His full reflection on his one-and-done season as an NCAA FCS coach, Rich Rodriguez said, will probably come at some point during the holiday season. Right now, Rodriguez, who just led Jacksonville State to nine wins and some well-earned homemade championship hardware, has too much to do as the Gamecocks continue preparations for the move into FBS.
He got a head start but still needs to transform his FCS roster into an FBS roster. Recruiting schedules need to be firmed up. Recruiting calls and visits need to be coordinated. He has to meet with the returning players and get the program on the same page as they prepare to move forward into Conference USA. Facilities need to be improved.
What he won’t have to work toward, though, is his thoughts on what his first season in Jacksonville meant to him personally.
“It was the first year, for me, coaching on the (FCS) level,” Rodriguez said. “I really enjoyed that, not only the players, which was fantastic, and the coaches I work with. It was really neat because I’ve always said you want to have a team that doesn’t like football but loves football. You always want to have that at the forefront of your program. You want them to really love football. They’re playing because they love the competition, love the game. I really felt that from these guys this year, from the staff, from the players, and from the people that supported our program. We’re in an area that loves football. That’s really neat, to come to work every day with, “Ah, these people, they love football, they’re interested in how we’re doing.’”
There was a lot to like this season. The Gamecocks finished 9-2, with the lone FCS loss coming to Southeastern Louisiana, and won all five of their ASUN games. It’s been well publicized that ASUN determined that Jacksonville State’s conference games would count in the standings, but the Gamecocks weren’t eligible to be crowned champions.
Rodriguez said the trophy he and his players hoisted and took pictures with after the game was designed and ordered by JSU Football Chief of Staff Dusty Rutledge. The trophy traveled on the bus with the team to the regular season finale in Central Arkansas, but Rodriguez said he wouldn’t bring it out on the field if the team lost. When the Gamecocks finished the season with the 40-17 victory over Central Arkansas, ensuring they didn’t have to share the league’s best mark with anyone, the trophy was part of the celebration.
“[Rutledge] wanted to make sure he made it a little bigger than what the actual ASUN trophy is going to be. That was pretty good,” Rodriguez said.
Now it’s time to move forward. When it comes to building a team, Rodriguez and his staff have some decisions to make, even though the program took steps before this season to help in the transition. As an FCS program, Jacksonville State had 63 available scholarships. As an FBS program, the Gamecocks will have 85 available scholarships. Programs that are moving from FCS to FBS are allowed to begin raising the number of scholarships given to players during their final season before the transition. Do that, though, and the program is not eligible for the FCS playoffs. Stay at 63, and the program can still be playoff eligible. Jacksonville State chose that forego postseason.
Rodriguez said his program used about 71 scholarships this season but, with injuries, were down close to 63 at the end of the season. The competitor in Rodriguez took a few minutes to look at the FCS playoff bracket to try to figure out where the Gamecocks would have fit and how they would have fared. But, he has no regrets in taking advantage of the additional scholarships.
“We said, let’s go ahead and start moving forward, so we’ll be closer to 85 next year,” Rodriguez said. “I think our players understood that, too. I tried to explain it to them. I wanted them to play for the school. We had teams we played that beat us last year. We had motivation trying to turn that around and beat them this year. There was different motivating factors for us. I don’t regret anything at all in the avenue that we took.”
There’s still work to do for the Gamecocks to reach the limit, and it’s not just counting numbers. In FCS, the 63 scholarships are considered equivalency scholarships, which means partial scholarships are available. Jacksonville State has some players on partial scholarships. In FBS, programs are only allowed to give full scholarships, which means some tough decisions need to be made.
“Moving forward, it’s going to be all or none,” Rodriguez said. “So, who is going to be getting all, who is going to be getting none? Those are hard questions, hard things that we have to sort out in the next couple of months.”
That’s just the start of hard roster questions.
“I’ll say this: We have some really good players. We have some Division I-A or FBS players,” Rodriguez said. “We also have a lot on the roster that were recruited as I-AA players, FCS players, and they’re good players at that level. Can they compete on the Division I-A level on a consistent basis, like we want? I think some of those answers were made this season. But some of them, we still have some questions. This guy – he was good enough on the I-AA level. Is he going to be good enough to win on the I-A level? Those evaluations, we’re going to do quite a bit of them the next month and a half.”
Some recruiting objectives are already determined. Rodriguez said as an FBS team moving forward, the Gamecocks need to be bigger on the offensive and defensive front and faster on the perimeter of both sides of the football.
“Every coach wants to be bigger, faster, stronger,” Rodriguez said. “The bigger and the faster part, you can do in recruiting, right? The stronger part, the strength program has to do that. I believe in our strength program, and our strength coaches so much. We have some good ones coming back, but we’ve got to get bigger and faster going forward. We’re playing at a higher level.”
One adjustment the players won’t have to make is how Rodriguez and his staff run a program. This season was different for everyone involved, and the base was set.
“In the first year, I think what’s most important is you establish the type of culture, attitude, whatever you want to call it, that you’re going to build your program on every year,” Rodriguez said. “Once you get that done, you can’t waver from that. So, that’s what we did, saying this is the way we’re going to work, this is the type of discipline we’ll have, this is the steps we’re going to take. We can’t bend on that, no matter what. We stayed true to that. Sometimes, programs don’t do that because they’re afraid they’re going to lose a guy, afraid that somebody’s feelings are going to get hurt, or what have you. I think our players appreciated that. They wanted that. I think they took it to heart.”
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