Nov. 23—So, what was that trophy that Jacksonville State displayed after its blowout win Saturday at Central Arkansas?
It wasn't an official ASUN Conference trophy. Instead, it was the result of a plan that JSU head coach Rich Rodriguez and a staff member hatched a week earlier.
The ASUN Conference had announced after the first week of the season that if Jacksonville State finished first in the football standings, it wasn't going to recognize the Gamecocks as the league champion. After being pressed on the matter by The Anniston Star, the league office clarified that because JSU is in transition from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision, it is allowed to award more scholarships than the FCS limit. In the eyes of the ASUN, that made JSU ineligible for the conference crown.
In the next-to-last week of the season, JSU pounded Eastern Kentucky 42-17, clinching at least a tie for the best record in the ASUN. Rodriguez figured his team deserved an honest-to-goodness trophy to display for the rest of time. The season-ending win at Central Arkansas clinched first place outright, so JSU broke out hardware that said "2022 FOOTBALL CHAMPIONS, JAX STATE" on the front.
"We had heard that the ASUN was not going to notice us as the conference champion and not give us the trophy. Whether we won or lost (at Central Arkansas), we had at least a share of it," Rodriguez said this week in a Zoom meeting with reporters. "So, we said, 'What the heck? In our mind, we'll make our own trophy and celebrate it.' That's what we did."
Rodriguez said that the Jacksonville State football chief of staff, Dusty Rutledge, ordered the trophy.
"He wanted to make sure to make it a little bit bigger than what the actual ASUN trophy was going to be," Rodriguez said, smiling.
They did it with the blessing of athletics director Greg Seitz, who said he informed the ASUN office of the plan.
After the ASUN announced after the first week of the season that JSU wasn't eligible for the conference championship, Seitz told The Star that if the Gamecocks were fortunate enough to finish first in the standings, the school would treat the team as a conference champion.
"That hasn't changed," Seitz said this week. "We are treating this as our 25th all-time conference football championship."
The JSU players also received championship T-shirts after the win at Central Arkansas, although Rodriguez said that if the Gamecocks had lost, he wasn't going to break out the trophy and the shirts. Both ended up being a big hit with the players Saturday.
"I see at the Super Bowl where after the game, they'll give out T-shirts and guys put them on," Rodriguez said Monday on his weekly radio show. "These guys are millionaires, but they get a T-shirt, and it makes their day. So we wanted to give out T-shirts."
Championship rings will come later.
Officially, the ASUN champions are Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky and Central Arkansas, who each had a 3-2 record. JSU scored at least 40 points in all three.
Eastern Kentucky received the automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. JSU is ineligible for the playoffs, too.
"I know some of the other ones are celebrating an ASUN championship with a 3-2 record, which is great for them, but there are more of those 3-2's than not," Rodriguez said Monday.
Until after the first week of the season, JSU thought it was eligible for the official ASUN trophy. When JSU and another ASUN member, Liberty, announced its move to the FBS and Conference USA in November 2021, ASUN commissioner Ted Gumbart released a statement saying, "Liberty and Jacksonville State remain fully eligible for ASUN Championships, ASUN automatic bids, and all team and student-athlete honors while they remain members of the ASUN."
So, why did the league wait 10 months to say otherwise publicly?
A league spokesman said at the time the issue was in need of clarifying because of the football alliance between the ASUN and the Western Athletic Conference, which decided in late August and guaranteed a team an automatic bid to the playoffs.
Still, the timing of the public announcement was suspicious to Rodriguez, who noted that it came four days after JSU pounded Stephen F. Austin 42-17 in its opener.
"All that did was piss me off. Probably the players, too," he said Monday.
If the number of scholarships was at the heart of the matter, how much of an advantage did JSU have? According to figures Rodriguez gave, not a whole lot.
FCS programs are allowed to award 63 total scholarships but are allowed to split them among as many as 85 players. FBS programs can award 85 scholarships and generally, all are full scholarships. If a player is on a partial scholarship, he still counts as one of the 85, so it makes little sense to award anything but a full scholarship.
Rodriguez said that JSU awarded the equivalent of 71 scholarships this season, although after attrition with players leaving, the team finished with the equivalent of 63 scholarships.
Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.