BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Mississippi Valley’s Rick Comegy joked with his new players during Southwestern Athletic Conference Media Days earlier this summer, seemingly oblivious that his previous employer and players were sitting just a few feet away.
It didn’t take long for the former Jackson State coach, who was scooped up by the Delta Devils during the offseason after the Tigers fired him, to get comfortable in his new surroundings.
The scene could have been a little awkward. But in the turbulent world of SWAC football, it really didn’t seem that strange.
Four of the SWAC’s 10 coaches are new this season and Alabama State’s Reggie Barlow — who is entering just his eighth season with the Hornets — is now the league’s longest tenured.
“I feel accepted and at home and revitalized,” the 60-year-old Comegy said about his new job at Mississippi Valley. “New challenges do that for me. It always seems likes God’s putting me somewhere I’ve got to build. I guess that’s what I’m meant to do.”
One reason the SWAC became famous was because of coaching legends like Eddie Robinson (Grambling), Marino Casem (Alcorn State) and W.C. Gorden (Jackson State). All of them are in The College Football Hall of Fame.
But strong coaching leadership in today’s SWAC is difficult to find.
“It’s hard, because the SWAC has such a great history in football and the expectations are always so high,” SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp said. “So when you’re not reaching those expectations, or if your athletic director thinks you’re not reaching those expectations or president doesn’t think so ... things change. So I’m not surprised by any turnover.”
Winning helps job security, of course. But even that’s not a foolproof way to stay employed.
Comegy was fired just weeks after leading Jackson State to a fourth SWAC championship game in eight seasons. The Tigers lost to Southern.
He was replaced by Harold Jackson, a 68-year-old who played for Jackson State in the 1960s and has had a lengthy coaching career as an assistant.
“You never know what’s going on at the top,” Comegy said. “I don’t know if it’s impatience because you never know what the plan is. You’ve just got to deal with whatever comes down. Accept whatever comes down and in my case, find a new love.”
Sharp said Comegy’s firing sent shockwaves through the league.
“You don’t know the criteria now,” Sharp said. “What do I have to do to keep my job? I’m not sure.”
The impatience isn’t just limited to Jackson State.
Alabama A&M fired Anthony Jones after 12 seasons, when the Bulldogs went 4-8 in 2013.
He’s the second winningest coach in Bulldogs history with an 83-57 record that included the last of his five division titles in 2011.
A&M replaced Jones with longtime college assistant and former Grambling offensive coordinator James Spady, who brings the pistol offense from Nevada.
Grambling’s Broderick Fobbs is the league’s fourth new head coach. He’ll be asked to win football games and also heal wounds from a difficult season in 2013, which included a player boycott after team members voiced their displeasure for the program’s coaching staff, administration and facilities.
Barlow said it typically takes coaches four years to get a program where they want it. The school’s patience paid off after he inherited a program saddled with NCAA sanctions and started his tenure with three straight losing seasons.
Since then, they’ve reeled off four consecutive winning records for the first time since 1967-70. Alabama State is favored to win the East Division this year.
“The thing about football is they love you when you’re winning and when you’re not winning, they’re not going to love you,” Barlow said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. You look at from the great Eddie Robinson to when he was at Grambling, Doug Williams. Even when you do win, look at Comegy.”
“They played for a championship. Sometimes people have to remove their personal feelings about a person and just judge them on what they do as a coach. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.”
AP sportswriter John Zenor in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this story.