Berry Tramel

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Oklahoma State football: Southern Miss pipeline

by Berry Tramel Published: December 11, 2012
Jeff Bower, Larry Fedora, Ellis Johnson
Jeff Bower, Larry Fedora, Ellis Johnson

Curley Hallman coached Southern Mississippi football for three seasons, 1988-90. Hallman took over for Jim Carmody, who was fired after going 37-29 over six seasons. Hallman went 23-11 in three seasons, including victories over Mississippi State, Florida State, Alabama and Auburn. That earned Hallman the LSU job; he resigned after the regular season, leaving Southern Miss without a coach for its All-American Bowl matchup in Birmingham, Ala., with North Carolina State.

Since the day Hallman resigned, Southern Miss has hired four head coaches. Three of the four have been Oklahoma State offensive coordinators.

Southern Miss hired Jeff Bower in December 1990, and he lasted 17 seasons, going 119-83-1. Southern Miss fired Bower at the end of the 2007 season for not winning enough.

Then Southern Miss hired Larry Fedora, who had developed OSU’s offense in Mike Gundy’s three seasons as head coach. Fedora stayed four seasons, going 34-19 before North Carolina hired him away.

So Southern Miss, after interviewing OSU offensive coordinator Todd Monken, hired South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. And Golden Eagle football went bust. Southern Miss had produced 18 straight winning seasons with Bower and Fedora. The first 17 of those were remarkably consistent, all with victory totals of six, seven, eight or nine. Then Fedora’s 2011 team won the Conference USA title and went 12-2.

And Johnson followed that with an 0-12 record. That’s right, 0-12, despite 13 returning starters. Southern Miss wasn’t overmatched, at least early. With 90 seconds left in the first half of the season opener, Southern Miss trailed Nebraska 21-17 before losing 49-20. Southern Miss led Louisville in the fourth quarter before losing 21-17. Southern Miss went to overtime at Central Florida before losing 38-31.

Then it started falling apart. Blowout losses to Marshall, Rice, SMU and Memphis, sandwiched around close defeats to Alabama-Birmingham and Texas-El Paso.

Soon enough, USM officials had seen enough, and Johnson was gone. And Southern turned to Monken, remembering that interview from a year ago and watching a second straight OSU season of offensive fireworks, despite the Cowboys using three quarterbacks, all new, because of injury. That appealed to a Southern Miss program that used five quarterbacks in the 0-12 season.

So what kind of program awaits Monken? Obviously, he’s got work to do. You don’t go 0-12 by accident. You also don’t fall from 12 wins to 12 losses by accident. You have to have some coaching help with that one.

Southern Miss has a great mid-major brand, even if the reality doesn’t match it. The recruiting ground is fertile, but Southern doesn’t have great resources. Money is tight and facilities aren’t pristine. Southern once aspired to compete with SEC powers, but now Southern Miss is just one of many mid-majors in the South scrambling for recruits and pub. Louisiana Tech, Arkansas Tech, Louisiana-Monroe. Even Western Kentucky has proclaimed its desire, hiring Bobby Petrino.

Plus, Conference USA is transforming to the new Sun Belt. It is losing Central Florida, East Carolina, SMU, Houston, Tulane and Memphis to the Big East, and Tulsa and Texas-El Paso  possibly are headed to the Mountain West.

Southern Miss clearly is a stepping-stone job, though only three coaches in 30 years have stepped to better jobs — Bobby Collins to SMU, when the Mustangs were a Southwest Conference power, in 1981; Hallman to LSU; and Fedora to North Carolina.

Worse yet for Monken, his 2013 non-conference schedule is thankless. After opening at home with Texas State, Southern Miss plays at Nebraska, at Arkansas and at Boise State.

The truth about Southern Miss football: It’s become a harder job than it once was. In 2013, low expectations will await Monken. If he can succeed in the next few years, Monken can find a better job.

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The...
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