Photo | Mike Kittrell
It was another Game Day Saturday, just like hundreds previously experienced; and it was unlike any other Game Day, the reasons obvious to everyone.
When Kane Wommack awoke last Saturday morning at the Battle House Hotel, where his South Alabama football team will spend Friday nights prior to Saturday home games this season, he said it felt like any other Game Day. Yet as he said those words he also realized this one was different, would be different, than all the others.
“Game Day is always different,” Wommack said on a walk along Royal Street from the team’s walk-through session at the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel back to the Battle House. “That’s the mentality that you have to have. You put all this work in in the offseason for the 12 opportunities that we’re guaranteed. So what we do on these 12 opportunities determines who we are and how we’re judged.
“But at the end of the day it’s all that preparation that leads you to execution on these days, so you have to believe in that preparation. We looked it up and we have gotten almost 2,500 reps, for example, with our defense since the start of spring and this first game. That’s 2,500 reps that our defense has gone through with the calls that we run. Believing in that preparation allows you to go execute when it matters most on Game Day.’”
Told that the question as to how he feels on this day was referencing his Game Day as a head coach and his emotions, Wommack smiled, said he was excited about the day, then told the story of how he reached this particular day, this particular circumstance. It had been a grand plan many years in the making.
“Twenty-eight years ago I dressed up for Halloween looking like my dad (former college defensive coordinator Dave Wommack) and decided at that moment that that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and since that point I have seen myself through the lens of a college head coach,” Wommack said. “So I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but it’s simply what I came to expect. So I have operated that way. This is just an expectation that I’ve had for 28 years.”
Melissa Wommack said she didn’t notice anything different about her husband’s demeanor that morning.
“No, and in a lot of ways you’re looking for that, right? This is his first day as a head coach, so I want to know how high are we? How stressed are we? And Kane was as cool and as neutral in his mindset as he always is,” she said. “He just said I feel like we’re right where we’re meant to be. And that’s a good thing.”
At 34, Wommack is the country’s youngest head football coach of a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) school, and while this has been his plan, he said he doesn’t take it for granted his plan, his goal, has been realized.
“Yes, it does,” he says when asked if reaching his dream feels like he hoped it would. “What’s good is getting to see your influence have impact on people around you, and I took this job mostly because I wanted to be a head coach, but we wanted to create an environment where people can strive to become the best versions of themselves both on and off the field. Adversity and success on Game Day allows you a platform to communicate and influence people on a high level.
“So you have those reps and you have those situations and adversities so you can say this is how we need to respond moving forward. So that’s what I’m most excited about. The game itself is really exciting, but more than that is how we respond on Sunday and Monday and Week 1 to Week 2 and Year 1 to Year 2. That’s how you build a program.”
Wommack grew up in football, hanging around his dad’s teams, falling in love with the game. His passion for his work is evident on the sidelines and during practices, but also away from the stadium. His excitement, he said, to see all the work from spring drills to summer workouts to fall practices on display in Saturday’s season-opening game against Southern Miss, which just happens to be his alma mater.
“A lot of it is growing up in this profession, being comfortable in tough situations and adversity and success and big moments,” Wommack said. “I grew up around big moments in the game of football so I think part of it is it’s all I know and another part of it is having confidence that regardless of reward or consequence in this game you’re just going to do your job of making everyone around you better.”
Saying he and his team were “locked in,” there was still the process of preparing for the game that would kick off at 7 p.m. He started with a schedule: breakfast for members of the team from 7 until 8:30, players coming and going as they woke up. Stretching was at 9, the walk-through beginning at 10:15. Players were allowed free time from 11 until 12:15 when they were served a box lunch.
Wommack used the free time to take care of some things, spend some time with family and get his thoughts together for the remainder of the day. He allowed some reflection during the break as well.
“It’s fun,” he said of having Melissa and their three sons Asher, Tatum and Jones sharing his dream. “The other day I was sitting with Tatum, my middle son who is 6 years old, and he was talking about how much fun he’s having here in Mobile. And he said, ‘Dad, you got hired here, right?’ I said yeah. And he said, ‘And some people get fired and hired in your profession?’ And I said, Yeah, that’s right.’ And he said, ‘Well you need to win some games so you stay hired here because I like this place.’ And I said, ‘That’s the plan, buddy.’ At a very early age, coaches’ kids have a very firm understanding of the rewards and consequences of college football.”
Why was Mobile and South Alabama, where he served as defensive coordinator for Joey Jones for two seasons, the right place to begin his head coaching career?
“First off, Melissa and I adore the city of Mobile. We fell in love with the history and the culture and tradition,” Wommack said. “Here we have the birthplace of Mardi Gras, we have Southern hospitality, we have a coastal vibe and feeling and life all wrapped in a great, diverse city. When you think about the landscape of our country right now — and football can be the great unifier — we have a very few places better than Mobile, Alabama, in order to wrap a city around what we’re doing on South Alabama’s campus with our football program. That, and the opportunity, because of the resources that have been put into this program and because of the footprint in recruiting, I know that South Alabama’s football days, it’s best days, are ahead of us, and that’s really exciting to be the head coach.”
