 in Montgomery, a very important step will be taken with the Jags first ever bowl game. Win or lose, Coach Bryant must surely be smiling from Heaven over this. One of the last of his boys stands on the edge of greatness, and the future looks quite bright.