COLUMN: Troy’s coaching search begins, looking at potential candidates

Published 11:22 am Monday, December 11, 2023

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Editor’s note: This column is in no way an endorsement or support for any potential coaching choices at Troy University.

While Troy fans and administrators are likely still reeling from the departure of successful Troy head football coach Jon Sumrall, the search for his replacement moves on.

The success that Sumrall led Troy to in his short two years at the helm is virtually unprecedented. After three straight losing seasons, Sumrall not only brought Troy back to its winning ways but did so with class and an unwavering competitive spirit. Troy won 10+ games in back-to-back seasons, won two consecutive Sun Belt Championships, won the Cure Bowl and Sumrall watched as Troy broke attendance records at home in both his seasons. He was the first Troy head coach to win back-to-back conference crowns in their first two seasons, as well.

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Troy is unquestionably in a better place in December of 2023 than it was in December of 2021. The school has also recently further proven it’s commitment to the continued success of the football program after announcing a commitment of $10 million towards a much-needed indoor practice facility.

To say that Troy Athletic Director Brent Jones hit a home run when he hired Sumrall is an understatement. So, now Jones and the coaching search committee has the difficult task of replacing a “home run.” Replacing that success will be no easy task.

If you asked 30 Troy fans who they wanted to see as the next coach you may very well get 30 different answers. There’s also the situation of what “type” of candidate do you go after? The young, up and coming coach who may leave for more money – or a bigger platform – after a few years of success or a veteran coach looking to establish a winning tradition on what may be the backside of a long career? Troy also has to deal with the unfortunate fact that many coaches that may have been candidates a month ago are now settling in at new jobs. Troy’s football program is also preparing for a bowl game, the biggest bowl game the school has ever had the opportunity to compete in.

Numerous pundits and media outlets have pushed out who could be candidates, so let’s take a look at some names that may or may not come up.

Greg Gasparato and Joe Craddock

Greg Gasparato and Joe Craddock

You don’t have to look too far for some potential coaching choices as Troy’s defensive coordinator Greg Gasparato was named the interim head coach for the Birmingham Bowl. Gasparato led Troy’s defense to once again being one of the best defenses in all of college football in 2023 and he holds plenty of coaching experience. Gasparato, a former Wofford safety, has coached at the high school, Group of 5 and Power 5 level.

Along with serving as defensive coordinator at Troy, Gasparato previously served as linebackers and safeties coach at Appalachian State and was co-defensive coordinator at Army along with being a linebackers and safeties coach at Louisville.

Craddock came to Troy after serving two years as a tight ends coach at UAB, but he has much more experience than that. A former Middle Tennessee State quarterback, Craddock coached at Clemson before becoming the youngest offensive coordinator in the country at SMU in 2015. He also served as offensive coordinator at Arkansas for two years.

Craddock’s balanced offensive attack led to Troy running back Kimani Vidal shattering numerous rushing records this season and the Trojans were one of the most efficient offenses in the Sun Belt in both 2022 and 2023.

The biggest advantage of both Craddock and Gasparato would be keeping on coaches that share Sumrall’s mentality and keeping what could be a vital synergy among the coaching staff.

Bill Clark, former UAB head coach

Clark is a name that popped up almost immediately after Sumrall’s announcement. Clark may also be the biggest long shot considering the 55-year-old coach retired from coaching just two years ago due to a serious back injury, which led to a spinal fusion.

While media outlets like The Athletic have reported that Clark is itching to return to the coaching game after recovering from his surgery, Clark has not publicly commented on that.

Regardless, Clark would bring a unique – and successful – resume to the job. An Anniston native, Clark graduated from Jacksonville State and started out as a high school coach in the state. He coached at Piedmont, Tuscaloosa County and Dothan High School as a defensive coordinator before becoming head coach at Prattville in 1999.

Clark spent nearly a decade at Prattville, winning two state championships in 2006 and 2007 before turning to the college game. In nine years at Prattville, Clark went a staggering 106-11 and 23-6 in the playoffs with a pair of state crowns and a state runner-up finish.

Clark became the defensive coordinator at South Alabama in 2008 and served there until 2012 before taking over the head coaching job at his alma mater. At Jacksonville State, Clark led the school to an 11-4 record in his only season there. In 2014 he took over at UAB.

After UAB closed down the football program in 2015, Clark was tasked to quite literally raise the program from the dead just a year later and he did so in impressive fashion. Clark led UAB to a 49-26 record in his six seasons at the helm, including two conference crowns and a 2-2 bowl record. He was named C-USA Coach of the Year in 2017 and both the Sporting News and Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year in 2018.

Clark would not only bring a wealth of coaching knowledge and success to Troy but he knows the state and the Wiregrass and is also at an age that he may very well stay for the long haul. He also just happens to be considered a stellar recruiter, like Sumrall.

Alex Atkins, Florida State offensive coordinator

Like Sumrall three years ago, Atkins is considered one of the hottest young and up and coming assistant coaches in the country. He interviewed for both the Duke and Tulane jobs and has helped lead Florida State to a 13-0 record despite an unfathomable amount of injuries at the quarterback position.