Wommack headed a staff meeting at 2 p.m. before meeting with the team at 2:45. The pre-game meal was served at 3 and the team loaded the bus to head to Hancock Whitney Stadium at 4 p.m.
And then it quite literally rained on the Jaguars’ parade. The school had planned to have the team buses arrive at an area near the stadium and place the players on Mardi Gras floats that would take them to the stadium as fans lined the path and cheered. Shortly before the team was set to arrive, heavy rain pounded the area. While the rainstorm lasted less than an hour, it canceled the team’s parade plans.
“We got Murphyed,” Wommack said as he headed out to the field after the rain had stopped and the team was set to walk around the stadium before getting dressed for pregame warmups. “You know, Murphy’s Law: whatever can go wrong will go wrong. The guys adjusted to it pretty well. I don’t put a lot into pregame. I think at the end of the day, the guys, regardless of how they feel, regardless of success or adversity, they have to go out there and do their jobs at a high level.”
Wommack would spend the pregame in his locker room office, getting his thoughts together, meeting with offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, defensive coordinator Corey Batoon and the other assistants, as well as spending time with the players. He stepped on the field for warmups and didn’t just observe, but joined in, turning his cap around backward and aiding in directing some of the drills.
On the sideline, his father, Dave Wommack, a former defensive coordinator at Ole Miss, Arkansas and Georgia Tech among other stops, walked around, observing everything.
“It’s kind of surreal being a virgin as a head coach’s father,” the elder Wommack said. “It’s just excitement. I’m not nervous, I’m just proud, and looking forward to seeing all the work he’s put together, and not just this year but all the years together in becoming a head coach. I think it was almost meant to be.
“My wife and I say it’s almost a God thing because he’s got a mix of both of us; she’s a little bit better relating with people and everything and I’m a little bit better relating to the Xs and Os, as far as our marriage is concerned. We thought for a long time that he was going to be a head coach at some point. We didn’t know it would be this young. But he’s done all the things he needs to and he’s prepared properly and he has put together a great staff. He even surprised me with some of the things he’s done. It’s like, oh, I wouldn’t even have thought about that. Absolutely, I think he’s ready to be the head coach.”
Defensive coordinator Corey Batoon said Wommack has been the same cool, collected and focused individual he has seen since the day he joined the staff.
“He’s very comfortable. I think he’s comfortable in the role,” Batoon said. “Again, it’s been pretty seamless for him. He’s done a great job of delegating things out to the staff as well as being a champion of the details — I think he’d done a great job of that. I think that’s helped put us in a position where we are right now; I feel like we’re hitting on all strides and on all cylinders and we have great momentum heading in (to the game).”
All the preliminaries in place, kickoff time arrived for Kane Wommack’s first game as head coach of the South Alabama Jaguars. He seemed cool and collected outwardly, and suggested the same was true inwardly. After Applewhite addressed the team and the players broke into position groups, Wommack burst from his office and gathered the team around him.
“Everybody do me a favor right here, all right? Take one deep breath,” he told his players. “Feels good doesn’t it? Know why it feels good? Because it’s innate in every single one of us. Every one of us was born without having to learn how to take a breath. But what’s unique about this group is, more than being born and knowing how to take a breath, you were gifted with some more things than that. You were gifted with the ability to play the game of football. Some of you have speed, some of you have power, some of you have instincts, right? But you were made and built to play the game of football.
“… Today ain’t about the reps and knowing what to do, it’s the physicality and how we do it. Blocking, tackling, throwing, catching and running to that ball. And fellas, it will be as simple as breathing tonight. It’ll be as simple as breathing because it is built from within you and it’s powered by work ethic and it’s fortified by a relentless detail to do your job over and over and over again. And tonight, it gets to be imposed on Southern Miss. Adversity is going to happen and you’re ready for it. You stare it down in the face just like a boxer, right? You take that first punch, and then you say, ‘All right big fella, bring it on.’ And you do it over and over and over again with a neutral mindset and a refusal to let this team down. You take care of business and execute at a high level. I can’t wait to watch you guys play.”
The team gathered at the entranceway to the tunnel with Wommack out front. It was there, before the team ran out onto the field, he took in the scene, took in the moment, and perhaps for the first time, absorbed the realization of the significance of the day, of that particular moment in time. This was the moment, he would say later, when it all hit home.
“I promise you there are a lot of things that are going on, but I took a moment before the game to appreciate all that has been built and to get us to this point,” he said. “All the effort that people before us have made to get us to this point and all the people that are going to experience the on-campus stadium and experience. Right before we showed the highlight video and ran out of the tunnel, and we got there just in time to see a little of the highlight video, that gave me a chance just to stand there and look around the stadium. And I was really able to take in all that had taken place in that moment. The work and hours and manpower and resources that went into making all that possible. I was glad to have even just 30 seconds to take that in and honor that.”
