Having spent his childhood in Arlington, Texas, with freeways and skyscrapers that seemed to stretch on forever, Colton Jones had plenty to enjoy. Even late into the night, Jones could find a hot hamburger, a cold milkshake and, in all likelihood, a pro sporting event nearby.
Then, at 18 years old, Jones headed to Pine Bluff, Ark., which was, suffice it to say, a little different.
“You just have to get used to the atmosphere, the people around town, everything,” said Jones, now a fifth-year senior and a mainstay on the Arkansas-Pine Bluff offensive line.
“The surroundings are very different between home and Pine Bluff. It was hard at first, but I’m a survivor. Basically, you adapt to your circumstances.”
Now, that trait might come in handy again.
As the Southwestern Athletic Conference gears up for its 90th season of football, the Golden Lions might have to adjust to something new. Often considered a pretender in the Western Division, they have the look of an attractive dark horse.
OK, so maybe the Lions haven’t looked like contenders since 2006, when they won their only division title since joining the SWAC in ‘97. Last year, they finished 5-6 - even with standouts like Raymond Webber, who led the nation with 1,429 receiving yards. Still, when fourth-year coach Monte Coleman says he likes his team, he means it.
“I think we’re finally starting to get all the ducks in a row,” Coleman said.
If the idea of UAPB at the top seems silly, take a closer look at the Western Division.
Southern, obviously, is out of the picture, now that the SWAC has banned the Jaguars from the title game.
Grambling, Prairie View and Texas Southern, the last three conference champions, all went through offseason coaching changes.
That leaves Arkansas-Pine Bluff, whose offseason was downright quiet.
Consider this: Under Coleman, the Lions have always been physical on defense, the proverbial tough out.
Now, consider this: Last season, they had only nine offensive linemen, and Coleman called the team’s litany of injuries “the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Three of their five conference losses were by 10 or fewer points.
The Lions are deeper now, restocked with freshmen and junior-college transfers.
But the biggest change at UAPB might be its best move. When Coleman lost offensive coordinator Jerry Mack to Memphis, he hired Eric Dooley, the longtime (and beloved) wide receivers coach from Southern.
“He was under coach (Pete) Richardson for a long, long time,” Coleman said. “There was a winning tradition down there during that era, and he brings that.”
Will it lead to an unlikely title? Maybe not. But the modern-day SWAC is a place where favorites turn into also-rans on a weekly basis. With the right bounces, UAPB could stay in the race for a while.
And maybe, in December, Jones could give little old Pine Bluff a glitzy new nickname: Titletown.