Atkins, a Chicago, Ill., native, played at UT-Martin and has spent his entire coaching career at the college level. He’s coached at the junior college (JUCO) level and has also coached at both the Group of 5 and Power 5 level. He’s been an offensive line coach at Chattanooga, Georgia Southern, Tulane and Charlotte, while also being an offensive line coach and offensive coordinator at Florida State. He also served as run game coordinator at Tulane.

Atkins has been known as a “teacher” during his time at Florida State and would bring a change to the Troy program from Sumrall’s more defensive mentally to a more offensive mind, much like Neal Brown.

Zac Etheridge, Auburn defensive backs coach

Zac Etheridge

Etheridge, is a name that is very familiar to the Troy community having grown up here and became a football star at Charles Henderson High School before going on to play at Auburn. At just 35 years old, he’s one of the few potential candidates on this list that is younger than me.

While Etheridge has no head coaching experience – like Atkins – he is considered a star up and coming coaching candidate and was even reportedly a finalist for the recent ULM coaching search.

After helping Auburn win a national championship as a captain on the 2010 team, Etheridge became a graduate assistant at both Penn State and Georgia Tech before becoming defensive backs coach at Western Carolina in 2016. He turned up in the Sun Belt in 2018 as defensive backs coach at Louisiana before coaching the same position at Houston in 2019 and then taking over at Auburn in 2021.

While young, Etheridge is not only an energetic and passionate coach, he’s had the opportunity to soak up knowledge from coaches like Bill O’Brien, Hugh Freeze and Dana Holgorsen. Etheridge is also known as one of the top recruiters in the entire country.

Reggie Barlow, XFL DC Defenders head coach

Barlow is an interesting name to ponder as he would come from the professional ranks, rather than the college game, though he has plenty of college experience, as well. Barlow, a Montgomery native, played college football at Alabama State, where he set a number of receiving records, and went on to play in the NFL for nearly a decade with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders and Tampa bay Buccaneers, winning a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay.

After retiring as a player, Barlow became quarterbacks coach for his alma mater and then became one of Alabama State’s youngest head coaches ever in 2007. Barlow coached a number of future NFL stars while at Alabama State and led the school to a 49-42 record in nine years with three division championships.

In 2016, Barlow became the head coach at Virginia State and led the school to a 34-15 record with the school’s first undefeated record ever. He not only led Virginia State to a conference championship but two of his teams were crowned Black College Football National Champions.

In 2022, Barlow became the head coach of the DC Defenders of the XFL. He was named XFL Coach of the Year in 2023 as he led the Defenders to a 9-1 record. The Defenders would go on to play for the XFL Championship before losing to the Arlington Renegades.

Barlow knows the area, having coached in the state for more than a decade, and also brings successful professional head coaching experience, which is something that few candidates would bring.

Al Pogue, Missouri defensive backs coach

Al Pogue

Pogue is another name very familiar to the Troy faithful having two former coaching stints at Troy. Pogue, a Mobile native, was a star player at Alabama State and went on to start his coaching career at the high school level in Alabama. Pogue served as head coach at Calhoun, St. Jude and Carver-Montgomery, while also serving as an assistant coach at Lee-Montgomery and Sidney Lanier.

He became an assistant coach at Auburn in 2011 and served there before coming to Troy for his first stint in 2014 as a cornerbacks coach under Neal Brown. Pogue left Troy with Brown to serve as linebackers coach at West Virginia until returning to Auburn in 2020 as linebackers coach.

Pogue returned to Troy under Chip Lindsey in 2021 and served as cornerbacks coach with Troy until taking over as defensive backs coach at Missouri in 2022.

Not only does Pogue have coaching experience at Troy –under multiple coaches – but he knows the state and the area as both a former coach at Troy and high school coach in the area.

Zach Yenser

Zach Yenser, Kentucky offensive line coach

Troy went to Kentucky for its last coaching hire so why not return to Kentucky again? Yenser is not only a former assistant coach at Troy but also played at Troy. Yenser was a team captain in 2006 and earned All-Sun Belt honors, as well.

He started his coaching career at Troy as a graduate assistant in 2007 and then went on to serve as an offensive line coach at both the high school and college level with Henderson State, Colquitt County High School (Ga.), Louisiana Tech and California before becoming run game coordinator at Kansas in 2015.

Following his departure from Kansas, Yenser briefly returned to the Wiregrass as an offensive line coach at Enterprise High School before becoming a quality control coach at SMU. He then turned to the NFL, where he became an assistant offensive line coach with the San Francisco 49ers from 2019 until 2021. In 2021, Yenser became offensive line coach at Kentucky.

Yenser obviously knows the area – having played and coached at Troy – but he brings a unique wealth of high school, college and NFL coaching experience that few others share.

Will any of these potential coaches become the coach or even be considered? Who knows, but isn’t it fun to wonder?