South Alabama Breaks Out of the LabMichael Chang/Getty Images
It’s daunting work, maintaining a football program. It’s downright exhausting building one from scratch, and there are few who know that better than South Alabama Jaguars head coach Joey Jones. The Mobile native and Bear Bryant era Crimson Tide alum was a year into helping resurrect the D-III Birmingham-Southern program, which had been shuttered since 1939, when he returned home in 2008 to try an even trickier stunt: building a Division I football team from, pretty literally, nothing. As in “his first desk was a legal pad balanced on his knees outside a basketball gym” nothing.
To win the Sun Belt, the Group of 5 league we know and love and occasionally revere on a Tuesday night,1 is to bob to the surface of a true melting pot, where on any given game day longtime league residents will find themselves playing returning original members who’ve fled the collapse of the WAC, or programs new to the FBS ranks, or teams new to football all together.2 It’s been a parity-happy league lately, with the top two teams finishing with 5-2 conference records in 2013, and four 4-3 squads behind them. You might have to think for a second to place one of those 4-3 squads, because five seasons prior, the USA football program didn’t exist.
Jones took the South Alabama job in February 2008, and he was already back in Mobile and on campus by the time he and the administrators who’d hired him realized he didn’t have an office. Plans were under way for the construction of a fieldhouse for the football team, with weight rooms and locker rooms and office space, but it wouldn’t exist even in slab-and-packed-dirt form for months, and wouldn’t be finished until the fall of 2009. And so the origins of the South Alabama football program can be traced to the front steps of the Mitchell Center, USA’s basketball arena, where Jones sat that winter with a phone and a notepad, making calls. He hired assistants. He accepted, by his count, 74 speaking engagements. He consulted with coaches like Howard Schnellenberger, architect of Florida Atlantic’s program, on the best practices for building from the ground up. And with South Alabama’s first football game about a year and a half away, Jones began recruiting players to Mobile.
“We sold the guys on a couple things,” says Jones. “Number one is: You can be a part of the inaugural season. You can always say ‘I was there’ when that program started. And playing time was stressed.”
From the steps of the Mitchell Center, word spread. Assistant AD Daniel McCarthy remembers sitting in his makeshift compliance office, operated out of an office park on the north end of campus. “I had students, in some cases people who weren’t even students, calling me and wanting to know if they had eligibility,” he recalls. “There was a period of several days where we had a line that was at least 25-35 deep at all times, of students standing out in the hall.
“We had pre-printed questionnaires, and I would go down the list: ‘OK, where did you go to high school, when did you graduate, what have you been doing for the past seven years?’ I’ve heard every story. There were walk-ons who had jumped in the car and driven down, who showed up with a backpack on their backs and said, ‘I just got here, I’m starting school tomorrow.’ Are you even in classes yet? ‘Well, no, I’m on my way to register right now, I drove here from Indiana.’ There was one guy close to 30, and the last time he’d stepped on a competitive football field was probably in the fall of ’96. A lot of kids coming in who’d been displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Kids who hadn’t been in school for a couple years, home helping mom or helping dad. I heard a lot of sad stories, and they were true stories.”
Jones also attracted recruits through more traditional channels. Receiver Bryant Lavender — from Gulfport, Mississippi, an hour away via I-10 — had been referred to one of the Jags’ high school camps by an official who’d watched him play youth football; USA offered Lavender a scholarship on the spot. Defensive end Alex Page — from Prattville, about three hours up I-65 — followed his former high school coach Bill Clark, who’d been hired as Jones’s first defensive coordinator. Linebacker and long-snapper Nick Bear — from Long Beach — had never heard of Mobile, let alone the Jaguars, but was drawn cross-country3 after interest from Syracuse and Purdue failed to pan out.
“That first signing class, a lot of us didn’t have big scholarship offers from big schools,” says Lavender, for whom the promise of playing time outweighed the risks of signing with a complete unknown. “I’d never sat on the bench before. Sitting on a bench [was] new.”
“The coaches took a chance on us,” says Bear. “We were the guys who’d been picked over and forgotten about.”
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Five years ago this fall, South Alabama played its first football game, against Hargrave Military Academy. The Jags scored their first touchdown on a 60-yard screen from Myles Gibbon to Courtney “Quick-Six” Smith, and would go on to string together a 7-0 inaugural season against mostly military academies and prep schools. The 2010 season brought some FCS programs onto the slate and produced a 10-0 campaign. In 2011, when the Jags began to incorporate FBS teams into their schedule, they dropped to 6-4, and in 2012, their final transitional year to full FBS status, they plummeted to a disastrous 2-11.
