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Southern Miss was once a powerhouse example of G5 football. Maybe that’s their problem today

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USM is still a good coaching job, but it will take more than geography to win

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Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society Illustration.

After a certain point reporting on coaching positions, it’s easy to identify the leitmotifs when coaches describe destination jobs:

1. There are inarguably good jobs where a coach can amass power and win national titles. Coaches will tend to tell the truth about these kinds of jobs.

2. There are arguably good jobs that offer one or the other. Maybe a coach can “compete” for titles, but probably never win one. However, If they’re comfortable with that, a coach can become a kind of local king. Coaches will not tell the truth about these jobs.

3. There are dangerous jobs that promise both but grant neither. Most savvy coaches can’t tell until it’s too late, though. Coaches will not know the truth about these jobs.

But to get one of these destination (read: almost always Power 5) jobs, a coach usually has to succeed somewhere else first. These jobs, the feeder jobs, are ascribed to two more categories, parsed here by the manner in which coaches themselves describe them:

4. The “This place is special, we just have to define ourselves!” school. This is a historically unsuccessful program in a location that doesn’t feature a lot of local talent. This is where it’s mandatory to do crazy stunts on Instagram, or paint the field a weird color, or promise some kind of “innovative concepts” to win recruits and games.

5. The “Look around you, all we gotta do is keep ‘em here!” school. It’s usually a non-traditional power in a talent-rich state, most likely a directional commuter school positioned in a hotbed of recruiting, with either no history of success or a period of time in which the school created a bottleneck of local talent and saw a day in the sun.

Southern Miss, the first school with an open head coaching position in this 2020… season?... is the No. 5 kinda job. Coaches don’t retire there, unless you’re Jeff Bower, who was really good and didn’t leave and became a local legend and, well, that’s kind of the problem USM is dealing with today.

[To be transparent: I knew Bower personally before I became a sportswriter. He grew up with my mother in Georgia, and I met him a few times. He’s an institution at Southern Miss, objectively speaking, both as a quarterback and a successful head coach of 23 seasons.]

During Bower’s time in Hattiesburg USM won 119 games, and didn’t experience a losing season from 1994 to through his retirement in 2007. Along the way, the Golden Eagles authored a kind of bar-napkin recipe for mid-major infamy programs – one that Boise State would refine years later – beating teams like Nebraska and Georgia and Oklahoma State and anyone else dumb enough to schedule them.

I would emphasize “refine,” because unlike Boise, Bower’s Southern Miss wasn’t particularly fun to watch, unless you cheered for Southern Miss. They cared not for entertaining poll voters or branding, instead opting for a less-exciting version of Beamer ball executed by a bunch of really talented and really pissed-off players, most of whom were a hair shy of a SEC roster.

And man, did old-school Southern Miss ever play foil to the SEC well: When I was in college at Ole Miss it was quietly agreed upon, among most SEC fans in the state of Mississippi, that if given the chance, Bower’s defense-and-special-teams driven USM would absolutely kick the shit out of both the Rebels and Mississippi State

Except no one admitted that, and it drove USM people nuts. Such is fandom.

To make matters worse, USM also made a habit of routinely beating on future P5 schools and G5 stalwarts like Memphis and Pitt and Houston and TCU. After a while, folks in Hattiesburg expected to be better than programs investing tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure and staffing, to move up and away from the USM way of football.

Which brings us to Southern Miss’ current problem. After Bower — the undisputed author of the program, and a career maximizer of talent — USM discovered the actual reality of life as a public school with an enrollment of just 14,000 in the nation’s poorest state and meager C-USA TV revenue: The Golden Eagles from Hattiesburg saw Bower’s replacement, Larry Fedora, ride an 11-2 season out of town to North Carolina in 2011. Auburn DC Ellis Johnson put in one a single, horrific year as head coach, going 0-12. Current Georgia OC Todd Monken picked up the pieces in capable fashion, but bolted after three seasons for the NFL.

Then in 2016 it was Jay Hopson’s turn, a Mississippian and former head coach of in-state Alcorn. Hopson floundered to a 28-23 record on the field and seemed to actively seek to build horrific scandals off it.

