There’s a fast-tempo offense to install, a defense to sharpen and a starting quarterback to find. These may be the dog days of summer, but there’s not a lot of down time.
Clark spent a recent lunch hour with The Anniston Star’s JSU beat writer, Al Muskewitz, for a mid-summer conversation that covered a wide range of subjects, but they all seemed to come back to the coach’s Big Three — faith, family and football.
Family was one of the biggest reasons he pursued the JSU opening last fall and settled in nearby Piedmont. As for football, he is what he does. Faith keeps him grounded through it all.
Without further delay, here’s a summertime conversation with Clark, who was hired as the JSU coach six months ago.
Anniston Star: The way the calendar stands, you’re a lot closer to your first game as a Division I head football coach than you are the first day on the job. Is the enormity and excitement of that debut starting to build for you?
Bill Clark: That’s something we try to talk about every day. If you come into our locker room, into our weight room, you’re going to see a countdown clock, so it’s kind of hard to escape the days are ticking down.
But when you’ve been doing this as long as I have ... granted, I hadn’t been the head coach of Jacksonville State in this exact situation, but we’ve had a lot of opening days and they’re all enormous to me. I don’t make any bones about it — it is huge, this is what we spend all our year working toward, so it is a big deal.
Obviously, there is a buildup because now we’re a little over a month away from actually starting camp, where there is no break. It’s 24/7. You know as a football coach that’s coming and you start getting yourself geared up for that.
AS: You mentioned the countdown clock, which I think is a neat novelty. Have you heard any comments or do you sense any heightening awareness from the players as it gets inside 100 days, 60, 30?
BC: We’re not around them as much in the summer, but I know hearing from my weight room guys that’s a big deal to them. I know that’s something we talk about every chance we can. We’ve talked about a sense of urgency. If it was urgent in January, my gosh, it’s got to be urgent now.
That’s when you’ve got to put in front a player “Win the day,” but these days coming up are getting more and more important.
AS: “Win the day,” I see that on your Twitter posts and it seems to have caught on with the fan base. What’s the genesis of that?
BC: That struck with me and I can’t even remember where I saw it. I’m a history major and buff, and, Lord, I probably stole everything (motivational) I’ve ever gotten being a coach’s son. We want to have these high expectations, but, hey, let’s just win today, start the day off great, have a great day today, finish it off and then we’ll worry about tomorrow. If we can stack those days together we’ve got something.
Wherever I got that, I don’t know. I’m for sure it was not my original thought, but it stuck with me.
AS: Is that a slogan just for this year and it’ll change next season? I remember former coach Jack Crowe’s early motivational novelty was his license plate, which one year said OVC-1 and then BCK-2-BCK after they won the league its first year in it.
BC: I think it’s something we’ll probably keep. We came in with Good-to-Great — you remember the GTG shirts we had when we first got here. Everybody was like, “What is GTG?”
We said in our first team meeting we’ve been good in the past and we’ve been good lately, but we want to be great and we want to be great every day. That’s why you set goals.
They are goals, but I don’t know any way to get to them without talking about them, preaching them, working on them. That was kind of our mantra during January. We thought you were good, we want to be great and we want to be great consistently and then winning the day is every day. Laser in on let’s have a great day today.
AS: Since you’ve been here, I think you’ve talked to every university constituency I can think of — fraternities, sororities, civic groups. I heard a story that you even went to the faculty/staff luncheon and handed out awards and genuinely was glad to be there. Why was all that important to you?
BC: First, we tell everybody all the time we’re not bigger than anybody else here. We want everybody to feel like we’re a part of them and they’re a part of us. Our players, our staff, when they see somebody they need to speak to them. Being cordial. The lady that cleans the hall, she notices when you speak to her. These are things that are going to go with these guys in society.
But going back to the faculty, that’s why we’re here. We’re here to get an education. I say all the time, football is very important and we love it, but these faculty members are part of that family. It’s easy to say that, but how do I show they’re important. I’ve got to go to their things that are important to them and let them know it’s important to me. It’s that big circle that we’re all in this together.
AS: What’s been the neatest or most memorable thing anybody has said or given to you since you’ve come aboard?
BC: The thing that stands out to me is when somebody comes back and says — and I’ve had this so many times — I ran into your players at Wal-Mart and they came up and spoke to me. I think the effect we’re having on the whole place.
