Jackson State, perhaps the deepest, most talented team in the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s Eastern Division, entered 2011 playing for pride. Before the year’s first snap, their season was already over: The SWAC voted in June to ban both Jackson State, and its Saturday opponent Southern, from competing in the league’s 2011 football championship game because of low APR scores.
Yet, and this may be surprising, Jackson coach Rick Comegy refuses to use the post-season ban as a motivational tool. Instead, he’s using this time to get back to the basics.
“We don’t use it at all,” Comegy said. “As a matter of fact, it’s football — we just enjoy it. The kids enjoy it, the staff enjoys it. We all have trophies — I’ve had a few and they’re sitting in the cellar — and that’s still something they can never take away. But the camaraderie and friendship they build when they are on a team, sweating together and fighting together, I think that’s more valuable than anything else.”
Jackson State president Carolyn Meyers initially called the SWAC’s decision “regrettable” in a statement released by the university, adding “JSU is disappointed in the decision of the SWAC to uphold the NCAA ban on postseason play due to our low APR.”
Since then, however, Comegy said the administration has moved to shore up its graduation rates: “The university has put a lot of good things in place,” he said. “That’s making for a better situation here, and I think we are off and running with it.”
Still, the SWAC’s decision has changed the complexity of the football season in the SWAC. After all, Jackson State and Southern have been consistent contenders since the advent of the SWAC Championship Game in 1999. (Southern won the game in 1999 and 2003, and was runner up in 2004; Jackson was league champ in 2007, and runner up in ’99 and 2008.) Their annual cross-divisional rivalry game has drawn upwards of 40,000 fans over the years — and this week’s contest, ban or no ban, isn’t expected to be any different.
“Sure, they would love to have the opportunity (to play in the title match),” Comegy added. “But right now, we are just thinking about playing football. The kids are having fun, and I think that’s what it’s all about right now — enjoying the game, because you love it.”
Southern is the first NCAA program to be banned from both the football and basketball postseasons in the same year because of low APR scores. But these two programs are not alone in their graduation-rate woes. The SWAC and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, both comprised of historically black colleges and universities, account for just 24 of more than 340 schools evaluated by the NCAA but received half of the 58 harshest penalties handed out last May.