But hey: There’s balls players ‘round these parts, right! Right? It’s Mississippi. A new staff has quick access to a talent-rich state and region and an example of success in the modern era to show recruits. 2019 NFL rosters featured 44 Mississippians, the tenth highest by state despite a population of only 2.9 million (by comparison, New Jersey had 45 NFL players from a population of 8.8 million).

Except the problem is also Mississippi. At $25.6 million, per USA Today, Southern Miss’ athletic budget ranks next to last in Conference USA. Hopson was also the lowest paid head coach in the conference, and USM doesn’t have 40,000 students on campus (or 40,000 fans in the stadium) to boost fees and revenue.

This is a Mississippi-shaped problem, but to hear coaches tell it, it’s not unique, either to the state or to the school.

Southern Miss is in danger of becoming a “cactus.” Allow this transcript of a conversation I had with a current head coach to explain:

COACH: I mean yeah [USM]’s a good job but you can’t just pick ‘em [recruits] up off the ground.

ME: There has to be a little attention paid to the program.

COACH: Money.

ME: Yeah, money.

COACH: That’s what these places don’t get. It worked once so it must work forever. There’s players here so they wanna come here forever. You gotta take care of it, man. It’s not a…

ME: What

COACH: Ah … Grows in the desert...

ME: ...a cactus?

COACH: Yeah, a cactus.

ME: ... did you just forget what a cactus was?

(Coaches are extremely intelligent about things that have to do with coaching. After that, it’s an ever-entertaining crapshoot. That whole “Will Muschamp doesn’t know what ‘Star Wars’ is” meme? That is the rule, not the exception).

USM is a program that should expect success. And maybe, just maybe, the loss that triggered Hopson’s break with the university was more important we think: The team that Southern Miss dropped their nationally televised, unopposed home opener to was South Alabama.

USA started their football program from scratch in 2009, ostensibly to capitalize on the talent-rich region that made Southern Miss such a reliable name and reviled opponent for so long. This is a common problem that plagues smaller schools in good recruiting areas: For a while, it’s possible to exploit a deficiency in recruiting and pull in higher quality personnel than a school probably should. But the market inevitably corrects.

For years, Florida was THE stockpile of college football talent. That’s because even in 1995, the state only had three FBS football programs in a state of 14 million people. Today it has seven, adding four directionals — UCF, USF, FAU, and FIU — to try to keep FBS talent in-state. Additionally, recruiting is a far more nationalized process than it was when Jeff Bower built his dynasty. Gems aren’t hidden for long; they’re all on YouTube and they’re willing to go play time zones away from their families for the right kind of exposure.

If anything — and since no one, especially in Mississippi, is anticipating an influx of cash for an athletic program anytime soon — it might be time to inject some of that out-of-the-box thinking to programs formerly content to get by on their geography. Southern Miss and other geographically advantaged directionals cannot simply sit pat; they need a bit of that smoke-and-mirrors branding and pablum to help lock down all that local talent.

That requires money. I’m not talking about bagman money (although hey, it never hurts, amirite), but actual investment. Put money into suitable, comparable facilities: Hologram waterfalls aren’t mandatory, but a lot of 17-year-olds interested in staying home in Mississippi instead of going somewhere far away still want decent places to eat and train and practice.

And put money into marketing and branding: “Energy” around a program is hard to define but impossible to ignore when present. Get butts in seats, whenever that’s possible again. Get players to feel like they’re celebrated and valued, not just expected to show up just because a school is located nearby.

Addressing these deficits is tricky, but it’s way, way easier for stale programs in key recruiting areas to refresh and reignite than for programs flung far from four stars to lure talent to their campus.

Again, I cede to my flora-challenged source.

ME: “Given a choice between a Midwest or Western school with an aggressive branding campaign and a higher budget, or one just touching the gulf coast, which one would you go to if all other things were about equal?”

COACH: “The Southern school, no doubt. Neglected in Florida or Alabama is still a better job than being loved in Colorado or Indiana. It’s not even close.”