For me, being a guy from here, to see people sometime I might even recognize who seem genuinely glad we’re here. Maybe because they knew me, they knew of me, they feel like they’re connected again. I’m not saying we had lost it because I hadn’t been around, but people I grew up, maybe went to school with, say, hey, now I feel connected.
One thing that did stand out was at that (alumni) flag football game and those former players saying, ‘Coach I feel like I’m part of it again,’ or they felt that sense of family. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m not just shaking your hand because you’re an old player and I need to.
AS: Family is important to you. You’ve taken up residence in Piedmont, and your son will be playing for the Bulldogs as a senior. What went into that decision as opposed to maybe living in Jacksonville where the university is located?
BC: We chose to go to Piedmont because my dad (former high school coach Ragan Clark) is there. When I’m gone so much I want somebody to be able to watch my son, because I think that’s a (major) time in your life. I got to see my daughter cheer a lot, here he finally gets to high school and I’m going to miss half his games with us on the road … and that’s a huge separation. Now, at least I know my dad is there.
And we’ve been away from each other 20-some years. You’re at that time in your life when you actually become friends and now we’ve got to go. We got to coach together (at Prattville), but I’ve been gone so many years and I wanted to have that connection again.
There are not many things I think about before I think of football, but my faith and my family, that’s it. I don’t have a lot of hobbies, but I do think about them first.”
AS: Is your dad going to help you coach?
BC: I’ve had that asked a hundred times. No. Now, will he come by every time I can get him there to watch practice? I love to have him be able to say I’m watching this guy on the side and he’s not into it. That’s just an old-school coach. That’s what was so neat at Prattville. I’d put my young coaches in a room with him and just leave him because they’re going to get brutal honesty.
He doesn’t worry about hurting my feelings, but it’s because he cares enough to say here’s what I see. I want to know and I think that’s the thing that I have with him coming around. I don’t get him around enough, but he will at least be around.
AS: The football team just posted its highest APR ever (940) and even got an award for it (most improved APR in the Ohio Valley Conference). I know those numbers were established under a previous staff, but what’s your level of pride in that accomplishment and the value you place on maintaining and boosting it in the future?
BC: First, hats off to them. They had an issue (2009 postseason ban) and they fixed it and went above and beyond, so I want to brag on what we’ve done before we got here. That’s something (athletics director Warren Koegel) and I talk about almost every time I see him. Somewhere academics is going to come up. It’s always at the forefront of the conversations with the people here.
I was telling this story the other day. (Academic advisor for athletics) Janet Moore comes in our first meeting and says, “If somebody misses study hall …” and I said, “Whoa, ‘If somebody misses study hall?’ We don’t miss study hall, and she says, “But if they do we’ll let you know the next day.”
I said, no, here’s the list of the position coaches, here are his people, one of your people can text him and say, “Johnny missed study hall,” and Johnny will be getting called within the next five minutes unless he’s left his phone somewhere. They’re the head coaches of their position, this does not happen.
So, immediately we went from doing something I think was already good to hopefully saying it’s immediate, it is important, I do take a huge sense of pride in. We tell them if they don’t get their degree we’ve failed, we’ve failed them. I’m putting my name on the line that you’re going to come get this degree, so you’re going to have to try to screw it up because of all the benefits we have.
So it is big. It is important. It is why we’re here. And that, to me, says we’re putting our money where our mouth is.
AS: Now that Coty Blanchard has moved onto to pro baseball and is through with football, what’s your approach going to be handling the new quarterback situation?
BC: The summer in college football is so weird because the guys are basically on their own. We’re thankful Max (Shortell, transfer from Minnesota) is here to acclimate to the heat, learn how we train, throw with our guys. But come Aug. 1, all we can go on is what we’ve seen up to now.
We’ve got a short window of time to get him seen along with our guys we finished spring with and roll that together. I think we would be crazy to go in there and say he’s the guy — we just got him here. Even though we like all the things that got him here, we’re not going to unfairly take our guys and throw them out of the mix. But we just have to do it quick.
There’s so much grey area in the summer, but what we’re trying to do right now is get everybody physically ready to go out and practice because the pace we’re going to practice at come August, which is (rapid).
AS: I know you can’t see the players now, but what are you hearing about how summer workouts are going?
BC: The thing we know is we’re having no issues and for a coach that’s good. The summer is so crazy, you can’t even take roll. But we’ve had no issues. Everything I think that’s going on is good. I think we’re doing the things we’re supposed to be doing.
