RICK CLEVELAND: Old rules made junior college football what it is today

RICK CLEVELAND

RICK CLEVELAND

JACKSON

We begin today with this bit of approaching Mississippi sports history: For the first time ever, a national college football championship will be decided on Mississippi soil on Dec. 8 when East Mississippi Community College faces Georgia Military for the national junior college championship in the Mississippi Bowl at Biloxi.

I’ll take EMCC, which looks like an NFL team up front, and spot you 10 points, but that’s not really the topic of today’s column.

This is:

Mississippi junior college football has a rich and storied history. We’ve had such legendary coaches as Bull Sullivan, Harold T. White, Dobie Holden, George Sekul, Sim Cooley and so many more. We’ve had such legendary players as Jackie Parker, Earl Leggett, Bucky McElroy, Tim Bowens, Joe Horn, Deion Branch and so many more.

The Mississippi Junior College football league had always been one of the nation’s best kept sports secrets, until somebody like Jackie Parker became a Southeastern Conference legend and then the most famous player in the history of the Canadian Football League and Deion Branch won the title of Super Bowl MVP.

And the league always had been so competitive.

Haves and have nots

But lately, it has become a league of extreme “haves” and “have nots.”

East Mississippi outscored opponents by about 60 points per game this season. Gulf Coast, Co-Lin, and Jones often won with ease, as well. Meanwhile, many programs are light years behind and dropping fast.

Junior college presidents thought they were going to even the playing field a couple years ago when they did away with district protection lists. Before, each junior college had a recruiting district. They could “protect” players within their district, ensuring the local players would play at local schools.

After all, they are called “community colleges.”

Now, schools like East Mississippi, with superior facilities and larger recruiting budgets, can recruit all over the state. Opposing coaches watch players from their “communities” beat them.

Instead of helping to even the field, the talent level seems more disparate than ever.

But don’t take it from me. Going back to some form of the old rules has a most surprising advocate: Buddy Stephens, the head coach at East Mississippi and formerly a player and coach at Pearl River CC, says something has to be done.

“I am from Alabama but I love this Mississippi junior college league,” Stephens says. “I played in it; I have coached a long time in it. I met my wife at Pearl River. I believe in this league. We have to do what is right for the entire league.

“This is something Mississippi got right,” Stephens continued. “We have the best community college system, athletically and academically, in the country. What’s best for a few schools isn’t best for the whole league.”

Jones coach Ray Perkins would prefer the old rules as well.

“We’re going to recruit our own district anyway,” Perkins said. “That’s the way this league was set up. We want kids from around here.”

Says Freeman Horton, the coach at 1-8 Coahoma (which lost 90-7 to Jones), “The gap has grown with the new rules. Some of us don’t have the money to recruit statewide.”

The junior college presidents ultimately will make the decision. There seems to be at least some momentum in favor of going back to the old rules.

Clearly, an open recruiting system has made for a less competive league. That’s not good for anybody.

If the coach of a team which won 11 straight by 58 points a game and is playing for the national title says the new rules are not good for the league, you almost have to believe him.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame .com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.