Black & Gold Review

New Orleans & Sports & Americana

The Case for Southern Miss (or: Why the College Football Conference Realignment System Is Broken)

The Case for Southern Miss (or: Why the College Football Conference Realignment System Is Broken)

On December 3, 2011, from a bar in Jackson, Mississippi, I texted my old college roommate: IT IS ACCOMPLISHED. Southern Miss had just avenged the Conference USA title loss of 2006, during which some Houston fans threw bottles at our band, and after which one member of our group got punched in the head.

We hated the University of Houston after that. We were salty for five years. But finally retribution came on that day in 2011, when a good, but supposedly overmatched, 24th-ranked Southern Miss went back to the Conference USA title game and stomped on the 6th-ranked Cougars.

The game wasn’t fluky. Previously undefeated, the Cougs gave the ball away twice, but the twice-beaten Golden Eagles gave it away three times, so turnovers weren’t the difference. Southern Miss simply beat Houston, blowing the lid off the Cougs’ defense and launching missiles, like soon-to-be NFL Pro Bowler Jamie Collins, into the Cougs’ juggernaut offense.

On December 3, 2011, Southern Miss football was simply better than Houston football.

But today, Southern Miss is penny-pinching, as the payout it receives from a depleted CUSA’s television contract drops from $1.1 million annually to $200,000. Houston, already relatively safe in the American Athletic Conference, stands on the edge of a leap into the Power 5 promised land.

That happens a lot around here.

case-keenum-sack
Jamie Collins inflicted horrors on Houston in 2011. Via The Venture.

Forgive Southern Miss fans our anger over the whole conference realignment thing. Money and media and college football governing powers have repeated to us over decades the reasons we are unworthy.

We collectively share a robotic ability to repeat the reasons back: Our college town, Hattiesburg, a small city in a poor state, is not exactly a major television market; our athletic budget has always been too small; the bus ride from the airport in New Orleans or the airport in Jackson will take your football team two whole hours; once, somebody with connections to something told me our campus needed a hotel on it.

“And it needs to be full-service,” he clarified.

Okay.

The list goes on. We hear sometimes that the Southern Miss academic profile is not good enough, if you look at that one ranking service; and we also sometimes hear it is good enough, according to this other ranking service, but (said sadly, with a head-shake to indicate this is an unfortunate reality) academic profile just doesn’t actually matter.

After all, this is about football.

Football_game_against_Texas_Christian_November_20_2003
In 2003, Southern Miss beat undefeated CUSA rival TCU 40-28. TCU is in the Big 12 now. Via the USM Digital Library.

It also happened in 2003.

Undefeated and ranked ninth, TCU arrived in Hattiesburg on November 20. The Horned Frogs took an early 3-0 lead. They never led again. Southern Miss left no doubts. The Golden Eagles won, 40-28.

It was, again, pretty easy.

TCU is in the Big 12 now. Apparently Herbstreit thinks they’re a solid pick to make the 2016 playoff.

They get a TV money check for about $23 million every year.

Brett_Favre_during_a_football_game_1989
Though the Metro Conference didn’t sponsor football, Metro members Southern Miss and Florida State used to play often. Southern Miss won this 1989 game 30-26. Via the USM Digital Library.

Let’s go back a ways. In 1975, something called the Metropolitan Collegiate Athletic Conference formed. Florida State was one founding member; Georgia Tech was another. In 1979, Virginia Tech joined. Three years later, the University of Southern Mississippi did too.

For years, Southern Miss was part of a conference that featured the aforementioned FSU and Va. Tech, along with Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis, Tulane, and South Carolina.

In 1990, Raycom Sports proposed the creation of a “super conference” that would be composed of the Metro, Atlantic 10, and Big East conferences. There would be two divisions. The North Division would be anchored by Boston College, Pitt, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and others. The South Division would feature Florida State, Miami, Louisville, and so on. Alongside them? Southern Mississippi.

One problem: The Metro Conference didn’t officially sponsor football, and the super conference iteration of it that would sponsor football never became a reality. Florida State left for the ACC; it was later joined, via Big East off-ramp, by Virginia Tech. South Carolina found its way into the SEC.

In 1995, some of the others, Southern Miss included, became the original core of Conference USA. But they’re all gone now. Except for us. We’re still here.

But man, did we love to beat up those Metro guys when we all lived in the old neighborhood.

19521122_Front_Cover
Southern Miss, then called Mississippi Southern, won this 1952 contest over the University of Louisville 55-26. Via the USM Digital Library.

