Coaching as ministry: Natchezian creates opportunities for football players

Published 2:14 am Saturday, January 15, 2022

ELLISVILLE — Jones College Football Head Coach Steve Buckley is a Natchez native and the fourth winningest coach in school history. His coaching career has been a journey through high school and college ranks in Mississippi and Louisiana. In that time he has coached players who went on to play in the NFL. 

On Monday night, he had another honor of watching former Jones College quarterback Stetson Bennett IV win the National Championship with Georgia. He led the Bulldogs to a 32-18 win over Alabama to end a 41-year title drought for Bulldog fans. Buckley remembers him playing at Jones where he threw for 1,820 yards, 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. 

Bennett was not a former quarterback from Georgia while at Jones. He was one of the guys and was chasing the dream of playing college football at his dream school Georgia. Periodically, Bennett and Buckely talked, mostly when things weren’t going well. Buckley knew his desires, troubles and beliefs and his self-confidence put him in a position to win a title. 

“It was rewarding to see a kid with a fairy tale ending. He believed in himself. I was happy it happened for him Monday night,” Buckley said. “He has such confidence in everything he does. He carries himself the right way and is stubborn. The most important attribute is that he is confident in himself and his abilities. When I recruited him, he checked a lot of the boxes for a quarterback. He was explosive, had a strong arm and could extend plays with his legs. The only drawback was his height.”

Creating opportunity 

Jones College helped develop Bennett into a better player and gave him an opportunity for him like they have done for several athletes. Buckley said in his five year tenure they have signed 117 kids with four-year colleges. Jones typically plays on Thursday nights, so it is not uncommon for Buckley to watch college football on Saturday and see players he has coached before. 

Sundays offer a chance to watch players like Jonathan Abram, who earned an opportunity to play at Mississippi State after playing for Jones, Scottie Phillips and Javon Kinlaw. Phillips now plays for the Houston Texans and Kinlaw is with the San Francisco 49ers.

 Abram was drafted by the Oakland Raiders where he has shown promise as a hard hitting safety with 115 tackles and three interceptions. He played in 2018 with Bennett. 

“He was crazy but in a good way. He loves to talk but is one of the few players who could back it up on the field, practice and the weight room,” Buckley said. “He is full of energy and fun to be around. He loves the game of football. He was a lot of fun to coach that year.” 

Buckley’s Football Career

Buckley’s football career began at Montebello Middle School. At the time, Natchez Middle Schools, junior highs and high schools ran the Notre Dame Box. By the time a player got to high school he had already spent three years learning the system. 

He played tight end at South Natchez when Ed Reed led the team to state titles in 1980 in his second year out of retirement. The team was a bunch of hardworking players who loved football. They believed in each other and what South Natchez’s coaching staff was selling. 

Reed was an inspiration in Buckley’s career path. He went to the University of Southern Mississippi and settled on coaching football instead of trying to play the game. Reed was a hard nosed, old school coach. He called the players to respect and love football which is the basis for Buckley’s philosophy on coaching. 

He considers himself an old school coach in a lot of respects. Each coaching stop taught him something different. 

Buckley served as the head coach at George County from 1994 to 1997, Petal High School from 2007 to 2011, Olive Branch in 2015. His coaching career began as an assistant at Petal before he went to USM as a graduate assistant. He would have several stints as an assistant coach at USM. Curley Hallman, Jeff Bower, Ellis Johnson and Todd Monken had him on their staff. From 1991 to 1994, he served as an assistant coach at LSU. At the time, he was the youngest coach in the SEC at 27 year’s old, he said. 

“I didn’t understand the full realm of where I was. I was lucky to be there. In 1990 I was the youngest coach in the SEC, you take a lot of things for granted,” Buckley said. “The guy I was working for was let go and I found myself out of a job. I learned early on, this profession has its ups and downs. You will be unemployed at some point. You have to have patience and believe things will work out.” 

Coaching Junior College

For a long time, he was not interested in coaching community college. He had recruited them many times in his career as a coach in the college ranks. Jones College approached him and after talking he realized their vision for the program fit his ideals as a coach. 

Jones, like the 13 other Junior or Community Colleges in the state, is to be a developmental tool for student athletes. Players end up at community colleges like Jones for one of three reasons. They didn’t qualify for a four-year college because of academics, they didn’t get the scholarship offer they wanted, if any, or they transferred from a four-year institution. 

Buckley understands that. His goal for his program is to develop kids academically, socially and athletically so they can be successful at the next level. In his recruiting visits he is honest with players. They didn’t dream of being a Jones College Bobcat as a kid.  Jones is a stepping stone for those kids to get their college education paid for. 

“We give kids an opportunity they would not have. I believe athletics are important, academics being much more important,” Buckley said. “I tell kids all the time ‘you won’t be an NFL player. What you can do is use football as a tool to finish with a college degree.’ I think all 14 JUCOs in Mississippi are giving kids an opportunity.” 

At this point in Buckley’s career, he is happy where he is at. He has no desire to coach at the Division 1 level because “I’ve been there and done that,” he said. Instead, he enjoys being part of the process to help student athletes grow. 

Steve’s father was a pastor at Parkway Baptist Church for 12 years and his brother Stan was a pastor at First Baptist in Jackson before starting a ministry in Haiti and the Mississippi Delta. While he didn’t follow in his family’s footsteps, Buckley can see a correlation between ministers and coaches. 

“You are always helping others,” Buckley said. “I remember seeing my dad involved with other people’s lives. I guess I was drawn to it. When you can help kids develop and make a difference in lives it feels good.”