AS: When would you like to identify the No. 1 quarterback?
BC: If you’re basically saying it’s a four-week window (in camp), I think you’d like to have that starter two weeks before the game getting the dominant amount of reps. And with injury situations like they are today, if you’re crazy enough not to have a second guy ready, you’re crazy.
We’re going to have two ready. Now we’re not going to be doing one series every play but that second guy will play. Now, how much, I can’t say, but you’re an injury away at that position from having a guy that runs your whole team. We’ve got to have two. Got to have two.
AS: What is the bigger of what seems to be the two hottest burning questions facing your team — establishing this new up-tempo style of offense or improving the defensive efficiency?
BC: That’s a chicken or egg question to me, but for me it’s always going to be defense first because if we’ve got that, we’ve always got a chance. You’ve got to get better because we’re not going to be very good if you’re not. It’s a proven fact. That’s my first priority.
AS: How far off is it? The numbers say they were ranked like 100 or worse in the most of the major defensive categories last year.
BC: It was really far. It’s better. If it just comes down to basics of getting off blocks. We were horrific at it. Whether they didn’t understand how to play with their hands or they just couldn’t — it’s a lot things — but they didn’t.
Until you learn to separate from a block defensively, it’s hard to run to the ball. There are so many pieces to just being a great defensive team, we couldn’t do the first one. So, if you can’t do the first one, you can’t get to any of the others or you have to start doing crazy things to try to create it. We had to get better at the first one, which to me always goes back to weight room. It all starts there.
AS: How effective was your spring? Injuries limited players’ availability and, let’s face it, a good portion of the team you’ll be playing with probably wasn’t even here yet.
BC: Hopefully, we created a mindset, we created a work ethic, we created a way we practice, the way we do things. If nothing else, we hopefully set a standard.
I tell them every day here’s my standard, it’s always going to be here (holding a hand above eye level). I’m always talking about doing it better than it’s ever been done. I probably don’t have a lock on that, the best practice, the best athletes, but we can control the effort, which all to me goes back to a defensive mindset.
I think we’re starting to get in that direction. One of the things you’re going to see is how we tackle. I thought we tackled pretty well in the spring game. I think we’re going to look for that Aug. 31. You’re going to see me go nuts if we’re not tackling. To me it’s just a disease. You’ve got to practice it every day. It’s a safety factor, but it’s a true measure of what kind of defense you are.
AS: How do you like your first schedule? From the non-conference standpoint at least it looks like there’s a chance for the new guy to have some early success.
BC: I do (like it), because we can win them all. Now, you could still lose them — sometimes you go in there, I mean, we’re going to see somebody down the road where you should not win that game unless something happens. That’s tough as a player and a coach. You work your butt off and all of a sudden this guy’s Xs are just bigger than your Os — but we look at our schedule and say, “Hey, we can win them all.”
I like the fact it’s not Alabama, Florida State and LSU the first three games, which could happen and then there are some schools that have to do that kind of stuff, and we’re going to be playing some of those down the road, but I think we can beat everybody on our schedule. That’s all you want.
AS: Tell me the difference between coaching in high school and college. It seems a lot of your staff has more high school coaching experience than college experience, and I’m wondering how that’s going to translate as you try to get this thing off the ground.
BC: What we’ve got is a mixture of guys, a couple guys who were almost all high school, most of my guys have been at some place college.
Nick Saban and I talked about this at length: The biggest difference in high school and college is not the football, it’s recruiting. That’s the first thing. He said there’s a learning curve in how you recruit. It’s not the football.
What we discovered at Prattville and the top high schools in the state — we had three camera shots, we coached 100 players, we had two trainers — a lot of times it was more college than some colleges. I think the recruiting curve is where they learn, but the day-in, day-out football part of it is no different than what we did at Prattville or Oxford or Spain Park.
I think you see that in (Ole Miss’) Hugh Freeze, you see that in (Auburn’s Gus) Malzahn, if they were at the top levels, if they coached at like a college. I like those high school guys who have an appreciation for it. They had to clean the toilets. They had to cut the grass. These guys are workers. There’s no spoil, no expectations, let’s go to work.
I think I’ve got a great mixture of a few high school guys who know everybody in the state, some college guys, some guys who’ve done both — like me — and I think that’s what makes a good staff.
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.