UNA coaches and players have opposing connections

Junior defensive back Levi Fell (center) blocks for a teammate after an interception last season against West Georgia. Fell will square off with his former high school teammate Sept. 6 at Legion Field against Miles College.

The first game of the year for North Alabama may have regional implications, but the season opener against Miles College is more personal.

Some of the players and coaches who will stand on the home sideline Sunday at Legion Field in Birmingham have some form of connection to UNA, including Miles coach Reginald Ruffin and assistant coach Ronald McKinnon.

Ruffin was an All-American defensive end at UNA and helped the Lions win two national championships in 1993-94. Miles linebacker coach Ronald McKinnon is also no stranger to UNA, where he won the Harlon Hill trophy playing for UNA coach Bobby Wallace in 1995.

“Reginald Ruffin is an excellent football coach,” Wallace said. “I love seeing him and Ronald (McKinnon) succeed. They were great players here and were on championship teams. We’ve always stayed in touch through all 20 years.

“I followed Ronald through his playing and coaching career and Reginald through his coaching career and I’m proud of both of them.”

Wallace said he prefers not playing against his former players and coaches because they feel like family to him, including Tuskegee head coach and former offensive coordinator at UNA, Willie Slater.

“I don’t get any pleasure from beating them,” Wallace said. “I get pleasure for our players winning a football game. In fact, I’d rather win a football game against someone else and read the paper to see they won, too. But once we play, someone has to win and I’m sure they feel the same way.”

Wallace said the conversations before games against Ruffin, McKinnon and Slater are mostly unrelated to football.

“Before the game we will be cordial and hug and ask if the family is OK,” Wallace said. “We won’t talk football. In my opinion it’s not ethical to ask him how his team is doing and if someone is hurt. It’s none of my business except to play the game.”

One of Ruffin and McKinnon’s college teammates happens to be UNA offensive coordinator and championship winning quarterback Cody Gross.

“Reginald and Ronald are both special to me,” Gross said. “I played four years with Ron and two with Reginald. They were great players, great teammates and great people that have turned into great coaches.”

Unlike Wallace, Gross said he enjoys the opportunity to coach against his former teammates.

“It’s always fun to go against those guys,” Gross said. “The guys that you know and you’re friends with, you really like to beat them. There is just something about it. I always like checking to see if those guys are successful. You just don’t want them to be successful against you.”

While Wallace and Gross have the opportunity to coach against former players and teammates, UNA junior defensive back Levi Fell has the opportunity to play against his high school teammate.

Fell played with Miles junior running back Jamarcus Nance at Muscle Shoals High School, where the team finished 13-1 and lost in the state semi-finals.

“I’ve played with Jamarcus since seventh grade,” Fell said. “I talked to him just the other day and he told me he was going to be ready. We are actually cousins by marriage so we are pretty close. We may talk two times a week.”

Fell said he hopes to get the opportunity to line up against Nance in the secondary.

“I feel like there is going to be a lot of ‘love trash talk,’” Fell said. “No matter how the game turns out it’s going to be a friendly conversation after the game, but between those lines for 60 minutes, it’s strictly business.”