Coaching change brings intrigue to SWAC football

(STATS) - Spring practices have wrapped up across the Southwestern Athletic Conference with teams full of the usual optimism.

And intrigue about what to expect from each other.

Who's coming and who's going - especially among coaching staffs - have become a part of the SWAC. Eight of the 10 teams have installed new coaches since the 2013 season ended, and this year there are three new ones, including Jackson State for the second time in three years.

It creates plenty of unknowns and unpredictability within the conference. Last year, that aspect reached the point to which teams struggled to win at home, going a combined 16-26 in conference matchups.

This year, many of the rosters have a high number of returning starters, APR academic penalties have been limited once again, and new coaches at Alcorn State (Fred McNair), Jackson State (Tony Hughes) and Texas Southern (Michael Haywood) have teams adjusting for the season ahead.

"It's always hard to come in and take over a program and then you have to make an adjustment to the guys that you're going to be facing - coaches bringing in new systems," Alabama State second-year coach Brian Jenkins said Monday on a conference call of SWAC coaches wrapping up the spring. "But you know the way I look at it, every coach is going to go out and try to bring something new to their football team in every phase. Regardless if a coach is new or if a coach has been with a team for a long time, I always have the philosophy of 'expect the unexpected.'"

As the SWAC seeks stability, especially among its coaching brethren, Alcorn State aims to win a third straight conference title. McNair was a part of the previous two and was elevated to the top spot after Jay Hopson left to become Southern Mississippi's coach.

With McNair having coached under Hopson, opposing SWAC teams have a feel for what the Braves team will be like this season. But coaches are always making adjustments, so McNair will put his stamp on the program as well.

"I think when they decided to make me the head coach here, I think the guys were excited about it," said McNair, whose late brother Steve is the Alcorn great and former NFL quarterback.

"The biggest thing is now you have to do your research now. You have to find out what their background is and what kind of offensive and defensive schemes they're running."

Only Arkansas-Pine Bluff with ninth-year coach Monte Coleman and Southern with fifth-year coach Dawson Odums have not had a coaching change in the last three years. Mississippi Valley State turned to Rick Comegy in 2014 after he was fired at Jackson State following eight seasons.

"I think it shows the class of the league how coaches want to come into the SWAC and coach," the dean of SWAC coaches said. "The conference, I think it's good, I think the coaches that moved on to good programs have done some good things. Some guys have retired. But most of the movement that you see is upward moving. I think it's great, you have to change up, different systems that you have to go against. It keeps it interesting, nobody is the same, it doesn't get stale. I kind of like that."

Having fewer resources than other conferences on the FCS level, including the rival Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference - the other FCS league for historically black colleges - make it harder for SWAC schools to compete on a national scale, as Grambling State, Jackson State and Southern once did.

But the Celebration Bowl debuted as a hit last season and the SWAC has only one program under APR penalties this year - Southern - down from four just two years ago. The Jaguars can still advance to the SWAC championship game if they win the West Division title, but they are ineligible to go to the Celebration Bowl against the MEAC even if they win the SWAC title (the runner-up would go).

There's no sense looking down the road, though. Another SWAC team is always in line to try to pull another surprise.

"You've got 10 great SWAC coaches," Arkansas-Pine Bluff coach Monte Coleman said. "It doesn't matter what team we play, week in, week out, you've got to come ready to go. Guys prepare their teams, they're very knowledgeable of the game, a lot of them played the game. I've got nothing but high votes for coaches here in the SWAC."

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