By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Birmingham, AL (Sports Network) - Colorful jerseys hung prominently on all 10 of the team tables at the Southwestern Athletic Conference's football media day on Tuesday.
If all the optimistic talk of offenses, defenses and special teams weren't enough, the jerseys of some of the prominent programs in black college football history, and all of college football, reminded how the coaches and players will soon be back on the field preparing for the 2011 season.
And no FCS conference is looking forward to footballs flying, and putting the offseason behind it, more than the SWAC.
Head coaching defections, the firing of last year's SWAC championship-winning head coach and NCAA academic sanctions have rocked the conference since Texas Southern won the 2010 title over Alabama State just seven months ago in December.
The prominence of Jackson State and Therriault, the returning finalist for the Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com), underscored the SWAC's difficult offseason. The Tigers received APR sanctions and aren't eligible for the conference title game or NCAA postseason play.
The same could be said of Southern's program. The NCAA also docked Texas Southern 14.75 scholarships not long after head coach Johnnie Cole, who was the conference's 2010 coach of the year, was fired because of the program's academic shortcomings and replaced by offensive coordinator Kevin Ramsey.
Alcorn State head coach Earnest Collins Jr. left for Northern Colorado and was replaced by Melvin Spears Jr.; Prairie View A&M lost 2009 Eddie Robinson Award winner Henry Frazier to North Carolina Central and replaced him with defensive coordinator Heishma Northern; and Grambling State's storied program lost head coach Rod Broadway to North Carolina A&T, although the return of Doug Williams for a second coaching stint was the brightest news of the SWAC's offseason.
"I think we all have to come together," Williams said. "I talked to the commissioner (Duer Sharp) yesterday. I don't want to say what I shared with him, but it's some ideas that I think can help this conference. And we all have to look at and say we need to do that in order to raise the thing that needs to be raised. If we keep doing business the way we've done it and allowed everybody to do it differently, more teams are going to be in trouble."
As the SWAC faces a pivotal time in its history, it is being forced to attack declining fan interest, improve facilities, end shortcomings in compliance departments and make itself more viable to student-athletes and coaches around the country. The loss of the successful Frazier and Broadway to struggling programs in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference was particularly alarming.
On the field, Jackson State will try to make itself the "unofficial" conference champion by having the best record against conference opponents, although it won't be eligible to play for the SWAC title. The Tigers have a conference-best seven players selected to the preseason all-conference squad.
Therriault said his squad was half expecting the sanctions when news broke this offseason. But, he added, "They didn't cancel our season, so as long as we have games to win, that's all I care about."
"I don't think it is an APR situation anymore for us," JSU head coach Ron Comegy said. "We enjoy playing football; it's something we love to do. I love coaching and they love playing. No alphabet can take that away from their love for the game.
"I think being successful in anything you do is good enough. Any time you're successful, it's a championship. Whatever we accomplish out there will be something we'll remember for the rest of our lives as a group of young men and coaches."
Jackson State's ineligibility could open the East Division's door for Alcorn State, led by sophomore quarterback Brandon Bridge, or Alabama State, the defending division champion.
Just hearing Warren's name thrown around at SWAC media day must have delighted conference officials. The conference, indeed, is trying to get the focus back on football.
"When it's time for media days all over the country, watching 'College Football Live' (on ESPN) a little bit more intensely, all those types of things, you start to get a little bit more specific in your game planning and practice planning, I think that's what football is all about," Northern said. "You start getting those chills. All the coaches start working out a little bit harder, the players are working out harder to get ready for the season."
"Our deal is we're keeping our hands to the plow and we're going to go straight ahead," Ramsey said. "We can't change the path that is set before us, but one thing we can do is we can run it with perseverance."
SWAC PRESEASON POLL (Coaches, Media and Sports Information Directors)
1. Jackson State (13 first-place votes), 88 points
2. Alcorn State (6), 84
3. Alabama State (3), 82
4. Alabama A&M (1), 62
5. Mississippi Valley State, 27
1. Grambling State (12), 103
2. Texas Southern (8), 79
3. Prairie View A&M (2), 74
4. Arkansas-Pine Bluff (1), 56
5. Southern, 33
PRESEASON SWAC ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
Offensive Player of the Year - Casey Therriault, QB, Jackson State
Defensive Player of the Year - Moses Ellis, DB, Prairie View A&M
QB - Casey Therriault, Jackson State, Sr.
RB - Marcus Wright, Texas Southern, Sr.
RB - Martin Gilbert, Texas Southern, Sr.
WR - Nick Andrews, Alabama State, Sr.
WR - Marcellos Wilder, Jackson State, Sr.
TE - Renty Rollins, Jackson State, Sr.
OL - James Dekle, Prairie View A&M, Sr.
OL - Sanford Banks, Grambling State, Jr.
OL - Terren Jones, Alabama State, Jr.
OL - Chris Browne, Southern, Jr.
OL - Roderick Gladney, Jackson State, Sr.
DL - Marquis Jackson, Texas Southern, Jr.
DL - Donovan Robinson, Jackson State, Sr.
DL - Jomarcus Savage, Grambling State, Jr.
DL - Kynjee Cotton, Alabama State, Sr.
LB - Cliff Exama, Grambling State, Sr.
LB - Jer-ryan Harris, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, So.
LB - Willie Fuller, Alabama A&M, Jr.
DB - Moses Ellis, Prairie View A&M, Sr.
DB - Kejuan Riley, Alabama State, Jr.
DB - Zack Gallow, Texas Southern, Sr.
DB - Tim Dandridge, Jackson State, Sr.
PK - Zoltan Riazzo, Grambling State, Sr.
P - Arturo Tamayo, Alcorn State, Sr.
RET - B.J. Lee, Jackson State, Jr.
QB - Brandon Bridge, Alcorn State, So.
RB - B.J. Lee, Jackson State, Jr.
RB - Kaderius Lacey, Alabama A&M, Jr.
WR - T.C. McWilliams, Alabama State, Jr.
WR - Joe Anderson, Texas Southern, Jr.
TE - Kirk Fitzhugh, Texas Southern, Sr.
OL - Julian Wyndom, Grambling State, Jr.
OL - Tim Tusey, Prairie View A&M, Sr.
OL - Terron Armstead, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Jr.
OL - Joaquenssi Eugene, Alabama A&M, Jr.
OL - Keyun Swinney, Jackson State, Sr.
DL - Jonathan Billups, Jackson State, Jr.
DL - Adrian Hamilton, Prairie View A&M, Sr.
DL - Jonathan Hollins, Texas Southern, Sr.
DL - Antoine Rogers, Grambling State, Sr.
LB - Marcus White, Prairie View A&M, So.
LB - Milton Patterson, Jackson State, Sr.
LB - Demarques Taylor, Alabama State, So.
DB - Anthony Johnson, Jackson State, Sr.
DB - Vernon Marshall, Alabama A&M, Jr.
DB - Donovan Masline, Alabama State, Sr.
DB - Carlos Hollins, Mississippi Valley State, Jr.
PK - Chris Ewald, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Sr.
P - Chance Wilson, Alabama A&M, Jr.
RET - Byron Williams, Southern, Jr.