BUCKHANNON - Jonas Jackson didn't have long to panic, much less think about the fire in which he had been thrust, when he got that fateful phone call one July afternoon last summer.
Vacationing in Boston less than a month before the start of West Virginia Wesleyan College's football practice for the 2011 season, Jackson picked up the phone and was told by Denny Creehan that he was stepping down from the helm of the Bobcats to take an athletic director's job at nearby Alderson-Broaddus College.
Jackson had to be back in Buckhannon in less than 24 hours, and he met with then-athletic director Ken Tyler. Jackson was appointed as the interim head coach. But the trouble was, most of the assistant coaches were also leaving.
The Inter-Mountain photo by John Wickline
West Virginia Wesleyan football coach Jonas Jackson, fourth from left in front row, was forced to put together a coaching staff on the fly last season, and the Bobcats nearly pulled off an undefeated season and conference championship in the process. He said he is surrounded by talent that makes his job easier. In the front row, from left, are Derrell Hand, Anthony Thomas, Eric Brock, Jackson, Tommy Ziegler and Chris LaTorre. Back row, from left, Roy Rodriguez, Scott Stoeckle, Willie Parker and Ricky Williams.
"The only time I felt any fear was when I got that initial phone call from Coach Creehan," Jackson said. "I could only be scared for 30 seconds, and then I was in it. But I really didn't feel any pressure because I knew what kind of kids we had. This was a unique opportunity. I had to treat it like it would be the only opportunity I would have to be a head coach."
So Jackson burned up the phone lines, first calling "every single player" to let them know what was happening on campus. Then he moved on to assembling a coaching staff.
"I really didn't need to convince them to come," he said.
Anthony Thomas, a former NFL Rookie of the Year, quickly agreed to come to Wesleyan because of the relationship he had formed with Jackson through their wives. Jackson, an Eastern Michigan graduate, loved to tease Thomas about being a Michigan Wolverine.
"He can talk, but he knows who has the upper hand," said Thomas, who oversees the special teams.
Thomas could make more money signing autographs at sports memorabilia shows, but instead chose to go into coaching at the Division II level.
"I had never seen this side of the ball before," Thomas said. "It's a family atmosphere. It's an experience you couldn't ask for."
One by one, the coaching staff began falling into place just as the players began arriving on campus.
"The relationships we have here says it all," said Eric Brock, a former Atlanta Falcons defensive back. "You can't help but want to be a part of this."
Brock cut short his honeymoon to embark on a coaching career last summer.
"My wife has been great throughout the whole process," he said. "She understands the grind, and she's been very supportive."
The Bobcats battled through the upheaval and finished with a 9-2 record and were ranked as high as No. 11 in the national polls. The season nearly culminated in a playoff berth and a conference championship.
Jackson credited the staff and the players for the Bobcats success.
"Their support and their work ethic really is what got the job done," Jackson said, adding that "I'm a firm believer in the Man Upstairs. I believe our destiny has already been ordained. I know the mistakes I made, and it still almost yielded in a perfect season. There was definitely some divine intervention at work."
The success of 2011 has carried over to this summer, as Wesleyan landed transfer student Nate Montana, the son of NFL legend Joe Montana. The news got even bigger a few weeks later when the college announced that former Pittsburgh Steeler star running back Willie Parker would be overseeing the running backs for Wesleyan.
"This was a great opportunity that I had to jump on," Parker said. "I wanted to learn from coaches who were willing to teach. I'm just hoping to help bring some thrills and excitement to this team."
With so many former NFL and Division I caliber talent on the coaching staff, Jackson said he is hoping the swagger is absorbed by the players, who he knows may be initially awe struck by the star talent.
"It has to be pretty cool to be a kid walking in here and being around these guys," Jackson said. " But once we get to practice, we'll be sweating just like the players. Once Coach Parker starts getting after your butt, he's not Willie Parker any more. He's just Coach Parker now."