Southern Miss beat Georgia in 1996. (Via)Ask the old-timers, and they’ll tell you about the wins over top ten TCU and Houston teams, or about the long-ago 58-14 mollywhopping of Florida State, but their faces really light up when they start talking about beating Alabama, or Ole Miss, or Mississippi State, or LSU, or Auburn. So then you know what matters to old Southern Miss fans, and you understand why a university so used to winning in the shadow of the Southeastern Conference could think it was a good idea to hire a twice-failed aging dinosaur of an assistant: SEC people said it was a good idea.
The Ellis Johnson post-mortem is stunning not just because he inherited a 12-2, top 20 program and immediately went 0-12 with it, but also because that winless 2012 result was the program’s first losing season of any sort in two decades, and only its sixth in the seventy-five years since the arrival of Reed Green, its first great head coach. When Southern Miss went 1-11 in 2013, after firing Johnson and replacing him with Todd Monken, it completed its first back to back losing seasons since 1933 and 1934; the one win was its lowest two-season victory total in all 101 of its years. To open this year, Southern Miss lost, 49-0, to Mississippi State, against whom the Golden Eagles have an all-time winning record; it was the first time State had pitched a shutout in the rivalry since the first edition of the game in 1935, when Southern Miss was called State Teachers College.
The football program at the University of Southern Mississippi is at death’s door for the only time in its history, with only faint signs of potential resuscitation visible to people like me, who care enough to look. The story of how it got to this point is a cautionary tale not just for those who love the historically resource-strapped yet successful program, but also for those who love American football, despite all its flaws. Football’s greatest threat is the existential crisis posed by sub-concussive brain injuries, but the kind of thinking that pushed my alma mater into a bizarre dystopia is hastening the onset of a concurrent apocalypse that nobody sees coming.
Basically, the SEC is going to kill football.
“He does everything,” New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty said of his teammate Jamie Collins, after the Patriots defeated the Indianapolis Colts during the playoffs in January of 2014. Collins had just devastated the Colts’ offense, sacking Andrew Luck, pressuring him several times, making half a dozen tackles, and all but ending any hope the Colts had with a fourth quarter interception. McCourty continued: “He’s one of those freakish athletes that can do what we do as defensive backs as a linebacker.”
In 1953, Southern Miss beat Alabama for the first time. (Via the Southern Miss libraries.)
As the 2013 NFL Draft approached, Bill Belichick traveled to Hattiesburg, gave a speech at the local convention center, and visited campus to meet Collins. Then Belichick made Collins his first draft pick, taking him in the second round. Now, Collins seems poisted for NFL stardom. According to Ellis Johnson, though, Jamie Collins was a sign of a problem at Southern Miss, one Johnson said “shocked” him when he arrived in Hattiesburg — a talent decline relative to the Southern Miss team he’d briefly served as defensive coordinator in the 1980s. Collins, Johnson reportedly told an alumni group, was the best player on the Golden Eagles’ 2012 roster, but he wouldn’t be a starter on the South Carolina squad Johnson had just left.
Back in the ‘80s, Johnson told AL.com after taking a job with Auburn as Gus Malzahn’s defensive coordinator, things were different: “We probably had a dozen players on our football team that were big-time SEC players,” he said. “I should have realized how different it was.”
But so Jamie Collins was not a big-time SEC player, according to Johnson, the long-time SEC coordinator. Since Johnson supposedly meant that Collins would not have started at defensive end for South Carolina, he might have technically been correct: The Gamecocks had Jadeveon Clowney at that spot, after all. But the pigeonholing of Collins as a defensive end was one of the first obvious mistakes Johnson made; previously, Southern Miss co-coordinators Dan Disch and David Duggans had put Collins in a hybrid role as both a pass rusher and pass defender, similar to the way Belichick would deploy him against the Colts. They built Collins’s position around his NFL-caliber talents rather than forcing him to adhere to standards for which he was only a partial fit. 1 This move was a result of a kind of stubbornness few observers even considered when Johnson was hired — a stubbornness that judged the talents of even future NFL stars by how they’d fit into the regimented roles at big SEC programs.
Ellis Johnson didn’t talk about winning at Southern Miss in the leadup to his only season; Johnson talked about winning “the right way,” with big, overpowering physical specimens beating their opponents one on one, man on man — a physical impossibility, in other words. Embedded in the refrain was Johnson’s disdain for modern forms of football, a game that has always been defined by evolution.
