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Mark of Distinction

What can the Jaguars legend do for Episcopal’s football program?

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Episcopal School of Jacksonville’s football team has had some good seasons, but 2012 was not one of them. The team went 3-6, including a 1-4 mark at home that was deceptive, given the win was against a school called Duval Charter in the season opener. They lost by more than 30 points to all other opponents, including perennial powerhouses Providence and Bolles.

On the road, things weren’t much better. They were smoked by Ponte Vedra and the Bishop Kenny Crusaders, who were clearly exacting revenge for Henry VIII spurning the Roman Catholic Church to form the Church of England centuries back. There were wins in there, sure, but something had to change. That change happened in a big way when the school hired Mark Brunell to coach the football team in early January.

Episcopal is, in many ways, a throwback — they have a dress code, as well as inquisitive and bright students. And Brunell has always been a throwback. Even during the Jaguars’ glory days, Brunell and his clique on the team were noted to put faith first, in a way that seemed to be at odds with the NFL’s myriad bad boys like Ray Lewis, Rae Carruth and so many others who received notoriety for activities and scandals off the field.

That never happened to Brunell or those close to him during the Coughlin era. The worst thing one could say about Brunell was that he sometimes had a hard time scoring in the red zone. We saw what happened to the Jaguars when Magic Mark was made to disappear by rookie head coach Jack Del Rio, who was eager to put his stamp on the franchise with Byron Leftwich. As soon as Brunell was injured, he was out of the lineup — and out of town not too long after. The Jaguars, meanwhile, developed a reputation of “character risk,” with players routinely being popped for drug and gun offenses.

Brunell moved on (moved up, some say) to play quite a few more years. He took the Redskins to the playoffs, then backed up Drew Brees in New Orleans and Mark Sanchez with the Jets, imparting on them his veteran knowledge and fulfilling the definition of a mentor. Even while finishing out his career with distinction in these roles, the struggles he faced in his personal finances were well-documented, as bad real estate deals led to bankruptcy a couple of years ago. His balance sheet was ugly; he had to sell, among other things, his Super Bowl ring — one bauble that eluded him as a starter during his prime. The hits to his reputation were as bad as any he faced on the field, with beat writers questioning his financial management skills rather than his game management skills and writing articles with titles like “Brunell’s Downward Spiral.”

Those who remember Brunell in his prime have long wondered: Why isn’t there a place in Jacksonville for him? The implication, or hope, was that it would be with the Jaguars as quarterbacks coach. He couldn’t have hurt in that slot, but the offer wasn’t tendered. The Jaguars organization has never been much for hiring former players to come back to coach.

The Jaguars’ and the NFL’s loss is Episcopal’s gain. In what is becoming quite a stratified and competitive football market, Mark Brunell will help the small elite school recruit like one with much more size and resources. How far can he take the Episcopal program? A lot depends on Brunell, but there are factors out of his control.

We know schools like Providence and Bolles have dedicated resources to recruiting and building up their football programs to make those schools competitive in a way Episcopal hasn’t been for some time. The real question comes down to how many resources the school can dedicate to football recruitment. Having a former Jaguars player coaching will lend a certain cachet that cannot yet be fully calculated, but it isn’t everything.

Whatever happens in Brunell’s new job, it won’t be as bad as the last time a Jaguars quarterback took over a high school football program — Quinn Gray coached at Jackson for a year. Gray cut out in March 2011, when the budget crisis threatened high school athletic programs in Duval County. Brunell won’t face those issues, but he will take over a team that got drubbed a lot last year. This isn’t his first reclamation project, and it’ll be interesting to see how Coach Brunell progresses.

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