No. 16 Mississippi State at No. 1 Alabama
When: Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium
Records: Alabama 9-0, 6-0 SEC; Miss. State 6-3, 2-3 SEC
Radio: 95.3 FM, 102.9 FM
It’s a very small club, with dwindling membership.
The roll call used to include Gene Stallings, Howard Schnellenberger, Ray Perkins, Jack Pardee, Jackie Sherrill, Sylvester Croom, Danny Ford and many more.
Joey Jones, who played wide receiver at Alabama from 1979-83, is one of the last active members of the Paul W. “Bear” Bryant coaching tree. Jones, who joined the Mississippi State staff as special teams coach in February, will visit Alabama on Saturday to coach at Bryant-Denny Stadium for the first time.
Those still in collegiate or professional coaching with roots that trace directly to Bryant include Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, Pittsburgh Steelers assistant head coach John Mitchell, Cleveland Browns special teams coordinator Amos Jones and Mike Riley, head coach of the San Antonio franchise in the startup Alliance of American Football pro league.
The club has no formal gatherings, but members have met up from time to time, and keep up with each other.
“I do know Joey,” said Riley, who was a defensive back under Bryant at UA from 1971-74. “We played his team at South Alabama when I was at Nebraska, so I got to see him. Of course I followed him and know about his career and starting the program at South Alabama. David and I stay in touch, and I’ve been really proud to follow his career. John Mitchell was a teammate and I’ve followed his career.
“I’m really proud of being an alum of Alabama and having played for Coach Bryant.”
Jones was the first head coach at the start-up program at South Alabama in his hometown of Mobile and stepped down last year after nine seasons.
“I just felt like it was time for me to step away,” he said of his decision to leave the South Alabama program that he served from its inception. “It’s very exciting to be in the SEC because it’s certainly one of my goals in coaching, just a bucket-list thing. I’m getting old, 56 years old, and to have an opportunity to coach in the SEC was just a dream come true for me.
“It’s big-time football. You’re going to line up against the Alabamas and LSUs and Auburns and Texas A&Ms and have an unbelievable atmosphere every Saturday. That’s what it’s all about.”
Jones has spent nearly his entire career as a head coach. He was an assistant coach at Briarwood Christian for two seasons in 1989-90, then served as head coach at Dora and Mountain Brook at the high school level before one season as head coach at Birmingham-Southern and then moving to South Alabama.
“It has been different, but it’s been a good different,” he said. “I’ve been able to focus just on special teams and the players that are involved. My scope is looking through a straw as opposed to looking through a wide-angle lens. I’m focused on just that.”
Jones still takes lessons learned from Bryant with him.
“The biggest thing, my philosophy in coaching that I got from him, is that on the field, the teams that he coached played with extreme passion and were competitors,” he said. “It was almost like a war mentality when you played for him.
“But off the field he was a gentleman, very cordial to people, wasn’t above anybody, would go and hug a mama that came to a practice. He was just a real person, and I took that philosophy from him.”
Riley cites similar lessons that have stayed with him.
“What I always tried to emulate from Coach Bryant was if you could get a program like Coach Bryant had where everybody was so proud to be in the program and be a part of that team,” he said, “that’s a very, very special commodity. The other thing that I’ve always appreciated and hoped that I could have in my locker room was that I wasn’t a great player at all at Alabama — I was just one of the guys — but I always felt like I was part of the team. Coach Bryant made everybody feel important, and I wanted all my guys on my team to feel the same way that I did whether they were star players or not.”
Returning to the stadium where he once played will be special for Jones.
“Coming back to Bryant-Denny and being able to coach there, it’s obviously going to be a little different from playing, but I’ve got so many great memories of that stadium,” he said. “It was an extremely exciting time in my life.
“Coach Bryant brought me from a young person to a man during those years, then all the touchdown catches, a lot of stuff goes through your head. It’s going to be an awesome experience that I’m looking forward to.
“Obviously it’s a little bigger stadium than when we played. It was just a bowl, I think 60,000, so it will be a little louder with a few more bells and whistles and Jumbotrons – back in the day you had that little old scoreboard and that was it – but it’s going to be exciting going back in that stadium for sure.”
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.
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