Alcorn fans reflect on football
NATCHEZ — Alcorn State alumnus Torrey Groce hasn’t spent much time following Braves football as of late.
Five straight losing seasons and numerous coaching turnovers were enough for Groce’s interest in the school’s football program to wane.
“It’s probably better to go to a Natchez High School game than to go to an Alcorn State game,” said Groce, a 2001 graduate of NHS. Groce didn’t even go to homecoming this past season at Alcorn.
Like Groce, fans are no doubt sick of watching the Braves lose. When fans stopped showing up for games — less than 500 came to Alcorn’s final home game last season, per school reports — Groce said he felt a change was needed.
“The coach (Melvin Spears) needed to be fired, which is what happened, and it should have happened,” Groce said bluntly.
Groce said, however, he liked the hiring of new head coach Jay Hopson, who took over the program in late May.
“I think drastic change is what needs to happen, and what they did was drastic,” Groce said. “It was the first white coach ever hired (in the SWAC). He’s got (Division I) experience, and his resume looks pretty good, so I feel like he’ll do pretty good. He can’t do too much worse than they did the past couple of years.”
The hiring of Hopson
Groce wasn’t alone in his feelings toward Hopson’s hire. Natchez resident Willie Wesley said he was happy with Hopson, saying it was time for a change. It also didn’t hurt that the school stepped out and became the first SWAC school to hire a white head coach, Wesley added.
“The president (M. Christopher Brown II) is all about change and making the school better, and with him making the change with a new coach, especially a white coach — the first in the SWAC — you’ve made history,” Wesley said.
Natchez resident Jason Jones, an Alcorn alumnus, also had good things to say about Hopson’s hire.
“He seems to have good credentials,” Jones said. “I remember when he was at Southern Miss (as defensive coordinator), and they had strong defenses.”
Jones said the campus is already racially diverse, so Hopson’s hiring was just a continuation of that.
“He was the best coach available on the list, and it just worked out that he was white,” Jones said. “I hope they don’t focus on him being a Caucasian person, but on him as a coach leading the program.”
Jones said he was aware that Hopson was forced to resign as defensive coordinator from Memphis last season, but he didn’t think that was particularly damning to Hopson.
“Memphis is a basketball school,” Hopson said. “It’s not really a football school. The best players in that state go to Tennessee.”
Daylon Johnson, a recent Alcorn graduate who currently lives in Natchez, said he wasn’t as high on the hiring of Hopson. But that had more to do with the constant coaching changes over the last few years, he said.
“All I know is, he was at Memphis last year, and they weren’t too good,” Johnson said. “Honestly, they couldn’t hire anyone that would get me excited. It seems like no matter who they hire and what their plan of action is, people turn against the coach and want him gone. I just hope they give (Hopson) a chance.”
Johnson also said he doesn’t care about the color of the coach’s skin at all, as long as he can turn the team around.
“I want whoever’s going to get the job done,” Johnson said. “The story should be, if we went 2-8, we want to improve. I don’t care if he’s white. If he wins, that’s all that matters.”
Johnson said he thinks the alumni are the ones constantly pushing for coaches to be fired after a poor season.
“I can’t say exactly why, it’s just that, when you’re not winning, we want you gone,” Johnson said.
“Coming off a 2-8 season, if we were to go 3-8, it would be an improvement. But people want a quicker turnaround than what seems to be possible. I don’t see it happening in one year.”
Wesley said the constant turnover has been a big problem for the football program recently.
“Once you get a new coaching staff, your players have to get used to the coach, and the coach has to get used to the players,” Wesley said.
“They’ve been changing coaching staffs for the last couple of years. It’s a big concern, because some guys will be there four years, and within four years, they’ve had four different coaches. They have to learn that coach and how he coaches, and learn his unique system.”
Jones said there’s little reason for an athlete to want to play football at Alcorn if the school keeps shuffling coaches.
“Hopefully (Hopson) will bring some stability,” Jones said. “Why would the players want to play at your school when you’re constantly having coaching changes?
“It hurts the program, because some of the players come because of certain coaches. If you’re focusing just on football, why would I want to send my kid there if (the coach) won’t be there next year?”
Jones also said when different coaches run different schemes, it doesn’t give players a chance to get used to one main system on offense and defense.
“Each coach has his own system and assistants,” Jones said. “The quarterbacks are having to learn the spread versus the I formation or something, and there are different defensive schemes. Some coaches are also stricter than others, and some are more laid-back. But there needs to be some sort of consistent system in place.”
Reaching out to Natchez
In addition to losing records and coaching carousels, part of the problem with attracting fans, Groce said, is that there’s some distance between the City of Natchez and Alcorn.
“There’s not a sense of community as far as outreach into Natchez, I don’t think,” Groce said. “It used to be Alcorn was associated with Natchez, and Alcorn now is just separate.”
While he was at NHS, Groce played football for the Bulldogs. Despite having a Division I college just 40 minutes away, Groce said Alcorn never invited him to participate in any football-related activities.
“I didn’t go to any football camps or anything like that,” Groce said. “A school that close, you would think they’d have something every year, like what they’re doing with basketball now.”
If Alcorn is going to have any success in the future, Groce said the school would have to expand its focus on recruiting Natchez.
“This is Alcorn country,” Groce said. “They advertise it for admissions and academics that this is the area school, but it should be that way with school spirit.”
And there would be a lot more school spirit locally if Alcorn featured Natchez athletes for local fans to watch on Saturdays, Groce said.
“It’s very important. You have families that are going to see kids play,” Groce said. “Families of families, friends of families, that sort of thing. We have a receiver up at Jackson State now (Rico Richardson), and people follow him.”
Groce also said it’s important for the coaching staff to develop any future players they do end up signing out of Natchez.
“That’s something that has to be mended as far as the relationships with the players. Some may go there, but they fizzle out,” Groce said.
“A kid is going to be talking about getting a scholarship from somewhere else and remember that, a few years ago, his cousin went to Alcorn, and he didn’t even make it through his freshman year, for whatever reason.”
While Alcorn may not be able to compete with schools located in bigger cities like Jackson State and Southern University as far as entertainment goes, Jones said that’s not always a disadvantage for a school like Alcorn in attracting athletes.
“If you’re in a city, there are a lot of distractions,” Jones said. “It could hurt your grades. Some are from rural areas anyway, so it’s a quicker adjustment.
“Alcorn is a family environment. The teachers check up on you, and it’s more personal.”