Take the University of Louisville, for example. You know the school. Papa John’s, yeah? Bobby Petrino, sleazy as all hell, but the dude can really coach, right? They’re in the Atlantic Coast Conference these days. They receive a TV contract payout of like $26.4 million. Recall the new CUSA number is $200,000.

Yeah, Louisville. The Cardinals. They won the Sugar Bowl a few years back, and the Orange Bowl a few before that. We have a .617 winning percentage in 30 games against those guys. Our average margin of victory is ten points.

In 1989, in Louisville, a Brett Favre thing happened that you, if you’re a big fan of either college football or Brett Favre, have seen before. With a few seconds left, and the score tied at ten, Louisville attempted to win the game with a field goal. Southern Miss blocked that kick. Out came Favre and the Golden Eagles’ offense.

The Southern Miss athletic site named this game one of the greatest in school history. Here’s what it says:

As the clock ticked down the game’s final seconds, quarterback Brett Favre rolled right and fought off Louisville defensive end Ted Washington before lofting a Hail Mary pass that was tipped by wide receiver Michael Jackson and caught behind the Louisville defenders by wide receiver Darryl Tillman, who raced into the end zone to give the Eagles the 16-10 win as time expired.

All super fun, if you’re a Southern Miss person. But that game’s place in the Favre mythology might give you the wrong idea. It wasn’t a magical upset. It wasn’t like the time Southern Miss beat Bear Bryant, or like the time in 1970 that integrated Southern Miss beat segregated, 4th-ranked, Archie Manning-quarterbacked Ole Miss.

The notoriety of Southern Miss football, such as it is, is built on games like that, upsets, giant-killings: these are the real world events behind the “Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime” ad campaign that still reverberates today, years after it ended. But just as impressive is the way, uninterrupted for a century, Southern Miss has dominated its peers, no matter who those peers are at the time.

Favre’s Hail Mary didn’t produce a stunning upset. It was just the last play of the eighth game in a nine-game Golden Eagle winning streak over Louisville. Yeah, it took a Hail Mary to win one of those games, but the average score of the previous seven was Southern Miss 40, Louisville 12.

From_the_Rock_n_on_a_roll_2003
In 2003, as happens often, Southern Miss’s peer schools couldn’t deal. Via the USM Digital Library.

Of all the factors that drive the shifting alignments of college football, none of them counts against Southern Miss more than its tiny television market. TV, it is said, powers the sport, and so TV money determines the split between its haves and have-nots.

When the old Big East first raided Conference USA, in 2005, it took Louisville, Cincinnati, and South Florida. Each university is located in a top 50 U.S. media market. To replace its losses, Conference USA expanded to 12 teams and invited Central Florida, Southern Methodist, Rice, Tulsa, Marshall, and Texas-El Paso. Each university is located in a top 100 media market; two are top ten, three are top 20.

In 2013, when the football Big East began its metamorphosis into the AAC, it added the above except UTEP and Marshall—the two smallest media markets of the group—plus Houston (top ten market), Memphis (top 50 market), and Tulane (top 50 market). It also invited East Carolina, located in the Greenville-New Bern-Washington media market, not a huge one but three times the size of Hattiesburg-Laurel.

But here’s the thing: TV markets are bullshit. The operating framework that determined the winners in the previous rounds of college football realignment is wrong. No conference learned that more than Conference USA, which replaced its latest round of losses with more schools from big TV markets.

In fact, Conference USA technically improved its list of markets after the 2013 realignment. Matt Brown, of Vanquish the Foe, writes:

UTSA is in San Antonio. Florida International is in Miami. Old Dominion sits in Norfolk, a rapidly growing metro market without a major sports team. Charlotte is in, well, Charlotte. In fact, most of the new CUSA additions sit either in, or near, larger TV markets. They have more programs in larger “markets” than many other conferences, including the Big 12.

And yet the conference’s new television deal remains a catastrophe for its members. Why?

Because the size of a TV market has no bearing on whether people want to watch (or stream, or download, or loop gifs of) the team in that market. What actually matters is your football team’s brand. To make people watch, and so earn sweet, sweet revenue for your affiliated media company, a conference needs competitive football teams with defining brand characteristics.

It just so happens Southern Miss has a competitive football team and a defining brand characteristic.

