JSU's early recruits mostly standing firm after Crowe's ouster
by Al Muskewitz
amuskewitz@annistonstar.com
Dec 02, 2012 | 5676 views |  0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jack Crowe on the sidelines of Jacksonville State's 2012 season-opener against Chattanooga. (File photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Jack Crowe on the sidelines of Jacksonville State's 2012 season-opener against Chattanooga. (File photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
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JACKSONVILLE -- Based on its early haul of verbal commitments, Jacksonville State appeared poised to put together one of its strongest recruiting classes in football coach Jack Crowe’s tenure.

Then Crowe got fired Friday night – with two years remaining on his $160,000-a-year contract -- creating the potential to send that recruiting effort into an uproar. While the news of Crowe's ouster shocked and hurt the early commitments, most of the players on that list remained committed to their decisions.

Of the six early commitments reached by The Star Saturday, only one – Austin cornerback Greg Willard – said he plans to reassess his choice to join the Gamecocks.

Willard chose JSU over OVC rivals Murray State and UT Martin, Southern Miss and “a couple of NAIA schools,” and was unaware of the coaching change until contacted by a reporter Saturday morning.

“I really didn’t know anything about it until you just said,” he said. “I’ve really got to decide about that now. I’ve really got to think that over right there.”

Willard said he will visit Murray State Jan. 18.

“I’ll go check things out and see what they’re talking about,” he said. “And I’m going to think it over and talk to my parents.”

He seemed to be the exception.

West Forsyth (Ga.) tight end Ty Anderson, Lovejoy (Ga.) defensive end Nate Norwood, Ider offensive lineman Justin Lea and two-way McAdory lineman Dylan Cline all told The Star Saturday they remain committed to JSU.

Spain Park quarterback Nick Mullens, the 2012 Gatorade Alabama Football Player of the Year, told The Star Friday he was still committed to JSU.

Attempts to reach the Gamecocks' first signee of the class -- Lake City, Fla., quarterback Jayce Barber -- were unsuccessful, but indications are he still intends to enroll at JSU in January. Barber signed with the Gamecocks last month and is expected to graduate from his high school after the holidays.

“Jayce said he was going to try to get hold of (offensive coordinator Ronnie) Letson today,” Lea said. “He didn’t say anything negative about it. It seems like everybody’s staying positive about it, from what I gathered."

Anderson said he was "surprised" when he learned of the coaching change from Mullens. None of the players contacted by The Star said they had spoken to any of the JSU coaches since Friday’s announcement through Saturday morning.

As for his commitment, Anderson said, “right now (it) is still strong. I’m sticking with it right now.”

So are the others.

“It doesn’t change anything for me,” Lea said. “I’m dead set on going to Jacksonville.”

Norwood said his commitment was "still solid." Cline said “I’m committed to the university not the coach,” but added he would feel more comfortable if some of the assistants were retained.

Crowe's ouster came at the end of several days of comprehensive postseason meetings with athletics director Warren Koegel. Neither Koegel nor Crowe would divulge specifics about the meetings, but the tone apparently turned quickly late. A person familiar with the meetings said one of the tipping points was a question about changing assistant coaches, particularly Letson or defensive coordinator Chris Boone. Crowe is said to have balked, of course, and questioned where the program could do better for the salaries it offers.

The aversion to a similar suggestion contributed to the end to Crowe's tenure as Arkansas' coach in 1992.

Norwood said a "huge part" of his committing to JSU was the bond he formed with the assistants.

Attempts to reach the JSU assistants over the past two days have been unsuccessful and a source close to the program told the newspaper the current players have been told by team officials not to comment to the media “at this time.”

Crowe regretted not getting to address his coaches or players after the decision was made and said the fallout of the decision would be felt more by them than him. Koegel told the assistants they were expected to help through the semester exams and recruiting, but they have no contracts and are expected to receive their final pay checks at the end of the month. Koegel said he would be involved in recruiting in the interim.

The university brought Crowe in from private business in 2000 to restore the program's credibility in the aftermath of then-coach Mike Williams' midseason resignation. In addition to coaching the team, Crowe also was a fundraiser, promoter and rebuilder of relationships with the fan base and high school coaches.

On the field, Crowe went 87-57 with three Ohio Valley Conference championships during his 13-year JSU tenure and this season scored his 100th career victory as a head coach. His length of service and victory count both are second in JSU history to Don Salls, who won 95 games over 18 seasons.

The Gamecocks went to the NCAA playoffs three times, but never won a postseason game. His 2010 team opened the season with a double-overtime win at Ole Miss and was ranked as high as No. 2 nationally, but lost at Eastern Kentucky on the night it was poised to take over No. 1. The program is working on a school-record string of 10 straight winning seasons.

"I feel like we have moved the program forward over the last 13 years," Crowe was quoted in the university release Friday. "There's still a lot left to be done. After several discussions with (Koegel), I realized I did not have the support to get those things done."

This season the Gamecocks went 6-5 against one of the 20 toughest schedules in the country, going 1-5 on the road. Two of the losses came at Arkansas in the opener and in a shut out at Florida in what proved to be Crowe's final game.

"I couldn't believe they got rid of Coach Crowe, because of the legacy he had at (JSU)," Lea said. "It shocked me."

The school is expected to open a national search for Crowe’s successor. It took seven weeks for them to hire Crowe following Williams’ resignation and if the school follows that same schedule this time, the new coach won’t be named until three weeks before National Signing Day.

Koegel told The Star on Friday he didn't have any candidate in mind. He didn't return an email seeking comment Saturday.

Cyberspace already is alight with JSU fans pining for Hoover High School coach Josh Niblett (a former JSU strength coach under Williams) and former Hoover coach Rush Probst to be considered. UL-Lafayette defensive coordinator Greg Stewart, a longtime JSU defensive coordinator, also could be a candidate. The idea of a high school coach taking the program received lukewarm support from the commitments.

“I’d rather it be somebody experienced like coach Crowe,” Cline said, "so it’s not like a fresh start.”

“I felt like when I talked to coach Crowe it was all about winning championships and the people there were committed to it,” Lea said. “I’d like to see another coach who's about winning championships and that being the main goal.”

Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.

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