The last time Southern Miss football did something awesome was December 3, 2011. Here are the highlights from what happened on that day:
Our experiences with respect to sports teams vary depending on the team’s place in our individual story. For me, the win over the University of Houston in 2011 was the climax of a story that began in the 2006 edition of the Conference USA championship game, which, like the 2011 game, was played in Houston. The Cougars won that game — it’s more accurate, at least in terms of the emotion involved for Southern Miss fans, to say Southern Miss lost it — and it became one of several litmus tests for the perceived decline of the program during the middle of the ’00s.1
Southern Miss fans perceived a decline in the quality of play relative to Golden Eagle teams that took the field between 1996 and 2003, teams that were often ranked or, at least, were packed into the jumble of teams underneath the top 25 that had also received votes. That perception of decline was driven by on-field moments like the one during the third quarter of the 2006 title game, when not-very-fast Houston quarterback Kevin Kolb outpaced the entire Southern Miss defense to score a 46 yard touchdown, giving his team a lead it would never relinquish.
Moments like these are litmus tests because in college football, in a way unlike any other sport, everything that happens ties immediately into perceptions of quality, status, and like tribal worth. Not-very-fast Kevin Kolb should not have been able to outrun a Southern Miss Nasty Bunch defense, we thought at the time, and the fact he was able to do so was a sign that our entire program was rotting — was, to use the phrase in vogue during the long decade of realignment, being “passed by.”
Another example of this sort of thing came during Southern Miss’s 2014 opening loss to Mississippi State, in Starkville. I watched that game at a bar in my New Orleans neighborhood, and as State began to make things embarrassing a couple of SEC fans, waiting for their game to begin, talked about it. One said to the other, “It’s not even fair for these small schools to have to play games like this,” and I wanted to interrupt them, to tell them that Southern Miss in fact had a winning record over Mississippi State, that if this game had been played just three years ago the result would have been different, and most importantly that you can have one football team be better than another football team in a given year without passing judgment on their relative existence. But I didn’t say anything. I went home.
Southern Miss continued to be, between 2007 and 2010, about as good as it had been between 2004 and 2006, but in 2009 and 2010 its losses kept getting closer and closer — in 2010, the 8-5 Golden Eagles were eight points from being the 11-2 Golden Eagles, and so when Southern Miss broke out in 2011 it wasn’t that shocking.
But two close losses blemished what was nearly a perfect season, and put Southern Miss behind Houston in the CUSA standings, which meant another trip out to Robertson Stadium, where things had not gone so well the last time. In 2006, I rode a charter bus from campus out there, with my roommate and all the most die-hard student-fans I knew, and a Houston fan punched someone in a bathroom, and Houston fans threw bottles and garbage at the Pride of Mississippi marching band during halftime, and then Kevin Kolb outran our defense, and Houston outran Southern Miss, and we went back to Hattiesburg very sad.
So the 2011 game became a revenge game for me, as well as, I naively thought, our chance to emerge as a national contender.2 When the clock went to zero I texted my roommate in Hattiesburg: IT IS ACCOMPLISHED.
And now? Now, the 2011 win over Houston is the most recent truly awesome thing Southern Miss football has done, though it’s far from the only one in the school’s history. It’s a reminder of what the school’s football program is capable of being, and a moment to treasure for those of us who are sticking out the dark times until we do something that awesome again.