Publish date:

At South Alabama, Wommack family tackles social issues together

Author:

Kane Wommack isn't shrinking.

Not from the challenges of being a first-time head coach at merely 33 years old in one of college football's youngest up-and-coming programs.

More importantly, not from the cultural and societal challenges transcending sport throughout society.

That includes the University of South Alabama, which hired Wommack Dec. 12, 2020.

It includes the Mobile, Alabama, community that is home to the campus with gleaming new athletics facilities and in the dichotic port city with Old South roots and new world business.

Wommack meets head-on these challenges the same he demands his defenders greet ball-carriers.

“I think first and foremost, you have to look at the landscape of college football and look at the landscape of our country,” Wommack tells FootballScoop. “So from a diversity standpoint, we need to be at a forefront when eyes are on us. That we are making decisions that maximize our reach as a program.

“From a diversity standpoint, I think that's important that you have people can reach out in multiple ways. I can't just say, 'Well, I'm in the state of Alabama, so I'm going to only connect with coaches with Alabama ties.'

“I want white coaches, Black coaches, men, women that have connections in different areas and certainly in our recruiting footprint, so that they can engage our community and our recruiting areas.”

Wommack has built an inaugural Jaguars staff with each and all of those elements; he has five Black coaches among his on-field staff. Additionally, Corey Batoon is a native of Honolulu.

In three key off-the-field roles, Wommack tabbed Jinni Frisbey as his chief of staff while he placed Amari Hartsfield as the Jaguars' director of recruiting. Lauren Roddam is the program's video coordinator.

“The dynamic part of that, right, is that I always looked at it this way, as I approached each hire: I'm not going to hire a position, I'm going to hire a role in our program,” says Wommack, a coach's son whose father, Dave, had a career touching five decades in college football. “I'm not hiring the offensive coordinator position; I'm hiring the role of offensive coordinator for our program. That certainly comes with a level of proprietary knowledge of running our offense schematically, but also [requires asking] what is the role of leadership of this person? What is the role of recruiting in our program for this person? And what is the role for engagement for our players in this program? There are some guys that the players just naturally gravitate towards people on your staff. Maybe it's ethnicity. Maybe it's background. Maybe it's where they're from. Maybe it's the way in which their own personality and leadership traits and qualities.

“I thought about hiring to a role and not a position. I think when you look at our staff, I think we have a great dynamic because we have people that are starting to learn and play into their roles based off their gifts and skill-set, rather than just the role of offensive coordinator or running backs coach or whatever it may be.”

Wommack's placing the keys to the offense in the hands of a former highly successful head coach in offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, the former star Texas quarterback.

A Broyles Award semifinalist for the nation's top assistant coach from his work running Indiana University's defense last season, Wommack is handing those coordinator duties to Batoon. Success is evident in each of Batoon's stops, from work as a special teams coordinator in the SEC at Ole Miss under Hugh Freeze to defensive responsibilities at Florida Atlantic with Lane Kiffin and Hawaii with Nick Rolovich.

Jameel Lett is a key assistant who's a native of the Mobile area, and Landius Wilkerson – a fast-rising, young defensive coach who comes with experience at both Jacksonville State and most recently as Chattanooga's recruiting coordinator – also has roots in the region. Dwike Wilson is from Mississippi, Earnest Hill has deep ties in Alabama and Gordon Steele's football roots traverse the South.

“We have six minority coaches on our staff; five black coaches and Corey Batoon,” Wommack says. “Out of our six support staff hires, we have three minorities, three women and one African-American. So to just have men, women, Black, white, different backgrounds, to be able to create a staff that can connect to our players in multiple ways and different facets, I think is really important in terms of team chemistry and dynamics.”

Coming from a meeting, discussing his staff with passion resonating, Wommack isn't speaking from canned talking points; he's speaking from a philosophy that originates in the home.

A key element in the Wommack family's worldview is that of his wife, Melissa. She's chief of staff in the family of five that includes sons Asher, Jones and Tatum.

“Football allows us to form deep relationships with people who are different from us,” Melissa, a former student body president at Southern Miss, tells FootballScoop. “As we work alongside our staff and team, we learn their stories— and we benefit from knowing stories beyond just what we are familiar with.

“Our hope is to create a culture within our program where people matter more than ideologies and loving our neighbor is never contingent upon our neighbor looking like us.”

Wommack makes clear the holistic approach in building the culture and tenets of his South Alabama program originates at home.

“Melissa is by far the most impressive person in our marriage,” says Wommack, whose playing career began at Arkansas and finished at Southern Miss, with four combined bowl appearances in the process. “She is a great deal more thoughtful and considerate than me. She sees all the angles. She always wants to know what my thoughts are, and she wants to know the why. Why are your doing this? And does that bring you back to your core values?

“I think having that resource in your family, she is deeply tied to where we are as a country right now and our role as a white male and female to connecting to the hurt we have caused in the Black community. Maybe not us specifically, but certainly our love for people in general is when someone endures a hurt, endures a pain that our love big enough to be able to endure that pain and anger and right now that's what we're facing in the black community. As a white person, that's never going to fully understand those things, we can at least sit with the hurt and pain of that and connect. And that totally comes from Melissa being able to engage on that side for us.”

It comes from the Wommack family's commitment to tackling the inherent responsibilities of building a football program, inside-out.