Southern Mississippi coach Larry Fedora was celebrating his first Conference USA championship after his team’s dominating 49-28 romp of No. 6 Houston on Saturday when he was handed a cell phone.
Southern Miss president Dr. Martha Dunagin Saunders, who did not attend the game, was waiting to congratulate the high-energy, Red Bull-chugging coach as he stood on the field of Robertson Stadium.
“All we wanted to do was make you proud,” a Gatorade-soaked Fedora told Saunders. “Thank you so much.”
In the coming days, Fedora can be sure to expect plenty more calls from Saunders because he actually won a second title on Saturday: college football’s hottest coaching commodity. He did so by ripping the crown from the head of the coach standing on the opposite sideline, Houston’s Kevin Sumlin.
Until Saturday, Sumlin had been the rage of college football in recent days. He was the leading candidate for seemingly every significant job, especially at Texas A&M.
But with his team’s devastating loss Saturday, its first this season, Sumlin lost more than a game before a national television audience. Gone also are a BCS bowl bid for the Cougars, meaning approximately a loss of $13 million for Conference USA, and likely sixth-year quarterback Case Keenum’s invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
The defeat also raised more questions about Sumlin’s defensive problems, the quality of competition he has faced at Houston in a non-automatic qualifying BCS conference, and whether his spread offense is too gimmicky to succeed against elite competition.
“Southern Miss is a really good football team,” said Fedora, who is in his fourth season with the Golden Eagles, his first head-coaching job. “We didn’t cost this conference any money, you know, because we ought to be in a BCS bowl. Houston’s not going, we ought to be going and then everybody can get their money like they want.”
With its No. 24 ranking, Southern Miss (11-2) making a BCS bowl is unlikely. But the same cannot be said for the chances of Fedora leaving for another job soon.
The 49-year-old had already been mentioned as a candidate for jobs at Mississippi, North Carolina and Kansas. Now the College Station, Texas, native just might have a chance to take one more thing from Sumlin: the Texas A&M job.
Fedora dodged a question about the vacancy (“I’m sorry to see what happened to Mike Sherman, his staff and their families,” he said.) and was elusive when asked if there are any other jobs he had considered.
“Who knows?” said Fedora, who has a 33-19 record at Southern Miss and had previously been offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. “It doesn’t really matter.”
Yeah right. Don’t believe that for a second because it matters plenty to Fedora, just like schools in the hunt for a new coach.
And while the casual college football fan might not be familiar with Fedora, those who are had plenty to say about him Saturday afternoon.
• “He’s a great football coach,” said former Illinois and Florida coach Ron Zook, who had Fedora as his offensive coordinator at Florida. “He understands the game. He’s a great person and family man. The players love him. He’s a great recruiter. He’s the whole package.”
• “He’s an excellent coach,” said Marshall coach Doc Holliday, whose team beat Southern Miss 26-20 in September. “Every time I’ve lined up against him, his kids have been extremely well-coached.”
• “He’s a good one,” said Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham, who coached against Fedora while at Tulsa. “He’s one of the bright up-and-comers. There’s no doubt about it.”
Fedora’s team just didn’t beat Houston, it beat down the Cougars. He has always been known as an offensive guru with his spread attack, which showed Saturday with the Golden Eagles outgaining Houston behind quarterback Austin Davis’ 279 passing yards and four touchdown passes.
But Fedora’s “Nasty Bunch” defense with its 4-2-5 alignment made the biggest statement by shutting down the nation’s best offense and most prolific quarterback like no other team had all season. It held Houston to season lows in both points and total yards (428) in the Cougars’ first home loss with Keenum as the starter since 2007.
The Cougars, which entered the game averaging 52.7 points, struggled from the outset in falling behind 14-0 and didn’t score until their sixth possession. And even though they rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to tie the game and trailed just 21-14 at halftime, it was evident Southern Miss had superior athletes who couldn’t be stopped.
Perhaps the game’s biggest play came just after intermission when tiny 5-foot-8, 159-pound backup cornerback Furious Bradley blocked a Houston punt on a formation called “Razor,” and returned it 11 yards for a touchdown, the start of the Golden Eagles scoring 28 of the game’s final 42 points.
“Nobody gave us a chance,” said Fedora, also a former assistant at Baylor, Air Force and Middle Tennessee State. “Nobody thought we could win the game.”
On the way home from going to see a movie last night, Fedora’s team was watching the MAC championship on the bus when a graphic appeared showing Saturday’s four championship games. The last one discussed was the Conference USA championship game.
“They talked about Houston,” Fedora said. “They never even mentioned us. They never mentioned who Houston was playing. That’s the way it’s been. Everybody thought Houston was just going to walk away with this thing. Our guys obviously took objection to that. They had something to prove. They were going to play with a chip on their shoulders.”
It showed as some Southern Miss players celebrated tawdrily on the sideline in the final minutes of their victory Saturday. They stuck out their ring fingers and pretended to be shining their championship rings.
“You suck!” redshirt senior defensive lineman Deddrick Jones screamed to the crestfallen Houston fans as he held his helmet toward them.
Senior offensive lineman Jason Weaver made the Cougars hand gesture at the crowd and then wiped it across his crotch.
“Second class just whipped y’all’s ass,” senior wide receiver Ryan Balentine yelled to fans and then pointed at the scoreboard.
As brash as some Southern Miss players were in celebrating, those asked about Fedora’s future were just as forthright about him likely leaving for another school as Golden Eagles fans chanted, “Larry! Larry! Larry!”
“I’m just enjoying him while he was here,” redshirt freshman defensive lineman Dasman McCullum said.
After his postgame press conference, Fedora walked to a golf cart while he joked about saying “footballs to the wall” right after Southern Miss junior wide receiver Tracey Lampley, the game’s most valuable player, told the media he went “balls to the wall” in the contest. But Fedora turned serious when asked if he would take calls from other schools.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Fedora said.
But schools interested in talking to Fedora better start calling now. The phone has already been ringing.