The Jacksonville State football coach returns to the scene of the most life-changing loss in his career when he takes the Gamecocks into Fayetteville to face the Razorbacks in their season opener Sept. 1.
In 1992, shortly after having his contract extended for five years, his Arkansas team bumbled its way to a 10-3 loss to I-AA Citadel.
Reaction was swift and exact. Refusing to cave to the athletic director’s demand that assistant coaches be removed, Crowe was gone within 24 hours, never to resurface as a head coach again until the Gamecocks hired him in 1999 to clean up the mess left by Mike Williams.
That kind of loss is hard to shake. The game was revisited when Crowe was hired by JSU. It was brought up before and after his Gamecocks beat Ole Miss in 2010 — 18 years to the day of that fateful outcome. And it certainly will be a topic of conversation in the run-up to this game.
But Crowe has no apprehension — on a personal level at least — about walking back into the Razorbacks’ den; on some levels, he’s even looking forward to it. Now, facing a team with two Heisman Trophy candidates but reeling from its own off-season turmoil is a different matter entirely.
“I had one bad day at Arkansas,” he said. “And all I can remember most — from the standpoint of players and coaches and business people in the community — the support of the people I was around was amazing.
“It was very enlightening and happy. I was happy when I was there.”
He was even cordial to backyard neighbor Frank Broyles, the athletics director who dropped the hammer, when it was over.
It’s easy to be popular when you’re the football coach at Arkansas — it’s really the only game in town. But you’ve got to win. Crowe’s first Arkansas team went 3-8 and his second went 6-6, but it beat Texas.
Some of the relationships he forged back then remain in tact today, including some that went all the way to The White House. He signs two or three pieces of Arkansas memorabilia a year from fans sending him things in the mail. A couple years ago he walked through the halls of the Arkansas state legislature lobbying for the National Center on Sports Safety.
“Anybody who thinks I have a negative feeling, I quite honestly have never had a negative feeling coming from Arkansas,” Crowe said. “People would think one thing, but two weeks ago I go to Cabo and LeAnn and I are talking on the back of (the late food magnate) Don Tyson’s boat in the Pacific. If you can get that from — how long’s it been since I’ve been gone? — how can you say something bad’s come out of it.
“I got to be around some great people. The players, and coaches I coached with, just don’t get any better. I had one bad day and I caused it, so I can’t complain about it. The point being it’s 20 years later and I still feel connected.”
The only reason the Gamecocks got the $500,000 game in the first place was Crowe’s relationship with former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, and that deal was set long before Petrino got sacked. John L. Smith is the new coach, but the game is still in place.
Crowe said at the time the change would add “a little bit more drama” to the game, but nostalgia will be far from his mind in the weeks leading up to the game. His focus, he said, was getting a young team (average player age 19.6 years) ready for the gauntlet ahead.
The Arkansas game kicks off what Crowe has called “the toughest schedule in the history of this school (JSU).” It also includes road trips to Florida and the two OVC teams that beat the Gamecocks at home last year and ruined their post-season plans.
In all, the Gamecocks will travel 5,038 round-trip highway miles for their six road games this season. That beats the seven road games in 2003 that included Kansas and an NCAA playoff game by 500 miles and the 2009 schedule that had seven regular-season road games to accommodate the stadium makeover by nearly 1,000 miles.
And that doesn’t take into account the quality of the opponents.
“I think we have the toughest schedule in the history of this school and I think the history of the OVC,” Crowe said. “Nobody’s played this kind of schedule.
“We’re facing the No. 1 quarterback in America at Arkansas. Then, we step into the league where everybody but SEMO has the starting quarterback back. … (The success of the season) is all going to be about how we grow and how we meet the challenges of the year’s schedule.”
On Wednesday, the NCAA will release its annual Academic Progress Rate report for all member athletics programs. Although work behind the scenes has been ongoing, JSU officials won’t comment on their results until the report is released, a potential indication of bad news.
Football and men’s basketball have been hit by APR penalties in the past, but the athletic department has made strides toward improvement.
Football only needs a score of 850 to reach the 900 multi-year benchmark to avoid penalties; it has been above 925 each of the last two reporting years. Men’s basketball, which will feel the pinch of a 769 on the first year of this latest four-year score cycle, needs 917 to reach the 900 threshold.
While APR will garner all the attention when the report comes out, there are three other letters Crowe cites for continued academic progress within his program — GPA.
“I’ll tell you the (grade point average) of this football program has been on a steady rise and will continue to rise,” he said. “I think when we first started tracking this it was 2.23 and we’re going to be a 2.6 or 2.7. That’s what I focus on. When guys are here and taking classes, how well do they do in class.
“When your GPA is solid, you have a solid academic program. All the rest of it, to some degree, is circumstantial. If you’re in the class, what kind of grades did you make? That’s sort of the nuts and bolts of it. I track GPA, that’s what I track.”
Athletic department officials told The Star they hoped to have a spring semester grades report by the end of the month.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.