The Grit of Southern Miss

The Savvy Index has declared Southern Mississippi as the 37th best team in the U.S. to begin the 2016 season and, by predicting a 10-win season, there is reason to suspect that the Golden Eagles could finish in the Savvy Top-25.

Not only are those predictions unpopular among peers, but they are downright laughable to some, and in fact, raised a few smirks within me as well—until I began studying USM in more detail. To say the least, I am impressed!

For starters, let me see if you are any more knowledgeable about S. Miss history than was I.

For example, I didn’t know that Southern Mississippi once won the college football national championship: twice! Of course, in the late 50’s and early 60’s, championships were declared rather than played.

I once knew but then didn’t remember that Southern Miss was the home for Brett Favre, you know, that shaving commercial guy with the 501’s who will be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame this coming Saturday.

An oddity I had never heard before is that Favre and his running back teammate Tony Smith were drafted into the NFL by separate teams, then traded for each other in a multi-player deal.

Bobby Collins brought Southern Miss football back to prominence by finishing ranked 19th in the final poll of 1981. Collins then quite USM to become the head coach of SMU.

Did you know that as recently as 2007, USM posted the fifth-most string of winning seasons in college football and ended 2007 with its 10th bowl game in 11 seasons and the team won 12 games under now-Carolina coach Larry Fedora in 2011.

The following season, under a new coach, the Golden Eagles rusted to a winless (0-12) season which is among the biggest win-loss reversal of all time in NCAA Division 1 (FBS) football. Since then, USM’s combined record is under .500.

Okay, so maybe history justifies at least some precedent for the Index to elevate USM, but why now?

Because USM has leaders filled with grit and passion.

Let me put you in the A.D.’s chair for a moment and give you a scenario to consider.

* Your team not only went winless in 2012 it was the unquestioned most-embarrassing team ever fielded at your school.

* You hired a new coach and now, three seasons later, you are back in a bowl game playing strong against a PAC12 power.

* Then—disaster! Your coach quits!

What do you do? How hard would you work to convince that coach to stay? I think most would give it their all.

That isn’t exactly what happened at Southern Miss. There was some discussion with departing coach Todd Monken to stay, but only enough to be polite, after all, USM is a family kind of outfit.

But you see, Southern Miss had long-before determined who would be its next head coach and it took one phone call to get Jay Hopson to return to Hattiesburg where he had once been an assistant coach. Hopson had been successful from as far back as his playing days at Ol’ Miss where he was a four-year starter at safety and was named to the All-SEC Honor Roll team.

He traveled to several stops as an assistant coach including a long stint at Southern Miss before being named the first white head coach ever in the Southwestern Athletic Conference when he took the job at Alcorn State, a place that hadn’t seen a winner in years.

When Hopson resurrected ASU and then nearly upset his beloved Southern Miss, the Golden Eagle’s athletic director approached him and the die of the scheme was caste and in January of 2016, USM made its offer.

Hopson was eager and anxious! And so was his wife you was overjoyed when she learned of the news after a Bible study. His daughters were ecstatic because both had been born and partially raised in Hattiesburg.

You might have already guessed, there is more to this story than just a happy new beginning. Indeed there is.  You see, Jay Hopson has been battling cancer. One wouldn’t know that if not for someone else explaining it because you won’t hear Hopson speak of it unless asked. His success at Alcorn State was in full spite of s dangerous physical attack. From then until this day, Hopson has simply refused to succumb, complain, or slow down.

That is grit and it comes from someone who is recognized as a superior leader.

Jeff Bower was the head coach at USM when Hopson was an assistant and Bower calls Hopson “the real deal” and “a mentor with passion”.

Bil McGillis, who is the A.D. who hired Hopson, says, “This guy understands the Black and Gold. He hasn’t just read about it. He’s lived it. It means something to him.”

Steve Spurrier calls Hopson “a good friend” and a great man.

What does Hopson have to say about himself? “I’m a big life coach, not just a X’s and O’s coach, but a life coach, and that’s something that we want to build on, to continue that building process.”

That is leadership.

While that is the grit and that is the leadership, when it comes to Southern Miss football, that is not all.

Southern Miss has an experienced on-the-field leader in Nick Mullens. I want to take a minute to compare him with cross-state rival Chad Kelly. You see, Kelly was a four-star prospect; Mullens was only a two-star. Kelly had offers from all of the major programs; Mullens’ name was hardly known.

Nick Mullens
Chad Mullens, senior and four-year starting quarterback for Southern Miss.  Mullens later became the undrafted starter for the San Francisco 49’ers.

It was Chad Kelly who accepted a scholarship from lofty Clemson, a team that had gone nearly undefeated, while Nick Mullens was accepting a scholarship from Southern Miss at the very time that USM was embarrassingly winless.

It was four-star Chad Kelly who was dismissed from Clemson while two-star Nick Mullens worked hard and proved his grit by winning the starting job at Southern Miss.

While Chad Kelly was declaring himself the best quarterback in college football, Mullens was being named to the Maxwell Award and Davey O’Brien watch lists and was later named to the All League Honor Roll team just as coach Hopson had 25 years before.

Chad Kelly will tell you how great he is; Nick Mullens will show you.

Not only is Southern MIss a great candidate for the “Must Watch” team of 2016 but the quality of its people makes this an easy team to love and to root for.