The players, having just finished nineteenth in the 2011 BCS standings while operating Larry Fedora’s hyper-modern spread offense and a multiple defense that produced a record number of non-offensive touchdowns, weren’t stupid.
“I don’t think everybody as a team really bought into the new coaching staff,” former Southern Miss star Tracy Lampley said after the season. Lampley had been a weapon for three years, but Johnson had wasted his talents. “That’s just being honest.”
“At first everybody was all for it,” Joe Duhon, an all-conference offensive lineman who was a senior under Johnson in 2012, said once he was safely graduated. “Then, after a while, everybody was like, ‘It’s not right!’” Duhon, by the way, was a very good student at Southern Miss, a soft-spoken, friendly guy from Lake Charles, Louisiana, who played good football and made friends. But when recounting the Ellis Johnson experience, Duhon developed a sudden case of who gives a shit: “It’s not the ‘80s,” he snapped. “You can’t win doing old school right now, unless you’re Alabama.”
Duhon said, “We tried to win every game with a shitty game plan.”
And, as a lasting gift to Todd Monken and the coaches who had to apply a tourniquet to the program: the catastrophic strength and conditioning program Johnson installed under a S&C coach who had been out of the sport since — you guessed it — the ‘80s. The result was a roster that seemed made of high school kids. “It was horrible,” Duhon said. “The players felt the strength conditioning was horrible, and we knew it. . . . We just had no conditioning.” By the middle of the 2012 season, stories were spreading around Hattiesburg about people recognizing players at off-campus gyms.
The players were buying personal memberships, and working out on their own.
During the quietest part of the off-season, Nick Saban, architect of the Process and occasional god-emperor of the SEC, threw his support behind a rule that would penalize offenses that snapped the ball with more than 29 seconds left on the play clock. Joined publicly by Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and privately by others, Saban disingenuously cited player safety concerns, which were refuted by research, as his reason for seeking an end to up-tempo football.
Southern Miss icon P. W. “Bear” Underwood was proud of playing the SEC — regardless of the result. (Via).
The real reason? “Is this what we want football to be?” Saban said in 2012. “I don’t think anybody really ever thought we’d go no-huddle and the coach could control the game from the sidelines and call the plays based on how the defense was lined up. That’s a real advantage for the offense.”
No shit, Nick — that’s the point. I don’t think anybody ever really thought we’d start throwing the ball forward, but that eventually happened in the early 1900s, in about the sport’s fourth decade. I don’t think anybody ever really thought we’d have coaches call the plays from the sideline at all, but at some point over the past forty years that too became the way of things. Football evolves, but in Saban and his ilk we’re dealing with strict interpretationists of a mythical text they made up in their heads. They want to seal the sport in a time capsule at the moment most opportune for them.
Saban, at least, sounds smart, and although he relies on phony statistics, at least his appeals to player safety feel kind of like something you could get behind, if they were true, which they’re not. Bielema just sounds like a lunatic. The game he wants to preserve, he says — presumably from the deviants who are ruining it, in their attempts to seek a competitive advantage with whatever talents they have — is “normal American football.”
Normal American football — the same thing Ellis Johnson called “the right way.”
After he lost his eighth game, Ellis Johnson’s radio call-in show received a call from aging former Southern Miss coach P. W. Underwood, who is beloved in Hattiesburg because he played for Southern Miss and coached at Southern Miss, even though he was the only Southern Miss head coach between 1930 and 2012 to end his career with a losing record.2 I won’t repeat all the details of Underwood’s phone call, because they came from a place of passion for the university I love, and because I, too, as a Southern Miss fan and alum, feel good feelings about him. The point is Underwood spoke badly of the coaching style of Larry Fedora, decrying his offense and his teams’ lack of discipline, while praising Ellis Johnson for doing things, of course, the right way.
To Underwood, as to Johnson, there was something noble in Southern Miss’s 2012 failure — something that made it a more notable accomplishment than winning 12 games and coming within an upset loss of a Sugar Bowl berth in 2011. In fact, after just about every one of the Golden Eagles’ 24 losses, as they continue to live their post-2012 dystopia, you can find a fan or two on the message boards lambasting Fedora for padding his win total in 2011 with a weak schedule — even though half those games were against bowl teams, and one of them was a road game against an ACC conference team that finished with eight wins. When these fans say “weak schedule” what they really mean is the schedule didn’t include any road games against the SEC’s elite: it’s better to lose on the road at Alabama than to sweep both games of a home and home series with Virginia.
