It’s not a pretty picture. It’s a picture of a young quarterback, lying on his back.
“He took a beating when he was in junior high,” said Larry Touart, Grass’ junior-high football coach and varsity basketball coach at Ashville. “He was a skinny kid, and we didn’t have a very good offensive line, and he got killed.
“But as he got older and got in high school, the quality of the players improved, and he was better. He was a pretty good quarterback in high school.”
We’re about to find out how the John Grass we know through his ups and downs as Oxford High’s head coach and one, record-setting season as JSU’s offensive coordinator and assistant head coach translates to the role of a Football Championship Subdivision head coach.
JSU announced Grass’ promotion Tuesday and formally introduced him during Thursday’s press conference in JSU Stadium’s club level.
Indications are Grass has every chance to succeed.
He inherits a lot of returning players from the team he helped coach to an 11-4 season, JSU’s best on the FCS level, and the school’s first two playoff victories since moving up from Division II in 1992.
His players stood up and cheered when informed of Grass’ promotion, according to JSU athletics director Warren Koegel, so the team believes in him.
“What I saw was a team that bought into everything the offensive coordinator was telling them,” Koegel said. “… These kids really respect John Grass, and I respect John Grass.”
Every fan base has people who wanted a different coach, but the sense is that more JSU fans than not see Grass as the natural continuation of Bill Clark, who left after one season to coach Football Bowl Subdivision member UAB.
They also see a natural continuation of the offense that set 49 school records in 2013, blowing past records for points and total yards.
There’s a positive vibe, a sense that JSU got it right by announcing Grass’ hiring five hours after announcing Clark’s resignation. Turn the page.
It’s different than when Grass started at Oxford. His predecessor there, Josh Niblett, had his following after leading the Yellow Jackets to an undefeated record on the field in 2007, though seven victories were vacated over an ineligible player.
When Niblett left to begin his wildly successful run at Hoover and Oxford hired Grass away from Spain Park, Grass met a few crossed arms. Though Niblett was 0-2 in the playoffs at Oxford, one of 6A’s smaller schools in terms of enrollment, first-round playoff losses in 2008 and 2009 didn’t help Grass’ cause.
But Grass would lead Oxford to its deepest playoff run as a Class 6A school in 2011. He did it without his best player, future linebacker and future LSU signee Kwon Alexander, who suffered a season-ending knee injury halfway through the season.
The Yellow Jackets fell one victory short of the playoffs in 2012 despite having a future Alabama Mr. Football in running back Racean Thomas, but Grass had built a track record through 16 years as a head coach, seven over 6A programs. He was Alabama’s 6A coach of the year in 2007, leading Spain Park to its only Super 6 the same year Niblett’s last Oxford team went 10-0 on the field.
Grass had built a reputation as an offensive innovator. That’s why Clark, a defensive coach who competed against Grass while Prattville’s head coach, snatched him up as offensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
A year later, Grass has that background as a big-high school coach and one year of helping Clark run an FCS program.
“It’s something I think we’re kind of used to,” Grass said. “You get in to bigger high schools, and it’s almost like a college. You run it just like a college program.”
Only on the college level, there’s more help with the details.
“Everybody is focused on football,” Grass said. “You work day in and day out, and you don’t have another job you’ve got to go do. In high school, you’ve got those guys that have got to go teach class. There’s a lot more time to get the job done.”
Chief among those who think Grass can get the job done is Touart, who attended Thursday’s news conference. Grass would later coach both of Touart’s sons at Ashville.
“Great individual. Hard worker. Competitor,” Larry Touart said. “And he tried to please, and that’s what he’s going to do with these kids.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.