1280px-US_Navy_111008-N-AC887-001_Secretary_of_the_Navy_(SECNAV)_the_Honorable_Ray_Mabus_conducts_the_opening_coin_toss_before_an_NCAA_football_game
We dropped 63 points on Navy in 2011. I’m assuming that means Navy is in the SEC now. Via the Wiki Commons.

“Southern Miss, to many of us, is not a name, it is a brand of toughness,” says Robert Ingram, who, with his family, is a longtime staple of the Saturday tailgating scene on campus.

I had asked him if he could explain the big mystery of Southern Miss football—namely, how a former teacher’s college in South Mississippi, which always seems to have fewer resources than whoever its peers happen to be, has a top 40 all-time winning percentage.

Begin in 1912, the first year Southern Miss fielded a football team, and count up the wins and losses and ties in every ten season period since. We haven’t finished a decade of football with a losing record since the one that began in 1924.

How do we do it?

It’s our brand, Ingram says, a brand based on “kicking ass as a constant underdog, of never staying down when knocked down, of never quitting even when times are at their worst.”

That kind of talk gets the blood going, and few people among our fan base are better at it than Robert Ingram. But it’s just talk, right? Any fan of any team can talk like that.

I asked my question on a Southern Miss message board. BluffCityEagle said:

The story of Southern Miss football is the ultimate underdog story. Consistently, year in and year out, the odds have been stacked against this program. Small state, small budget, small market, etc. But each year, it’s the same story: Southern Miss does more with less. Always has and always will.

So there it is again: More with less. Pair this repeated idea of beating the odds with the old Mickey Spagnola quote, parts of which are plastered across the team’s newly-renovated locker room. Spagnola described the university culture as being of “Hard hats, tattoos. Cigarettes in the shirt-sleeve. Beer.” He wrote, “They know nothing ever came easy, nor will it ever come easy.”

In July 2015, Southern Miss unveiled a new athletics logo. During the press conference, athletic director Bill McGillis turned the microphone over to the founder of RARE Design, Southern Miss alumnus Rodney Richardson, whose firm has also designed logos for the New Orleans Pelicans, Charlotte Hornets, Sacramento Kings, and others.

“There’s this…this grit that we have,” Richardson said, “that gives us this…perseverance to never quit. That’s part of who we are. That’s part of what makes this place in the world special…It’s this spirit of fierce independence…and that spirit is the heritage of this program.”

Players say the same sorts of things. They don’t often describe their experiences using the generalized us-vs-the-world cliches that all athletes use at one point or another. They get more personal. They buy into Richardson’s “spirit of fierce independence” and Spagnola’s knowledge that “nothing ever came easy, nor will it ever come easy” because that’s the narrative of their school.

Last season, before a win against Texas-San Antonio—a game against yet another new peer in a big media market, with more resources at its disposal—Brett Favre spoke to the team. Favre, you’ll recall, was famously overlooked by every football program everywhere. Among Southern Miss players, that’s not an experience unique to him.

“My point in all this,” Favre said, “is if I had it to do all over again, and Alabama offered me, and Auburn offered me, and LSU offered me, and Ole Miss and Mississippi State offered me, I’d still go to Southern Miss…There were a lot of guys who came out the same year as me, from Mississippi and other places, who were supposedly damn good. They went to Alabama, they went to all those places.”

Favre held out his hands, wide and empty, and gave a little shrug. He said, “And where are they now?”

Whether we actually have some sort of deep, unique drive is, well, debatable, and the side of the debate you’re on probably depends on whether you went to school at Southern Miss. But that’s not the point. The point is the university has bought into the idea for so long that it is, by now, self-reproducing, a built-in story about the place and the team that perpetuates success by giving coach after coach a brand to sell to recruits and a belief system to instill in players.

“I wanted to be at a place that had had previous success,” Todd Monken said, when asked why he took the Southern Miss coaching job in 2013, which was a rare low point in the school’s football history. “I wanted to be at a place where there were no barriers to success.”

No barriers to success. Such a weird thing to say, on the surface, if you only look at TV markets, if you only care about population numbers, if you only consider the size of a school’s athletic budget. But Monken had a century of evidence to back him up, and our football program’s resurgence in 2015 proved him right.

“What would happen,” BluffCityEagle wrote, “if Southern Miss all of the sudden began cashing $30 million TV revenue checks? What would happen if we were given that shot in the arm?”

He’s right. One reason conferences use the TV market criteria to determine which schools they’ll invite is “potential.” The thinking is, a school in a big market has more natural potential to become competitive than a school not in a big market. Makes sense, yeah? Bigger market equals more supporters equals more resources equals more wins.

