Braves’ 0-4 start has alumni grumbling

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 28, 2000

Johnny Thomas, Alcorn State’s head coach, reacts to a bad play during the Braves’ 41-12 loss to McNeese State on Saturday. (The Vicksburg Post/PAT SHANNAHAN)

Alcorn State fans and alumni have put head coach Johnny Thomas on the hot seat after the school’s first 0-4 start since 1990, but Thomas is keeping cool with a vote of confidence from the university’s president.

“No, he’s not on the hot seat,” Alcorn president Dr. Clinton Bristow Jr. said. “We have a plan (to rebuild) and we’re sticking with that plan. We didn’t get off to the start we would have liked to have gotten off to, but … I have confidence in the plan and I have confidence in Coach Thomas.”

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Thomas said he discussed the status of the program with Bristow last week, and they’re on the same page.

“Professor Bristow knows exactly the situation when I came in. He and I had a long conversation about the football program about a week ago and he knows where we are in relation to the plan,” said Thomas, believed to be one of only two Division I football coaches with a doctorate degree.

Bristow praised the football team’s academic success and graduation rate under Thomas, who is just midway through his third season at Alcorn. Bristow said that was more important than wins and losses.

He sidestepped questions about Thomas’ record on the field, however, talking instead about the success of the athletic program in general. Alcorn won Southwestern Athletic Conference titles in four other sports last year and has had success in several sports over the past three years.

“I’d love to have a winning football team, but I’m not about the business of getting rid of people because they have a losing season,” said Bristow, who fired Cardell Jones in 1997 after three straight 4-7 seasons.

“You have to take the whole thing. This is a business and football is just one part of our business and the business is doing extremely well … The university gets stars across the board in everything but football.”

Matt Thomas, treasurer of the ASU National Alumni Association and a former alumni association president, said the bad start has caused much of the discontent among fans.

“I would think you’re 0-4, you’re not happy. We’re not jumping up and down at this point,” he said.

“I really feel he has Alcorn at heart, but he just doesn’t have the surrounding people to get the job done,” Alcorn alumnus Charles McClelland said.

Thomas took over the Alcorn program in 1998 from Jones, who led the Braves to two SWAC titles during his seven-year stint.

Thomas who spent nine years away from coaching before taking the Alcorn job pledged to rebuild the program, focusing on a plan that included a heavy emphasis on academics. But he has struggled in his first two seasons. The Braves were 5-6 in 1998 and 3-7 last year.

This season, mistakes and bad breaks have hurt the Braves, but some coaching calls appeared to contribute as well.

In a 20-17 loss to Fort Valley State, for example, the Braves appeared to recover a fumble on the third play of Fort Valley’s game-winning drive. The play was ruled an incomplete pass, and Valley quarterback Brian Villanueva picked Alcorn’s prevent defense apart, leading Valley on a 76-yard scoring drive in the final 1:27 without a timeout.

The week before, in a 35-28 loss to Alabama State, the Braves took a 28-21 lead early in the second half and had a chance to capitalize when Alabama State fumbled on its own 23 on the next play from scrimmage.

The Braves went three-and-out, missed a field goal and then ran a conservative offense for much of the second half. Two long punt returns including one for a touchdown were also called back because of penalties.

“I couldn’t have done anything except put them in a position to make the best plays,” Thomas said, adding that the Braves are a very young team. Including wide receiver Marco Walder, who opted to redshirt the rest of this season, Alcorn has only nine seniors on its roster.

“When a ball hits a guy right in the hands and he drops it on the closing drive, and we recover a fumble that they say isn’t a fumble, what more can I do?” Thomas said.

If you ask some of the Alcorn alumni, a lot. The usual armchair quarterbacking that comes with a bad season has been multiplied this year.

Johnny Thomas, also an Alcorn alumnus, said the pressure would be there even if the Braves were 4-0 instead of 0-4.

“If I were winning, it would be pressure to continue winning … I feel good about coming to work with a purpose. The pressure is not any more significant than life itself has pressure,” Johnny Thomas said. “Fans are going to be fans. I don’t worry about the hot seat. As long as the administration knows what we’re doing and want to get done and what the plan is. We’re sticking to the plan.”