Mississippi College’s new head football coach is unquestionably Southern. His soft voice is patient, but as assistant coaches pass, he casually greets them with a booming voice that reveals a harsher tone. Perhaps he is channeling the bark of the wolf skin that loiters on his office chair. It is one of the few personal items that the coach has in Clinton.
“We didn’t even have our keys to our offices a week ago,” said Bland.
Bland conveys confidence. He does not seem pompous or self-righteous but rather certain. Anyone who knows him classifies him as a man with exceptional character. His full head of hair is a testament to winning ways, and the peppering of grey tells a story of experience and knowledge. His most frequently used word is “professional,” but he is not afraid to make a joke.
“I want to recruit players who possess character, not players who are characters,” said Bland. Recruiting will be an important task for the coach and his staff, as MC begins play against a full Division II schedule in under 8 months. The Choctaws will be entering their first year of candidacy on their way to the Gulf South Conference and D II.
Bland aims to expand recruiting territory reaches to Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee while maintaining existing ties to Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Recognizing that teams often overlook nearby areas, Bland intends to give proper attention to the Magnolia state.
“There are more NFL players that have come from Mississippi, per capita, than any other state,” Bland noted, a fact confirmed by a rivals.com study. The state also ranks 6th in per capita Division I FBS football recruits. Each of the five states higher ranked are also in Bland’s planned scouting area. “The talent is unreal.”
The Choctaws will 2014 schedule features seven of the GSC’s formidable teams, beginning when #10 ranked North Alabama comes to Clinton in week two.
“It’s the SEC of Division II,” said Athletic Director Mike Jones. “It will be a difficult road for a while, but I don’t think there’s any question that there will be a time when we get a conference championship.”
“I believe that Mississippi College, with the right coaches, with the right players that we have and we are going to build, that we are going to have a chance to win that (GSC) conference championship,” said Bland. “As we know, if we can compete for a conference championship in the GSC, we can compete for a national championship. That’s our goal, and that’s our plan.”
Only having office keys at MC for a week, he recognizes patience will be imperative. “Even though we know it will take some time, it will still be disappointing (to not win),” said Bland.
The Choctaws will not be eligible for postseason play in Division II or III until they become full Division II members in 2017. By that time, a full recruiting cycle of scholarships will have been completed under Bland. “By the time we get to full status, I think we will be competitive,” said Jones.
Until then, Bland’s goal is to win every game, anyways. “We want every step of the way, every day, every game to be positive.”
Bland is no stranger to winning. His resume includes work at the University of Arkansas, where he was a four-year letterman in his playing days. He then moved on to Auburn, where he was an assistant under College Football Hall of Fame Coach Pat Dye. Bland then went to South Arkansas, followed by a period at Rice University. From there, he took the helm as the head coach at the University of the Cumberlands in 2006.
In the past eight seasons, Bland led the team to an impressive 70-21 record, qualifying for postseason play six times. His strongest season at UC concluded his career in Kentucky, as his team lost in the NAIA national championship game. That was the lone loss of the season for the team, who ranked highly in defense and had the best rushing attack in the NAIA.
Bland plans to bring his aggressive offense to Clinton, using a spread option scheme. “Think of a mix between Auburn and Georgia Tech,” said Bland. “It’s all about getting the ball into the hands of our playmakers.” Bland brings his offensive and defensive coordinators from UC with him to Clinton.
“We are now excited to begin this new era in Mississippi College football,” said Bland. ”I feel like this is a great opportunity, and we are excited as a family to begin this new journey in our lives.”
His football family came with him, but his wife and children are still back in Kentucky to finish school and tie up loose ends. “I got a snapchat earlier, it’s nine degrees there,” said Bland. Snapchatting his children is a perfect paradigm for the personhood of John Bland, a youthful and relevant family man.
Somewhere between Home Improvement’s Tim ‘the tool-man’ Taylor and Friday Night Lights’ Eric Taylor, you find Bland. He is perfect blend of whimsical and serious. He is unquestionably passionate about everything he is involved in, especially his family.
“When our search committee got together, we put in a couple of criteria. First of all, the coach needed to meet the mission of our institution. The second criterion was that we were looking for a proven winner,” said Jones. “John Bland exemplifies everything we were searching for.”
“I think it was all in God’s plan, to be honest,” said Bland. “It’s a big responsibility, but I’m up to the challenge.”
John Bland has been given the keys to his office; now let’s hope he brought the keys to success with him.
– Andy O’Brien, Sports Editor