Except, look, I may have gone to Southern Miss, but also I was born in New Orleans, and when I was a little kid I once asked my dad to explain local football to me. “The Saints are our NFL team,” I said, “and LSU is the college team. So that means Tulane is our high school team, right?”

Come on, I was little. And you can’t blame a little kid in New Orleans for thinking that way, even now. When “The Upshot” at the New York Times studied college football fandom across the U.S., it found that Southern Miss owned the loyalty of a plurality of fans among the population of South-central Mississippi, in and around Hattiesburg. After Southern Miss, people were split between Ole Miss and Mississippi State and LSU, mostly.

But slide the same map down to Louisiana and mouse over zip code 70118—the home zip code of Tulane itself—and you’ll find a mere five percent of football fans there identify as Tulane loyalists. With extreme unsurprise, if you’re from here, you’ll note LSU has a clear majority.

The easy explanation for that reality is Tulane has a lifetime winning percentage of just .450, and has enjoyed just 14 winning seasons in the 66 years since 1950. Over the same period of time — note, again, 66 years — Southern Miss has had only 11 losing seasons while also compiling, for good measure, a .767 winning percentage over the Green Wave.

Cheerleaders_with_Liberty_Bell_1999
Games between Tulane and Southern Miss are called “The Battle for the Bell.” Even when this game happened every year, the eponymous Bell almost never left Hattiesburg. Via the USM Digital Library.

On November 11, 2006, Southern Miss, before a crowd of mostly Golden Eagle fans in the Superdome, beat the shit out of Tulane so thoroughly that, in the fourth quarter, the Green Wave punted on third down.

The American Athletic Conference selected Tulane for membership during that big 2013 realignment. You know how Southern Miss receives $200,000 a year in TV revenue from Conference USA? From the AAC, Tulane gets about $2 million.

Football_player_Billy_Jarrell_September_18_1953
A player gets carried off the field after Southern Miss beat Alabama in 1953. This is not really relevant to the article. I just wanted you to know one of the times Southern Miss beat Bama was in 1953. Via the USM Digital Library.

And so the case for Southern Miss comes down to a brand made saleable by the football program’s rare combination of long-term success and marketable cultural identity. You want numerical proof? Get this: That 2011 Southern Miss Conference USA championship win had 4.4 million viewers and a 3.1 rating. In the next year’s CUSA title game, Tulsa and Central Florida—who would both be invited to the AAC over the Golden Eagles—managed 590,000 viewers and a 0.4 rating.

As new coach Jay Hopson—a man with long experience in the Southern Miss culture and an admiration for the spirit of success against the odds that is its heritage—preps for his first game, in Lexington, Kentucky, against UK’s Wildcats, the Big 12 is preparing to fire off another round of realignment. That conference seems likely to take at least one school from the AAC, which today is composed almost entirely of teams the Golden Eagles have owned for upwards of a century.

The AAC, in a bid to preserve its status as the most lucrative of the Group of Five conferences, will need to cover for its loss and preserve its ESPN-boosted brand. It will be tempted by big television markets like Charlotte (one year of FBS football history), or by the ones around the campuses of Old Dominion (two years of FBS football history), Florida International (.313 all-time winning percentage), or Florida Atlantic (.406 all-time winning percentage).

The AAC must avoid those temptations, which the current media climate has proven are folly. It must extend an invitation to the school that would bring the greatest record of long-term success and the most marketable brand, the school that has, throughout its history, done more with less than any other—and so shows, as a result, the potential to do even more with more.

The American Athletic Conference must invite the University of Southern Mississippi. It’d be the smallest of helping hands, but the only one we’ve ever gotten. Give us the shot we’ve long since earned.

We Golden Eagles will take it from there.

Author

Bradley Warshauer

As a kid: Once read a newspaper so intently over a candle that I did not notice its ignition.

  • Shaun

    Th

  • Justin

    Great article…As a Southern Miss grad, it has been painful to see what the economics of college football has done to our program. The only thing I will say shouldn’t be a deterrent is the distance from the airport thing. Most teams fly charter into Hattiesburg/Laurel Airport. But, I agree that Hattiesburg needs a decent hotel.

  • keithelder

    Fantastic article. I’m sharing throughout the internets!

  • Shaun

    SMTTT, Mr. Warshauer. That was a well researched, nicely flowing article.