Running back Sammy Winder pretty much flew during “The Leap,” which beat Ole Miss in 1980. (Via).
Every time a coach in the NFL implements something on offense that looks kind of funny, a bunch of people run to their columns to make jokes about “college offense.” When they do so, these people are being stupid.
The NFL is dominated by a sort of big tent offense — just about every team uses it, or a version of it, though every team uses it differently. But that offense is not stagnant. It’s constantly refreshed, as the evolution of the game at its lower levels filters up through the ranks into the NFL, a league of copycats.
Former University of Nevada head coach Chris Ault, for example, is credited with the creation of what’s called the Pistol offense. The Pistol is, basically, just a minor adjustment of the placement of quarterback and halfback in a shotgun formation, but Ault used it to great success between his return to Nevada in 2004 and his ultimate retirement in 2012; he won eight games per year, including a 13-1 record in 2010.3 The Pistol was Ault’s competitive advantage; it allowed him to take advantage of his players’ talents so that they could compete with better-funded programs.
Last season, the champions of both NFL conferences regularly used the Pistol formation. Like nearly everything else in the NFL offense, it started as a dismissible college gimmick. Now it’s a mainstay.
In August 2012, Chris B. Brown, writing for Grantland, discussed the concept of “packaged” plays, another college idea that entered the NFL while bad sportswriters didn’t notice. Brown writes a lot about Oklahoma State’s packaged concepts, and in so doing he discusses the offense of OSU’s then-coordinator Todd Monken, the man still trying to figure out how to fix what Ellis Johnson broke.
The rise of no-huddle offense means that these package plays will no doubt become more popular at every level, but the difference between this trend and other offensive evolutions is in how packaged plays represent a complete rethinking of the nature of the play. The Tecmo Bowl model has been the dominant model since long before Tecmo Bowl, but this new approach is an opportunity to take the old, trusted tactics and adapt them for the modern game. And, as Grabowski points out, we’ve only just begun: “The only limits to packaging plays seems to be a coach’s creativity in finding different ways to make a single defender wrong, every time.”
So in other words everything that Nick Saban, Bret Bielema, and Ellis Johnson hope to stamp out with complaints, lies, and changes to the rule book. Everything that evolves. Everything they can’t control. Everything that isn’t normal and American enough.
Everything that isn’t “right.”
With their massive TV contracts, the Power 5 athletic programs have bloated their budgets to stupid amounts. They are in the process of using their own massive waste and their own parasitic relationships with American universities to justify corrective measures that address problems that only exist because of said: the injustice of not giving the players most responsible for those revenues a cut of the money they generate, for example. This is an inequity the big programs created, and now they can use corrective half-measures as a shell covering the rot at their core.
Seems fitting that a man who already has a statue would argue against evolution. (Via).
The other problems are not even being discussed: the increasing lack of open competition in college football; the continuing attempts by rich athletic programs to end the fluidity between the ranks that has, over the decades, made formerly small programs like Florida State into legendary ones; and so on. The Power 5 programs ensure that football coaches are the highest-paid taxpayer-funded employees in nearly every American state, but rather than discuss sane salary caps and sensible budget limits that would correct this national embarrassment and give smaller universities something resembling, if still much less than, equality of opportunity, they vote themselves increased autonomy as a step towards the creation of some eventual hermetically-sealed, ideologically-stagnant new league.
It’ll be a league of only the rich, of stock programs using the same obsolete thinking for year after stagnant year. It’ll be an even more conservative version of the NFL, only with less talent; a feeder system; a minor league kept profitable only by the brand loyalty that results from the use of university names, logos, colors, and stadiums.
Ellis Johnson will love it.
On Saturday, a crowd of about 36,000 will fill M. M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg — something close to a sellout, despite Southern Miss’s 1-24 record in the past 25 games. They’ll show up for two reasons: First, the game is against FCS opponent Alcorn State, the first lower-tier team Southern Miss has faced since the onset of dystopia, so we Golden Eagles, despite our shattered confidence, think we’ll probably get to watch our first win at home since November of 2011; second, Alcorn State is a Mississippi team, and Mississippi football teams always produce big crowds when they play other Mississippi football teams.
Together, we’ll watch the sun set behind the copper dome of the Administration Building, and then we’ll listen to the Pride of Mississippi, and then we’ll put our finger on the faint pulse of an ailing patient. Will there be a sign of returning life? That’s all we’re asking for. Just a sign.
The week after, we travel to Tuscaloosa to meet Nick Saban, at Alabama.