UNA explores future with new coach, conferencePublished 6:00am Saturday, January 14, 2012
I recently sat down with UNA athletic director Mark Linder to discuss the future of the Lions’ athletics program with new head football coach Bobby Wallace, the departure of former head coach Terry Bowden and UNA’s search for a Division I athletic conference.
Q: When Coach Bowden was going to leave, was there any indication that he was thinking about taking a job somewhere else? He had just accepted a contract extension. Did the decision blindside UNA at all?
Linder: “That Wednesday night I got a phone call after church from the Akron AD while heading home. They said that was my courtesy phone call, and they would seek to contact [Coach Bowden] and see if he had an interest in being their head football coach. Then on Thursday morning at about 6 o’clock [Coach Bowden] gave me a call and said hey, I just wanted you to know Akron’s made contact with me and they would like for me to consider being their head football coach. Then at about 10:30 [Coach Bowden] called me to let me know he had accepted the position up there. That was on Thursday. We were able to get the position posted by Thursday and get a quality pool of applicants. By the next Thursday we closed the post and did our due diligence in coming up with a quality pool of applicants to interview, and we pulled the trigger on Coach Wallace. To say I was surprised, probably not, because you always know that during this time of year there’s always a potential and you have some things in the queue so you’re ready to go.”
Q: Any time in the past since Coach Wallace left, if UNA needed a head football coach I imagine his name was thrown around based on what he did in the ‘90s. Was it the same way this time?
Linder: “Yes. Even more so. In 2008 when we had the position open I actually contacted West Alabama to see if they would allow me the opportunity call [Coach Wallace] and they did. When I called him to see if he had an interest, at that point in time we chose to retain the entire staff. He liked his staff, he liked the direction [in which] West Alabama was going, and he declined. Once that became public knowledge then we could move forward with the hire. This time he came out pretty aggressively saying he definitely was interested.”
Q: Do you think he was feeling a call home at that point since he wasn’t with West Alabama anymore?
Linder: “I think it’s kind of funny because I was able to visit my father who I’m very close with. He’s 85 now. We were talking about life issues and I brought up the fact that Coach Wallace had an interest in our job. He says ‘you know Mark, I wish that I had never retired. I think it would have kept me sharp and given me purpose.’ All of those things are important to you, and having that conversation with my dad kind of opened my eyes up that [Coach Wallace] probably looked at retirement as the greatest thing since gravy. Then he gets a year into it and realizes there’s a lot of life left in me and I want to make a difference in young people’s lives and I want to try to get back into it. I do think that there are only one or two jobs that would have pulled him out of retirement and off of the beach and this is one of them obviously.”
Q: What was it like to try to recruit Coach Wallace back to UNA? Was it something that just came together?
Linder: “On Thursday at 10:30 was when I knew [Coach Bowden] had taken the job at Akron. By mid-afternoon I had a phone call from [Coach Wallace] stating that he had an interest in it. That’s a pretty quick turnaround. He has a lot of friends in this area. He has a love for this university and a love for this region. I think it speaks volumes about him at his willingness to come back. This place is special, no question about it. I’ve been here for four-and-a-half years and it is a special place, so I can see why he had a desire to get back.”
Q: Since he had such great success at this university, do you think there will be any undue expectation for him to get immediately back to championship caliber?
Linder: “I don’t think so. I think the expectations around here are that we’re always going to be championship caliber. Whether it was Bobby Wallace or the next candidate, the expectations around here are very high. I don’t know if it’s undue, but the success that he created here in the ‘90s hasn’t really gone away. Every year our fans are talking about ‘it sure would be nice for UNA to play here in the championship football game.’ We’ve been saying that for 16 years now. Every year our fans are expecting us to be playing [at Braly Stadium] in late December. I think the expectations are very high.
Let’s make no mistake. We set out to hire a great football coach, and we got one. A lot of people say ‘it’s going to help you in fundraising and in the community. It’s going to help you do this and do that.’ I don’t disagree. I think it’s great on many fronts, but at the end of the day we went out to hire the best football coach we could find, and we got a great one. The neat thing about it, in talking to references and people who know him, he’s a better man with the discipline issues and pouring into kids, making sure they’re academically successful. That’s why it’s so exciting.”
Q: With Coach Bowden there was a lot of recruitment from players leaving Div. I teams. Do you think that will continue or do you think Coach Wallace will focus more on local talent?
Linder: “I think Coach Wallace is going to spend a lot of energy recruiting high school talent and supplementing it with transfers. He’s a believer in making sure that you have bought into the program. When that buy-in happens, it helps your team chemistry.”
Q: The Ohio Valley Conference decided that they were not going to expand and invite UNA to join. It would have been a great fit for UNA. With the OVC deciding not to expand, where is UNA looking to go now?
Linder: “We’re communicating with three conferences. We’re still in communication with the Ohio Valley, letting them know how we’re progressing towards getting ourselves ready for Div. I. We initially reached out to three conferences: the Southland, the Southern (SOCON) Conference and the Atlantic Sun. We’ve been in communication throughout the last couple of weeks with them, trying to provide them information so they can take a look at UNA. But they’re going to have to explore their own membership issues. If they have membership issues they need to resolve and feel that it would be advantageous to add an institution, then we want to make sure they have the information from UNA.”
Q: Whenever UNA changes conferences is it looking to enter in all sports?
Linder: “Ideally, yes. For example, if you go to the Atlantic Sun and put all your sports in there but put football as an independent or in another league you can do that by NCAA rules. If you do that I’m sure that the NCAA would want a firm commitment for a long period of time, with a significant penalty if you broke it, to be part of their structure. Ideally it would be great to put them all in one conference. Jacksonville State and Troy weren’t able to do that and they still made the move, so we have to look at all of our options right now.”
Q: Do you think that UNA will be a good fit with those conferences, especially with the caliber of football in the SOCON?
Linder: “I think all of those conferences that we’ve been in contact with are very strong. That’s why it’s so important to get the funding in place and the private fundraising in place because when we make this move, it’s going to be a challenge. We said that from the very beginning. Is it going to be worth the effort? Yes. We think enrollment is going to go up. With increased enrollment we think it’s going to help our community and our campus. It’s all about growth. How are we going to start growing? How are we going to start growing our own revenue? To go down to Montgomery and expect them to give you a ton of money is a bad expectation on our part. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to generate revenue, and one way to do that is to increase your customers, so that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, and use athletics as a catalyst. We’ve got some great things going on academically, and that’s why kids come to our university. If you can tap into the passion of sport to help you as a higher institution, then we need to tap into all the tools in our toolbox.”
Q: Did the OVC not extending an invite set back UNA’s multi-year plan to get to Div. I or is it still part of it?
Linder: “It’s still part of it. Our plan has us going into Div. I in Fall 2013. We’re still 18 months away from pulling the trigger with the application, the application fee and all that stuff. One of the benchmarks we have to hit is to get an invitation from a Div. I conference. If you don’t get the invite from a Div. I conference then you can’t go anyway. We’ll work diligently for the next six months to try to make sure we secure that, then that would give us one academic year to let us know where we’re going and hopefully allow that conference to put us into their league schedule. While it seems a long time off — 18 months — it’s going to get on us pretty quick because time flies, so we’ve already started those communications.”