Coach Jay Hopson jogged off the football field in the pouring rain, bits of mud and grass matted to his face.
His Alcorn State players streamed around him, quickly seeking shelter after a grueling 3-hour practice on a soggy Mississippi morning.
The first white football coach in the historically black Southwestern Athletic Conference might be breaking racial boundaries, but his introduction to the Braves has been quite conventional.
”Coach Hopson is rough,” Alcorn State receiver Terrance Lewis said after Friday’s practice. ”I’ve never practiced this hard. He wants us to work to earn everything we get and that’s what we’re trying to do every day. It took some getting used to, but I think we’re starting to come around.”
And that’s exactly what the 43-year-old Hopson wants to hear as he embarks on his first season as a head coach. Before coming to Alcorn State, he was a well-traveled defensive assistant, working at places like Ole Miss, LSU, Florida, Michigan, Marshall, Southern Miss and most recently Memphis.
Now he’s running his own show.
Hopson grew up in Vicksburg, Miss. — about a 45-minute drive from Alcorn State — and is quite familiar with the history of the SWAC, a collection of schools in Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. Together, they’ve produced some of the greatest football players ever, including Walter Payton, Jerry Rice and Alcorn’s own Steve McNair.
Hopson’s arrival at Alcorn State is historic in its own right. But he was unconcerned with the extra scrutiny that comes with being the league’s first white coach and said his ties to the area have made it a natural fit.
”A lot of folks at Alcorn have known me since I came out of the womb,” Hopson said. ”I told one (Alcorn alumni) that I don’t know how to explain it to you besides this: This is where I’m from. I grew up here. The mud on this ground is what I ran around on as a little kid. All the high schools you played at, I played at. It’s an easy transition for me.”
Lewis said Hopson’s hiring initially created a buzz around the campus, but that the vast majority was positive. Now the only questions are about results.
”All the talk (about race) has faded,” Lewis said. ”I’ve been rooting for coach Hopson from the beginning, because I thought he was the best guy for the job. To my knowledge, everyone likes him. Nobody asks, `Hey, how’s the new white coach?’ They just ask `Hey, how many games are you going to win?”’
The SWAC has had plenty of white coaches before in other sports like baseball, soccer and tennis, but as is the case for most conferences in the south, the SWAC’s identity is largely tied to football. Hopson’s hiring has been a landmark moment.
SWAC commissioner Duer Sharp called Hopson ”a rock star” and ”probably the highest-profile coach we have in the league.”
”Diversity is always a good thing,” Sharp said. ”It surprised me how much publicity the hire generated, but then again, it’s our highest-profile sport. The thing I’m pleased about is that he was the most qualified for the position. You can’t question his credentials — he’s coached everywhere, at a very high level and for a very long time. When you look the facts, you come to the conclusion that Alcorn State’s selection committee did a great job.”
No matter the color of his skin, there’s little doubt Hopson has a tedious rebuilding job ahead. Hopson will be the program’s fifth head coach in six seasons.
Alcorn State suffered through an ugly 2011, finishing with a 2-8 record that resulted in the dismissal of coach Melvin Spears. The divorce was complicated, and Spears was put on leave before the school ultimately decided to fire him. Hopson wasn’t hired until late May.
That meant the Braves had to go through spring drills under an interim staff that wasn’t retained. Hopson also didn’t have a chance to sign a conventional recruiting class and lost part of the previous roster to attrition because of all the uncertainty.
So the new coach has had to cobble together a roster that he says ”is probably half newcomers and half returners.” Hopson is confident his local ties will help in recruiting, especially in a fertile surrounding area that includes Jackson, Miss., Baton Rouge, La., and New Orleans.
Those connections won’t help him much this season. Just getting a play called during the first few days of practice was a challenge, but Hopson said things are improving quickly. He hopes for a quick turnaround but is realistic about the challenges.
”We can’t change the system,” Hopson said. ”What we put in is what we’ll get out. We’re going to win as soon as we deserve to win.”