TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s been 22 years since Jeff Monken made his first and only trip to Tuscaloosa.
Fresh out of Division III Millikin College, the young coach arrived for the job interview he’d begged to land. For a small-town kid from Illinois, coaching at Alabama was a fantastical prospect.
He was in awe.
Fate, Monken learned, has a strange way of intruding. He didn’t get the graduate assistant job (at first), so he took the other option. By Saturday afternoon, Monken will make his Bryant-Denny Stadium debut as the head coach at Georgia Southern.
Never miss a local story.
The structure has grown three times since that 1989 interview left him in a bind.
It was assistant coach Jim Fuller who agreed to the interview after some pestering from the eager college senior. Everything went well. He ate at Dreamland and still remembers Peggy was the nicest secretary he’d ever met.
But the job went to a local high school coach.
“I really didn’t know anything about football or coaching,” he said. “I grew up a coach’s kid, but I was a college senior. Just to be a part of a program like Alabama was a thrill for me.”
So he moved on. An interview led to a graduate assistant job offer at the University of Hawaii. It was a no-brainer. He was headed west.
Then his phone rang. It was Fuller.
“Hey Jeff, the fella we were going to hire didn’t take the job,” Fuller said.
Uh oh. A dilemma.
Monken: “Coach, I took a job at Hawaii. Can I think about it?”
Fuller: “What are you thinking about? Go to Hawaii.”
So he did. There, Monken met offensive coordinator Paul Johnson. The two went on to coach for 13 years together at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech.
Johnson said he never knew about the moral quandary Monken faced back then, but he was glad things worked out as they did.
“Well, Jeff’s done a great job down there,” Johnson said. “He’s always been a hard worker. He’s got a lot of energy, very knowledgeable. He’s done a great job getting that thing back to where they need to be.”
Looking back on the experience is surreal at this point for Monken, now in his second season coaching the third-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“To have a chance to come to a program like Alabama, I can’t believe I turned that down,” he said. “But I told coach (Bob ) Wagner that I’d come out there. Fortunately, it worked out very well for me. I met Paul Johnson, and I wouldn’t have this job if it hadn’t been for that.
“It’s funny how things work out. I was just so enamored with Tuscaloosa and that program. What an unbelievable place.”