With a quarter for every time someone asked me this next question, I could build a whole new wing on the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum:
“What the devil has happened to Southern Miss football?”
Folks who know my background know I have watched Southern Miss football since I was old enough to open my eyes. What I watched last year and this is surreal. It’s like watching sci-fi. Really, it’s almost like a dream and you keep waiting for the alarm clock to end it.
Two years ago, Southern Miss finished 12-2, won a conference championship, won a bowl game and came within one score of playing in the Sugar Bowl. It was USM’s 18th straight winning season.
Since then, Southern Miss is 0-22. Even as I type those numbers, they don’t seem real. Southern Miss? 0-22? Football?
This past Saturday, the Golden Eagles lost 41-7 to Florida Atlantic, a 12-year-old football program that lost its head coach a month ago (reports of pot, cocaine). What’s more, for one Saturday afternoon in Hattiesburg the Florida Atlantic University Owls were made to look like the 1985 Chicago Bears.
There’s been a lot of that. The Eagles have been outscored an average of 43-12. They are a minus-21 in turnovers. They are giving up well over 400 yards per game, not getting 300 themselves.
So what happened? Better to ask: What hasn’t?
After so many years of stability, Todd Monken is USM’s third coach in three seasons. This isn’t on him. He inherited an undermanned team and then has seen what he did inherit decimated by more injuries than you’d see on two episodes of M.A.S.H.
Of the 22 players who started against Texas State, 12 have missed games with injury and did not start this past Saturday. We’re talking the two best linebackers, best cornerback, best safety, best offensive tackle, a really good defensive tackle, etc., and so on.
Out of necessity, USM has started eight true freshmen this season, and, remember, these are eight true freshmen starting from a class that Monken got a late start on last December.
After the 10th loss of the season, new athletic director Bill McGillis – a sharp, well-connected guy – saw fit to issue a five-part Twitter message that said, essentially, he fully expects Southern Miss to return to its winning football ways, that Todd Monken, is the guy to lead the way. He admitted that it will take some time and that there are no short cuts.
“Hunker down, we will prevail,” McGillis ended it.
There is an acute shortage of experienced talent. USM gets whipped badly and weekly at the line of scrimmage. Offensively, there is no speed to stretch the field. Freshman quarterback Nick Mullens can be a good one, but he is often throwing on the run to well-covered receivers without benefit of a running game.
To paint the picture in broad strokes, the biggest problem is this: The proud Southern Miss football program was built on out-working people, by expertly evaluating and then recruiting blue-collar athletes (often overlooked players with a chip on their shoulder and grit in their craw), developing them with an emphasis on fundamentals (blocking and tackling), toughness and attention to detail.
Somewhere along the way, Southern Miss got away from that. Recreating it will not be easy. Hunker down, is right.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.