By Ross Dellenger/The Clarion-Ledger
JACKSON — It’s become a tradition for Charles Bishop.
As soon as Jackson State releases its football schedule each year, he picks up the phone, dials a Birmingham hotel and books his room for the weekend of the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship football game.
Nine times out of the last dozen years, JSU didn’t qualify for the title game, and Bishop had to call back six or so months later to cancel.
This year, he didn’t have to wait nearly that long.
“I had to call the other day,” Bishop said earlier this week.
Jackson State’s banishment from this season’s league championship game has been a powerful punch in the gut to diehard fans like Bishop. It’s been a disappointing shock wave to players who signed with the school in February.
They’re all feeling the sting of the SWAC’s ruling last week to make the Tigers ineligible for the 2011 title game — a decision that conformed with the NCAA’s postseason ban, placed on JSU for low academic performance.
It leaves plenty of questions to answer: Will players transfer? Will fans still attend games? Will there be a new head coach next year?
“My goal was to win a championship,” said fullback signee Reuben Corley. “I don’t know what to do and say about the situation. I’m still going to give them a chance.”
In interviews with The Clarion-Ledger this week, several other signees said the same — that they still remain committed in playing for Jackson State this fall.
Current players are not allowed to talk with the media. JSU coach Rick Comegy did not speak with a reporter this week.
With the goal of a SWAC title gone, fans and players both agree that a new one has emerged.
“Since we can’t go to a championship, we can go for an undefeated season,” said signee Kris Selita, a kicker from Michigan. “From what I hear, we have a pretty good team.”
Said Bishop: “It’s kind of a rallying cry to do something that hasn’t been done at Jackson State: an undefeated season.”
Talk about your lofty expectations.
They rest on the shoulders of a coach who is in the last year of his contract.
Comegy, who makes about $186,000 a year, did not receive an extension after last year’s 8-3 season and tie for first place in the SWAC Eastern Division.
“My alums want to definitely see some change,” said Cedric Meyers, JSU’s Houston-based alumni president.
“This is certainly a difficult set of circumstances,” said Jeff Travillion, a JSU alumnus and the father of a recent signee. “I think that this gives (Comegy) an opportunity to stand up to the plate and perform.”
As for the attendance, fans interviewed for this story have mixed feelings.
“The marginal fan will be the marginal fan,” Bishop said. “For the hard core fans, we won’t miss a game.”
Said Robert Cook, the chairman of the Tiger Fund: “We have full confidence that the true blue Jacksonians will continue to support the university and the young people who represent us on the athletic fields.”
Jackson State says it sold a school-record 8,000 season tickets last year. A woman answering the phone at the JSU ticket office didn’t know how many had been sold thus far.
Jackson State ranked third in the Football Championship Subdivision in attendance last year, with 24,120 a game.
The team has quite a draw again this year. Casey Therriault, one of the nation’s most prolific passers last season, returns. He broke two school records and tied the touchdown mark with 31 in offensive coordinator Earnest Wilson’s Air Raid attack.
Said Travillion: “I think we’re going to have a good team. I think this is the time when you find out the character of the fans.”
“Hopefully we just go out and play hard still,” said signee Maurice Brooks, a Coahoma Community College transfer. “We aren’t playing for a championship, but we’re playing for our pride and our school.”