As Wommack leads the team on the field, Melissa is taking it all in from above, watching from an area above one of the end zones.
“It’s surreal,” she said of the feeling. “We have dreamed of this, and we have truly prayed for it. It’s like somebody pinch me, I can’t believe we’re really here. We love this place, I think that’s obvious. And knowing the people who are running behind him and how much we care for them, oh man, let’s go do our thing. And hopefully the ball bounces our way because we’ve worked hard for this.”
The game begins and now he’s truly in his element, encouraging and coaching his players and staff, directing his team; he’s coaching. It all starts to fall in place. Southern Miss scores first; Wommack instructs his team to push on and keep the game plan in place. The Jags tie the game, then take the lead, the excitement level builds on the South Alabama sideline and in the stadium. Wommack reminds his team to maintain its focus. They do so, taking charge in the second half and rolling to a 31-7 victory. The Jags start the season 1-0; Wommack begins his head coaching career 1-0.
“Wins are hard to come by, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” Wommack tells his team once they gather in the locker room. “Wins are hard to come by. Let me tell you this: nobody in this building thinks that we’ve arrived. We didn’t do nothing today. It’s one game. So everyone in this building must have an absolute urgency to get this team better, from one game to the next, Week 1 to Week 2, and so on and so forth.
“That was not nearly the standard that this team can play at, not nearly. I love you to death and I want you to celebrate this win, but every decision you make should be about taking care of Bowling Green next week and making this team better. Every decision you make, including the ones you make tonight, an absolute relentless hunger and urgency to get better. … I love you guys to death.”
Dave Wommack then stepped forward. He had been given the game ball, which he in turn presented to his son to the cheers of the players and other coaches. “A lot of you guys deserve it,” the elder Wommack told the players, but my wife and I raised him, so …”
Getting a hug from his father and holding the game ball aloft, Kane Wommack said, “There’s no telling what the ceiling is for this team, boys. There’s no telling. There is no telling what this team can do, no telling. You tell me how far you guys want to go. Show me on Tuesday’s practice how far you want to go. Relentless detail and urgency.”
Outside the locker room, Melissa received congratulations from well-wishers, family and friends and enjoyed the victory.
“I’m so glad we won,” she said. “I had a feeling we would, but then again, you never know. There was so much to take in because I’m so happy for Kane and so happy for him and so proud of our players. It was a whole different element. This stadium experience? Top-notch. There was a group behind me that said, ‘This is better than the SEC games that we go to; the stadium experience was so good. … I want them to know, hey, this is your big day too, it’s not just Kane’s big day.”
It was Kane’s big day, and it was a big day for the South Alabama football program as well. The team has not had a winning season since it started playing Division 1 football. Saturday’s win puts the program one step closer to achieving that goal this season. Wommack stayed at the stadium for quite a while afterward, but finally made his way home where family and friends were waiting to celebrate.
“We had my parents in and we went back to the house and had some family and friends in and really just sat around the couch and the living room and talked about our experiences from the game and our friends and family asked some questions about what it was like,” Wommack said. “Then my dad and I talked about all the people we know in this profession and what happened in Week 1 of college football. That was my time to catch up on everybody else and what else happened in the landscape of college football. It was kind of fun. Mainly, I really needed to get off my feet.”
In the Wommack household, football is a family affair, and he has encouraged that among his coaches and players since taking the job.
“He wouldn’t have it any other way,” Melissa Wommack said. “It’s hard, there’s like a token character in this profession with the bitter coach’s wife, and it would be really hard to be that when your husband shares it all with you, right? Because I am grateful and he is so intentional about making me and the boys a part of it. … And we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Dave Wommack. To spend 38 years in this profession and then do it in a way that your son wants to follow, that says something about the character of Dave Wommack.”
Asked what will stand out about her husband’s first Game Day as a head coach — and hers — she said, “I think the trust that I felt, that maybe in the celebration I felt like we already had won before we took the field, in the way that the players and the fans and the town have bought in. I felt like we had already won because there was so much energy even before we lined up for that first snap. And then to have it end in a victory was so huge. I know we have things to improve upon. I thought tonight, this is just the first of many and I’m so thankful we get to start it off with a W.”
First Game Day as a head coach. First victory as a head coach. Twenty-eight years earlier this was what he wanted, this was what he hoped to experience.
“The reason why I really wanted to be a head coach is that there are so many great things about this profession and there is a tremendous amount of influence from the head coaching position,” he said. “I’ve seen it from a coach’s kid perspective, I’ve seen it from a player, I’ve seen it from an assistant, a coordinator and now as a head coach, and I have seen the influence a head coach can have on every single person surrounding the program. I truly want to create an environment, a culture, a standard, an urgency, that everyone can strive to become the absolute best versions of themselves both on and off the field. I’m talking about players, coaches, coaches’ wives, children and leading an environment where we can all grow together. That to me is the most exciting thing about being a head coach.”
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