Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Rick Cleveland: Alcorn wins by breaking the glass

When Alcorn State first offered its head football coaching job to Jay Hopson in April of 2012, he turned it down. What has happened since should be a book and then a movie.

Problem is, even Hollywood might consider the story a bit inconceivable.

The Alcorn football program was a train wreck. The previous year's team had won just one conference game. Seven or eight of the top returning players had decided not to return. Fan support? Fewer than 500 fans had shown up for Alcorn's final home game in 2011.


Hopson, a two-time cancer survivor who had grown up in nearby Vicksburg, wanted to be a head coach, but this wasn't, he first thought, the right fit. The facilities were poor. The recruiting budget was worse. The salary pool for assistant coaches was worse still. And then there was this: If he took the job, Hopson would be the first white coach in history of the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Hopson, only a year removed from the defensive coordinator's job at Michigan, turned the job down and began to contemplate a life outside football. Weeks later, Alcorn called him back. The negotiations resumed. Alcorn gave some. Hopson gave some. This will make a really long story short: He took the job on May 31, 2012. Says Hopson, “I just decided that I was supposed to do this.”

Hopson had to hire a staff. He had to meet all the players who remained and try to remember their names. Recruiting? Too late for that. He had to install an offense and a defense. He had to get ready for a first game against the defending SWAC champion, Grambling, and its famous coach, Doug Williams.

Hopson hired Fred McNair and Willie Simmons as his first two coaches and went to work. Boy, did he go to work.

Says McNair, who remains as Hopson's assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach, “Nobody will out-work Jay. I don't just mean coaching and recruiting. I mean everything. How many college head coaches line the practice field? Jay does that all the time.”

McNair showed up for work early one day and saw Hopson on the practice field pouring sand.

Sand? “Wild boars had rooted all over the practice field,” McNair says. “Jay was out there filling in the holes.”

Safe to say, that never happened at Michigan.

Hopson held his first practice at Alcorn on August 5, 2012, with a new staff and new players, installing a new offense and new defense.

“What I saw were a bunch of kids with eager faces who were willing to work and wanted to be part of a winning program,” Hopson says.

What he didn't see was black and white, even if there were some Alcorn fans who would have preferred the school hire an African American coach.

“At Alcorn, we're all purple and gold,” Hopson said. Besides, he didn't have time to deal with race. He was racing to create a program basically from scratch.

Three weeks later, Alcorn beat Grambling 22-21.

“Still the greatest moment that I've experienced as a head coach,” says Hopson, who has won two league championships since.

His first Alcorn team won four games, all league games. He has experienced lots of “great” since. The 2013 Braves won nine games and finished second in the SWAC. The 2014 and 2015 teams have won a total of 18 games and two SWAC titles. Remember, this year's senior class is the one Hopson didn't get to recruit in 2012.

You can make a case that, all things considered, nobody in college football has done a better coaching job over four seasons than Jay Hopson and his Alcorn staff. Hopson still commutes 40 minutes to and from work from his Vicksburg home. In season, that means leaving at dawn, returning home late at night. Those rides give him plenty of time to think, and above all else, he has come to this conclusion:

“This was meant to be,” says Hopson. “It's been a blessing.”

•••

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

22 comments:

Kingfish said...

Alcorn won by swallowing the pride and breaking the glass. Meanwhile, JSU fires a head coach who was winning. JSU boosters told JJ at the time that Comegy was fired because he wasn't recruiting enough "local" players. Homeboy hires rarely work out and JSU is no exception. Stick Harold Jackson next to Rocky Felker on the shelf of such busts. Staying in the "family" meant a good man was turned into a family disgrace.

Anonymous said...

This would be a classic movie. Right up there with Remember the Titans and We Are Marshall.

Anonymous said...

Grambling's White Tiger....circa from the 1980's

Anonymous said...

So nice to be reminded that when good people are determined to work hard to solve hard problems for a common positive goal, even in circumstances that seem overwhelming and dismal, good outcomes are possible.

You never accomplish anything if you don't try and aren't willing to risk failure. Instead, we should all be saying, " failure isn't an alternative" and work hard together as Alcorn, the coaches, and the players did.



Anonymous said...

How I wish this could be a movie. People outside the South do not understand the South at all; just the bad stuff is what they believe. "I don't see race" here we are just purple and gold... This does prove that leadership matters! People remember that when you vote! Great and congratulations Alcorn!

Anonymous said...

Alcorn's President at the time was Dr. Christopher Brown. He too, took a risk in the hiring of Coach Hopson. Sadly, Dr. Brown has left Alcorn for Southern University in Baton Rouge. Dr. Brown deserves some credit here as well

Anonymous said...

Just shows that the best people should be hired no matter skin color. Maybe if the City of Jackson did the same thing, it would be better off too.

Why Am I Not Surprised? said...

