When I got the alert on my phone that Joey Jones was stepping down as head coach of the University of South Alabama football team, I was saddened by the news — but not shocked. After seeing the embarrassing 52-0 shutout to previously winless Georgia Southern, I felt his days were numbered.

Just a few weeks ago, the future looked much different. The Jaguars had beaten two teams battling for the Sun Belt Conference title (Troy and Arkansas State) and a possible bowl bid was in reach. But an overtime loss to Idaho and two narrow defeats to Georgia State and Louisiana-Lafayette were too much to overcome.

Even if the Jaguars manage to defeat New Mexico State this Saturday on the road, they have already secured a losing record. It will mark the last time Jones steps out with the football program that he started from scratch.

“There comes a time in every program where there is a need for change. For this program that I love so much, that time is now,” Jones said in a news release. “One of the proudest days of my professional life was being the named the first head coach at South Alabama. Today is difficult, but it is the right step for me, my family and for this football program.”

I first met Coach Jones and his wife Elise many years ago while I was working for the Birmingham News. At that time, Jones was the coach at Mountain Brook High School. The couple was at a sporting goods store during a promotional event for the Spartans. We talked about his team and our connections to Mobile.

Crimson Tide romance
Many years later, I had the opportunity to interview Mrs. Jones for a series of articles I was doing on the wives of college football coaches. She had arrived in Tuscaloosa to play volleyball for the Crimson Tide. Her roommate, Nancy Woolsey, introduced the two after having known Jones when he had starred at Murphy High.

“My first reaction was ‘cute guy,’” Mrs. Jones said. However, she had trouble believing he actually played for legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

“He told me he was on the football team, and every football player I had met until that point for 6-foot-5 and 300-plus pounds,” she said of her future husband. “He was normal size, about 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds. Then I thought he was kidding.”

His secret weapon was his speed, having been clocked at an amazing 4.2 seconds in the 40-yard dash. “That’s world class timing, and THE fastest on the team!” said Mrs. Jones, an award-winning graphic designer.

Jones went on to become one of the Crimson Tide’s all-time favorite players. He finished his career with 71 receptions for 1,386 yards and 15 touchdowns. Jones earned all-Southeastern Conference honors as a senior, than went on to play professionally for the USFL’s Birmingham Stallions and the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. He is a member of the Crimson Tide’s All-Decade Team for the 1980s.

After having the opportunity to coach his sons at Mountain Brook High, Jones accepted the challenge of fielding the first football team at Birmingham-Southern College since the Panthers had dropped the sport in 1939. His efforts caught the eye of USA administrators, who brought him home to Mobile to start their school’s football program. He was named head coach on Feb. 15, 2008.

Exploding out of the gate
The squad was an instant success, winning its first 19 games as a college independent. He guided the Jags through the transition to the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision and competition in the SBC. After being picked to finish seventh prior to the start of the 2013 campaign, he was chosen the league’s Coach of the Year for directing the Jaguars to a tie for third in the final standings (one game behind that year’s co-champions).

In addition to helping USA to a winning conference record the following season, Jones was responsible for guiding the program to its first two postseason bowl appearances — the Camellia Bowl in 2014 and Arizona Bowl a year ago — as well as the Jaguars’ first-ever victories over a Southeastern Conference school and nationally-ranked opponent. In fact, USA became the fastest NCAA program to ever participate in a bowl game.

Jones, who is 55 years old, has a record of 52-49 going into this weekend.

“Joey Jones is the father of our football program. He, his wife Elise and his entire family put their arms around the program and committed to its establishment and growth,” said Dr. Joel Erdmann, USA’s director of athletics. “He has placed South Alabama Football on strong footing, which is something he and his family can be very proud of and we sincerely appreciate. His good, hard work and commitment will forever be recognized.”

Preparing for the future
Now the question is who will take over the reins? Rumors have already begun on who will replace Jones, who made roughly $560,000 a year.

The possibility that is most intriguing has Tee Martin returning to his hometown. Currently the offensive coordinator at the University of Southern California, Martin graduated from Williamson High School. He quarterbacked the University of Tennessee Volunteers to a national title and played professionally in the NFL, Canadian Football League and NFL Europe. Prior to arriving in Los Angeles, he was an assistant coach at New Mexico and Kentucky.

A factor in this coaching decision is the introduction of the new early signing period for college football. Starting on Dec. 20, prospective student-athletes can sign National Letters of Intent. The 72-hour window ends on Dec. 22. The normal recruiting period reopens on the first Wednesday of February.

Even though he will not be coaching these future players, Jones plans to help in any way he can.

“I have met with my team and my coaches to announce my decision,” he said. “I will assist the university in every way possible as they look for the next head coach. I made my decision now to ensure that Joel and his team would have time to conduct their search prior to the new early signing date.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to start and lead this program. I will always hold a special place in my heart for the University of South Alabama, the incredible coaches, administrators and fans who have supported us along the way, and — most importantly — each and every player who has put on the Jaguar uniform.”

Photo: University of South Alabama | Joey Jones, the first head coach of the Jaguars’ football team, announced his resignation last week after