JOHN L. PITTS: What has happened at USM?

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

CORINTH

We all love rags-to-riches stories, but the riches-to-rags stories in sports are often much more instructive.

Yes, it’s time for us to talk about Southern Miss football.

It has been startling to watch the fall of a program that could boast of 18 consecutive winning seasons back in 2011 yet has lost a nation’s worst 20 games in a row since.

When the bill came due for that 2011 Hawaii Bowl-winning season, it came due with a vengeance.

What happened? I get that question a lot.

Like a lot of stories, I think it has to do with the perils of ambition.

There was a lingering sense that, despite the long streak of winning seasons, Southern Miss football had settled into a rut in the final few seasons of longtime head coach Jeff Bower, who was shown the door in 2007.

Hiring Oklahoma State assistant coach Larry Fedora was seen as a move to bring the Golden Eagles into the 21st century with a spiffy new offensive scheme.

Bower went 23-16 in his last three seasons. Fedora, for all the hype, went 22-17 in his first three seasons. Instead of losing games 20-14 as it sometimes did under Bower, Fedora’s team was losing 42-36. Much more exciting, right?

Yet, in 2011, the Golden Eagles enjoyed a magical 11-2 campaign capped by that Hawaii trip. And poof, like Keyser Soze in “The Usual Suspects,” Fedora was gone – to be head coach at North Carolina.

Wrong turn

Veteran defensive assistant Ellis Johnson was brought in as boss last season – a complete reversal from the Fedora hire – the team went 0-12 and Johnson was quickly canned.

It was an expensive move. The school, needing a pile of cash to pay off Johnson’s contact, ransomed off a home date against Nebraska and turned it into a road trip. In the process, it became just another “directional school,” auctioning off big losses for big dollars.

Now the team has its third head coach in three seasons – always a bad sign. Who knows if new coach Todd Monken is really the answer, because the situation he walked into was such a mess.

What’s evident now is that the recruiting efforts by Fedora and his staff began to slip in 2011 – busy looking for another job? – and the program has yet to recover.

And won’t recover anytime soon. Southern Miss won’t be favored in any of its remaining four games this season and opens the 2014 campaign in Starkville.

In his autobiography, North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith talked about the difficulties of sustaining a high level of success for a long period of time. Anybody, he said, can build a program for one great season. The real art, he said, is in building something that lasts.

Southern Miss did that, then threw it all away.

Right now, I bet that a boring ol’ string of eight-win seasons would be warmly welcomed by the Golden Eagles’ fans.

Random thoughts

• The 2014 Nobel Prize in medicine will go to whatever that was I found in the back of our refrigerator the other day. I think it was sliced cheese … at some point.

• A headline in the Daily Journal said Sen. Wicker is “looking for solutions.” I prefer 20 percent vinegar diluted in tap water. Works on most things.

• Overheard at breakfast: “What kinds of drinks do you have, Cokewise?”

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Daily Journal. He shares more random thoughts on his Twitter account, @johnlpitts.

  • NorthMSReb

    I was talking about this with some friends yesterday. What was once a proud program, one that could compete with Alabama and Florida State on the field, is now the “Prairie View” of college football. I have a couple of friends who graduated from USM, and I told them that they had just hired their “Tommy Tuberville” when they hired Fedora. They didn’t want to believe it, but now they know.

  • DownGoesBrown

    What would cause a pretty good program to go down the toilet so fast? It’s simple once you think about it:

    – Fedora saw the Southern Miss job as a means to an end. Once an opportunity presented itself, he’d probably bolt for a bigger job (it’s been widely known that the guy wanted out of MS). Looks like his last couple of years, he and his staff didn’t focus on recruiting at all.