Column by BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Mike Gravier said during an interview on Thursday morning that he was pleased with where the Bluefield College football program was headed.
“I think we are heading in the right direction with what we have got here now and with the recruiting class that we are looking to bring in,” Gravier said. “I think we will make some huge strides.”
Less than 24 hours later, the administration at Bluefield College had a different opinion, and Gravier is now out of a job.
Call this a shocker, a surprise and a perplexing head-scratcher of a decision.
Bluefield College fired Gravier on Friday, and released a statement late that afternoon which stated that “the college simply decided to go in a different direction with the leadership of its football program.”
OK, sounds simple enough, but why now?
The timing is the curious part.
Why not make this move immediately after the Rams finished 0-11 in its first season of football since the beginning of World War II? Bluefield was force to send 18-and-19-year-old freshmen to play against grown men in the Mid-South Conference, which just happens to be the SEC of NAIA football.
There are no gimmes in the MSC, especially for a first year program with an overall enrollment that is the second lowest in the league.
Why not when Gravier lost both his defensive coordinator and offensive line coach and local legend Mike Compton to other jobs. His new hires, Will King and Joe Perri remain, but now they have to worry about their jobs, and — much like the players — will have a long wait for the new guy to be hired.
Why not before spring practice? Bluefield was hampered by defections, and had just about 40 players to participate in 11 organized spring sessions, and a lack of depth and loss of class time were reasons given by Gravier, who still felt like the players got an ample amounts of reps.
“Our practices were structured, we were out there for an hour, hour and 15 minutes, that was it each day,” said Gravier, during the Thursday interview. “Our philosophy was, ‘Let’s get quality reps instead of just a lot of reps.’
“We knew at some point the technique was going to go and you were risking injury and that type of thing so it was pretty short.”
That doesn’t mean, according to Gravier, it wasn’t successful.
Admittedly, I haven’t been able to find anyone official to comment — other than a player who came to Bluefield from Florida because of Gravier — so who knows what the reasons were, or if they would even tell us.
Perhaps, it was retention. Bluefield started a football program, at least partially to enhance enrollment, but the Rams had just over 20 players involved in spring practice last year, and about 40 this year.
That isn’t much for a college football team, but Gravier even researched the subject, looking at schools like Carson-Newman, UVa-Wise and Emory & Henry and found nothing unusual about what was happening at Bluefield.
I can vouch for what Gravier had to say about Emory & Henry. I went to school there, and even worked some with the team and they would bring in 100 freshmen — that is not an exaggeration — and few of them even lasted to the first game, much less to their sophomore year.
“At this level you are always going to lose players. The research I have done, you lose about half of your freshman class every year,” Gravier said. “I know schools that have seven to 10 seniors, they all came in with a big class and it whittles down, even at the major college level you see that...
“When you look at it, there are typically 90 to 100 freshmen and like 40 to 45 sophomores, that is just the nature of the beast at this level unfortunately.”
Yet, Gravier was happy with the numbers. He said the Rams had 20 to 25 commitments, and had plans to build the roster size to 105, which would have included some junior college players and transfers with experience, while allowing the younger students to develop under less pressure to perform.
“We are going after some older kids in our recruiting, some junior college kids and some transfers just to get more experience, guys who have been through it for a couple of years so I think that will help,” Gravier said. “Honestly a lot of those kids that played last year, it wasn’t fair to them to have to play against 21 and 22 year olds.”
Among the reasons that players give for departures is lack of playing time, being homesick and especially cost. Bluefield College doesn’t give full rides, and the money has to come from somewhere.
“I think we are fine where we are,” Gravier said. “The big thing is the guys that stick around, you know they are committed to you...
“Honestly, the biggest factor of kids leaving is cost,” he added. “The tuition goes up and some family is rubbing every nickel and dime together to get them here that first year and if tuition goes up it is just prohibitive for them,
“That is just not Bluefield, that is everywhere I have been.”
Gravier, who basically built the program from the ground up, was excited about the upcoming season, even if seven of 11 games were going to be on the road. He wasn’t happy about those road trips, but was able to add a couple of new programs similar to Bluefield to give his team a chance at that much-needed first win.
He even brought up the subject of a spring football game for 2014.
“I think that at point with another recruiting class and more retention,” Gravier said, “it would be nice to be able to have a spring game.”
There is talent on the Rams. Gravier was pleased in the spring with RBs Marion Harris and Adrian Pope, the receiver duo of Rodrell Smith and converted signal-caller Corey Mabry, and the continued development of four returning offensive linemen, and defensive back Frank Brooks
He spoke highly of several local products who have a bright future, including DL R.J. Buford (Bluefield), WR Joel Calfee (PikeView), WR Dylan Kidd (Bland County), LB Kyle Sheets (Tazewell) and WR Jabe Meadows (Montcalm), along with new recruits like LB Guye Turner (Tazewell) and OL Darrius Carper (Graham), who Gravier said is planning to transfer from Concord to play for the Rams for his senior season.
There was also the commitment from many of the players to stay around entertainment-rich Bluefield for the summer and prepare for another season.
“That shows the commitment and the development of the program and guys buying in,” Gravier said. “They don’t want to go 0-11 again either and they realize that a way to ensure that is for them to be here all summer long.
“I think they are maturing and they are recognizing, ‘If I am going to do this, I need to be committed to it.’”
No one was as committed to Bluefield football than Gravier, who wasn’t planning on a lot of down time this summer. That just isn’t what coaches do.
“We are still recruiting so we are obviously in the thick of that still and that is just a never-ending thing at that level, it really is,” said Gravier, on Thursday. “We may be able to work some camps and take a little vacation.”
Who knew just a day later, Gravier would be on an extended vacation, through no choice of his own.
Brian Woodson is the sports editor at the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org