Then over the course of the next 360 days went about doing it.
The part about being great remains a matter for history to define, but he got off to a pretty good start on the part about winning.
Candidly just hoping for a winning season, Clark directed Jacksonville State’s football team to its best season as a Division I program in not only his first year as its head coach but his first year as a head coach on the college level.
The Gamecocks went 11-4 and, despite being one of the last teams to make the field, made it all the way to the FCS quarterfinals before losing to Eastern Washington 35-24. And they were very much in that game until their starting quarterback got hurt and his replacement had an interception returned for a fourth-quarter touchdown.
They set numerous records along the way, including marks for total offense and scoring. Their defense, ranked closer to the bottom 20 than the top when Clark, a defensive specialist, replaced Jack Crowe, improved dramatically in every area.
“To come in and ask a group of players to buy into what we were trying to do … to see that process happening, it was very gratifying to end up where we ended up,” Clark said. “We didn’t say it was all broke. We just said it’s a different way to do it.
“Anybody who says validation isn’t important to them I think is not telling the truth. I think we all need that.”
There were things to overcome; getting the players to buy into the new guy and doing things a new way was only part of it. Cody Blanchard’s decision to forego his senior year to pursue pro baseball left the Gamecocks without an established quarterback, which Clark said “was a little scary,” and they had to rebuild the defense from the ground up.
“It was definitely worrisome,” he said. “If we could have a winning year it would be a really good first year.”
It went beyond that.
The first-year coach started 4-0, but with the exception of a record-setting running game against Jacksonville (Fla.), his team was just barely winning.
Every year has a turning point and this one had two — both after losses.
The first came after they lost to Murray State in an FCS record-tying third straight overtime game. It was their first loss of the year and they headed to their first conference road game at UT Martin for its homecoming. They won 41-27 behind 180 yards rushing and three touchdowns from DaMarcus James.
“That game was humongous,” Clark said. “I knew if we could go up there and be successful we had a chance.”
It wasn’t until two weeks later when the Gamecocks made their biggest turn. They lost their own homecoming game to Tennessee State 31-15 and limped into their open date with myriad injuries, but instead of becoming more demanding Clark set in motion the practice routine that would carry them all the way through the playoffs.
“I think our players thought we were going to bring them in here and kill them, beat them to death, and we didn’t,” Clark said.
As a result, the Gamecocks won six of their last eight games, blasting all the teams they beat.
Before the open date, they were outscoring teams an average of 31-25 and outgaining them 441.1 yards to 411.3. They averaged 211.6 yards rushing, while opponents rushed for an average of 186.1 and passed for 225.1. They had 20 sacks and 11 takeaways.
Over the final eight games, they were outscoring teams an average of 39-23 and outgaining them 443.6 yards to 355.4. They averaged 265.4 yards rushing, while holding opponents to 147.6 yards passing and each of their first two playoff opponents to less than 100 yards rushing. They had 32 sacks and 17 takeaways.
They wound up setting school records for total yards, points and sacks. They had almost as many sacks in the McNeese playoff game (11) as they had all the previous season (13).
James set the school single-season rushing record (1,477 yards) and OVC record for rushing touchdowns (29). Kicker Griffin Thomas set school and OVC records for field goals (24) and points by a kicker (134). Both were named second team FCS All-Americans on Wednesday.
The Eastern Washington coach was so impressed with the Gamecocks’ offense he even asked to call Clark during the offseason to learn more about it. And the Eagles have one of the top offenses in the country this season.
Although he was comfortable with his concepts of the offense, even Clark couldn’t have imagined the numbers the Gamecocks produced. But he was particularly impressed with the improvements his team made on defense.
“In today’s game, if you don’t put your heart, mind and soul into playing defense every possession you could give up 100,” he said. “To see the improvements across the board defensively … was fun to watch.”
As good as this year was, the Gamecocks have the potential to be even better next season.
Their only personnel losses are in the linebacker corps, an All-American kicker and some offensive linemen. No one would be surprised if they were preseason conference favorites.
“We would expect it to be (better),” Clark said. “My guys are going to go in the weight room and there’s going to be a reel of Murray, a reel of Tennessee State, playing. They’re going to have to watch it, because I haven’t forgotten.
“We are going to be the bull’s eye, so we’ve got to be exponentially better. How exciting is it to have all these guys back, yet know where the bull’s eye’s at, know we didn’t get what we wanted to get done.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.