The Southern Miss story would be more appropriate, using hall of famers who have played there, the number of conference titles and bowl appearances, then hitting rock bottom for two years and subsequently a rise back to the conference championship game and a bowl game.

Then throw in the fact that Southern Miss ended Alabama's forty something home win streak and gave Bear Bryant his last home field loss prior to his death two months later and has played top universities all over the country in its history. A true story of descending from a prominent position to rock bottom with a bounce-back.

Throw in the fact that Southern is the first Division 1-A school in the state to have a black president. That should satisfy your (and Hollywood's appetite for a race angle).

Your deference to the school you choose to highlight is probably based on it's status as a HBCU.

Anonymous said...

When we work together, black and white and white and black, we can do damn near anything.

It was gutsy to hire Jay....but it was the players who decided to believe in Jay and his coaching staff.

Just think if the Jackson City Council would listen to some of the bright white folks who still believe in Jackson? They are too mired in hiring/seeing/doing/ everything they can to advance just "black." Shame really.

This is movie material....proud to say I grew up with Jay and Bubba in Vicksburg.

PittPanther said...

KF, the last thing I am is a shill for the JSU football program. Harold Jackson was a ridiculous hire. And my memory may be failing me, but...

My recollection about Comegy's time at JSU was that he won lots of games, but too often he lost to their main rival Alcorn, and he lost almost all the Swac title games that JSU went to.

Of course now JSU doesn't even sniff the Swac title game...

I think even Nick Saban would be on the hot seat if he lost to Auburn every year, and lost the SEC title game every time they went to it.

Anonymous said...

I see where Alcorn is playing in a bowl game, but why aren't they participating in the FCS (the old I-AA) playoffs? Don't all FCS conference champions qualify for the playoffs? And congratulations to Jay and everyone associated with the football program at Alcorn.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful Mississippi story. And 10:18am, because KF chose to share it takes nothing away from your Southern Miss, which is also a wonderful story. He didn't have to choose between the two.

To 10:34am and others who might reference negatively the City of Jackson, your chance for input is tomorrow/Thursday night. Please come, listen, offer suggestions rather than sitting on the sidelines and griping.

DOING BUSINESS WITH THE CITY
December 10, 2015
6:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
The Convention Center

- Special Announcements Mayor Tony Yarber
- Information On Jackson 500 - Workforce Development Program
- Find Out More About Bid Opportunities

Break Out Sessions
- Developer's Roundtable
- 1 Cent Sales Tax Update From The Department Of Public Works

Please RSVP With The Office Of Economic Development at (601) 960-1638 or email sharden@city.jackson.ms.us

Kingfish said...

Cleveland wrote a nice story on USM's season recently as well.

PittPanther said...

11:49, Alcorn is playing in the first Swac vs Meac bowl game. The Meac champ used to participate in the fcs playoffs, but after decades of first round losses and losing money, the Meac (at the urging of ESPN) chose to participate in this new bowl game instead.

The Swac champion hasn't participated in the fcs playoffs in many years, due to the liklihood of losing money by participating.

This new game will be a money earner for both schools, thanks to the TV money being involved.

Anonymous said...

Croom at MSU....thunder.

Hopson at Alcorn...crickets.

Mississippi Film Flim Flam Commission said...

Shades of 'The Help'. Let's all sing a round of Kumbaya and recall when we had black folk wiping snot off our babies' noses sixty years ago. But, since we got us a couple black frands, ain't nothing racial about nunna this.

There ya go. Let's get a movie-making team in here and borrow some old trucks from Natchez good ole boys and celebrate the state's love of diversity.

Kingfish could play the role of a county jurdge who frees a black man and Burke can be the janitor in the courthouse who brings two buckets of chicken to the jury.

Anonymous said...

Simmer down 10:18. I'm a USM alum, Eagle Club member, season ticket holder, etc and have no problem with the Alcorn article being shared on here.

Why Am I Not Surprised said...

Simmer down 10:22; my post has nothing to do with 'the Alcorn article being shared on here'. I'm a season ticket holder as well, and have been for thirty years. My post was in reference to Kingfish's suggestion that a movie be made.

We can make a movie about the snail darter in the creek beside the pasture or we can make one about the newly awakened sleeping giant in the barn.

Anonymous said...

Golden Eagle at 10:18/6:22...You sure are mighty upset over a blog owner's opinion. Deeper issue? Maybe someone sat on your white sunglasses, snagged your cargo shorts, scuffed your Birkenstocks or peeled off your Salt Life sticker to get this fired up.

Kingfish said...

Where did I write anything about a movie? A reader did, not me.

Anonymous said...

What the hell is a Salt Life Sticker? I can't keep up with all this stuff.

Colonel Reb said...

Once you get a look at those Golden Girls, you are hooked.

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In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.


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If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

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