After years of success, Southern Miss football can't buy a victory
NOV 20, 2013 11:58a ET
There are few more drastic, aggressive instances in recent sports of the mighty falling than Southern Miss.
In 2011, the school capped off an 18th-straight winning season and a 12-2 record by beating Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl. Southern Miss wasn’t exactly Alabama, but it’s hard to argue with that kind of consistent success, and even though coach Larry Fedora headed for North Carolina after the season, the school had no reason to anticipate anything other than another strong season under new coach Ellis Johnson in 2012.
That didn’t happen. The Golden Eagles didn’t win a single game. Not a single one, after 18 winning seasons in a row.
And they haven’t won yet this year, either.
With their recent blowout loss to at-the-time 3-6 Florida Atlantic, the team stretched its losing streak to 22 games. The last time it won was the Hawaii Bowl. That’s bizarre, and it’s hard to imagine how a school can so quickly flip from continued, unbroken success to continued, unbroken failure. But we can try.
In college sports, the coach matters to an incredible degree; he, as much as the school’s location or name or history, is the one who brings in the players that will populate his program.
When he leaves, particularly when he leaves a school like Southern Miss, there’s a good chance he will take all of the momentum he created with him.
The only way to ensure this doesn’t happen is to hire a coach of similar skill and ability and reputation, reputation being a surprisingly important factor, because there’s no guarantee that that coach will be able to capitalize on any of the established reputation of his predecessor, not when that predecessor is probably still working the same recruiting corridors and connections that he was previously.
Ellis Johnson hadn’t been a head coach since the Citadel almost a decade earlier, and managing a school like The Citadel is about as different from managing a school like Southern Miss as two college teams can possibly be; it’s a military school, a completely different academic and social environment.
Johnson’s failure at Southern Miss is the perfect example of a misalignment that can only really happen at the college level: a failure on all levels stemming from a change in leadership, enhanced by bad luck and injury, and so complete in its damage to the program that it spreads into the future, past that coach’s tenure.
The issue with that happening at a school like Southern Miss is that Southern Miss can’t just lean on its laurels like a more conventional powerhouse could.
Take Auburn, which went from 14-0 in 2010 to 8-5 in 2011 to 3-9 in 2012; the school ditched Gene Chizik, and for whatever reason, for a combination of reasons — because these things are always complicated; it’s always hard to tell where the blame on one guy ends and the blame on the other guy begins — they’re back to a remarkable 10-1 this year. Coincidentally, Auburn's defensive coordnator is ... Ellis Johnson.
Because of the size and complexity of a modern college football program, the slightest misstep can lead to a systemic failure that basically requires a reset, but the bigger schools usually have the reserves to bounce back from bad injuries and bad coaching much quicker.
UConn’s situation is a little more analogous: 8-5 and BCS-bowl worthy in 2010 before Randy Edsall fled town for Maryland. After Edsall left, it was two straight 5-7 seasons and then this year’s debacle, 0-9, and the firing of Edsall successor Paul Pasqualani.
Johnson was fired after the 2012 season, but the Golden Eagles are still reeling into this year.
And the only way out of a morass like that is a complete, almost defribillator-like overhaul of the program: new coach with a plan, new players who can grow and develop, new level of patience for what can possibly be achieved in the future.
Near future becomes a throwaway concept, and distant future becomes the stock of trade; a serious commitment to a coach is necessary, because what’s the point of not making one? You’re losing anyway.
The AD’s job becomes to find the right guy, or at least the guy who isn’t so obviously wrong, and put a chip down on him. If he works out, he’ll pull your program out of the murk, slowly, languidly, eventually, but if he doesn’t, you’re no worse off than you were before.
That’s the one thing Southern Miss has going for it right now: there’s no way it can possibly get any worse.