In their annual preseason poll, Sun Belt coaches picked South Alabama to come in next to last in conference play in 2013, ahead only of the one league team newer to football, Georgia State. Instead, the Jaguars finished their first season as full Sun Belt members in the thick of that 4-3 cluster, behind the Ragin’ Cajuns and Red Wolves, with a 6-6 overall record. That included a three-game victory streak to close out the year by a combined margin of 104-39, but USA did not receive a bowl invitation.
The final bow for the massive senior class came instead at home in Mobile, on Senior Night, where 28 players — 15 of whom had been with the program since the 2009 inaugural season4 — took their bittersweet curtain calls. With three one-point losses and a two-point loss on the Jaguars’ 2013 ledger, the last members of USA’s inaugural recruiting class couldn’t help but be aware of the margin separating them from 6-6 and a nine-win campaign, from a long December at home and their first postseason play. You might call it … not a champagne problem, but maybe a prosecco problem, being in your fifth year of existence as a football program and just missing out on a bowl invite.
“It was hard,” says Lavender. “It hurt, but at the same time it was a great foundation from that first class. It was a great foundation that we set.”
“Not many players,” says Page, “get to say that they started their teams.”
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The Jaguars of the present are 3-2, with the only losses coming against new national no. 1 Mississippi State and a Georgia Southern squad that’s seemingly hell-bent on winning the conference in its first season in the league. USA has what looks like another decent shot at bowl eligibility, especially with four postseason games now featuring annual Sun Belt tie-ins.
With one recruiting class completely cycled through, USA has yet to place a player on an NFL roster, but life moves on. Lavender, whose father died when he was 13, remembers telling his life goals to his dad over the casket: graduate high school, get into college, get his degree; Lavender has accomplished all three, and he recently published a book of original poetry. Page has an undergraduate degree in history and is pursuing a master’s degree in secondary education with plans to teach and coach. Bear, the city boy from L.A. County, has fallen in love with the country, and when we last spoke, he was planning to follow a summer football camp buddy to Texas to work for an oil and gas company.
“I’d come here all over again,” Bear says. “There are six million people in my county. I thought I’d experienced the world. The team’s gonna be here long after I’m gone, but if it wasn’t for me and, what, 30 other guys that took a chance? There wouldn’t be a program.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Necessary Deleted Scene: Jaguars in the Monkey Lab
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With schools like Old Dominion, Georgia State, and UTSA launching football programs, and other programs like Appalachian State and Georgia Southern leveling up from the FCS, South Alabama is no longer the freshest face on the block. We can safely say, however, that the Jaguars are the only football team whose path to the FBS involved lifting weights in a repurposed animal-testing facility. We were three interviews in before we realized “abandoned monkey lab” wasn’t some random morning radio Zoo Crew–inspired nickname the kids had given their former weightlifting facility, and we sought out Jones for the story, which revolves around further space constraints on a program with then-nonexistent facilities.
“We had nowhere to go for our weight room at first,” Jones recalls. “I had hired my strength coach, Justin Schwind, and they found him some space in a building across town, on the second floor. There were offices underneath us, and every day we had somebody running upstairs and cussing us because their ceiling tiles kept falling down on their desks. Boy, we were not very well liked.
“That’s when they put us in what they called the monkey lab. It was an old building that they’d used for monkeys they used to test.”
Jones’s players from that first class remember that summer with a unique blend of nostalgia and horror. It is Bear’s first memory of the state of Alabama. “I graduated high school June 18, on a Wednesday. Packed up all my stuff on Thursday and flew out on Friday. My initial reaction was, ‘I’m in Alabama, and I’m working out in a monkey lab.’ My second reaction was ‘I. Hate. Humidity.’”
“It had no ventilation,” says Page. “You had to open a garage door to let the bad air out. It just looks gross, from the outside. And we’re all packed in there and it smells terrible because every ounce of odor is trapped in. It did not escape whatsoever.”
“That place,” says Lavender, “made us build something: 130 people, and nobody knows anybody, and you’ve all got to work out at the same time? It’s ‘Get in the car, bro.’ You didn’t have to know names at first. Just get everybody to the workouts. ‘C’mon. We ain’t trying to be late.’”