It was a cold, crisp Saturday night inside M.M. Roberts Stadium when it finally happened. The day was November 20th, 1976 and Southern Miss was staring down the barrel of a winless season for the first time since 1925. Like Todd Monken, Southern Miss head coach Bobby Collins was a decorated offensive coordinator who had finally secured his shot at leading a team as head coach.
It was Collins' second season at the helm and things quickly went from bad to worse. The Golden Eagles endured blowout losses to East Carolina, Ole Miss and BYU and struggled to close out competitive games in the team's other six contests. USM had just suffered a heartbreaking loss to Louisiana Tech in a rain-soaked slop for the Eagles' ninth consecutive defeat and all hope seemed to be lost. But the team still had to finish its last two games -- both at home -- before the merciful end to the season would come. Memphis was coming to town and the Tigers would be double-digit favorites. Nobody thought USM had a shot to compete in the matchup, much less win it.
Sound familiar? It should. It's almost exactly what has transpired on the gridiron for the Golden Eagles over the past ten weeks. In fact, it's as if the 2013 Southern Miss team used the 1976 season as a blueprint, quarterback controversy and all. Collins chose to start veteran Kenny Alderman at the beginning of the year before benching him for a younger, more versatile freshman by the name of Jeff Hammond. The comparisons are almost eerie.
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So it's no surprise that Collins, now 80, sees a lot of similarities in this year's Southern Miss squad. When recalling the mood of his coaching staff leading up to that game against Memphis, you would think it was Monken talking.
"We really felt, and I'm talking about myself and our coaches, we felt that… the players, they had worked extremely hard all through those nine losses. One or two of them we were blown out but we had an opportunity to win one or two and we just couldn't get over the hump but the effort was still there," Collins said. "I think there was no doubt that they were sold on our offense and what we were trying to do and as long as they were doing that, we felt like we were improving."
That's usually an odd thing to say about a group of guys that haven't won a game all season but Collins felt his team was still bought in to what he was preaching. With Hammond under center, and the added motivation of playing a rival fresh in the players' minds, momentum started to build. Like freshman quarterback Nick Mullens, Hammond wasn't afraid to speak his mind or establish himself as a locker room leader despite his youthfulness. It was something that helped spark an energy in the team that led to one of the biggest upsets of the season.
"Our kids seemed to perk up and actually the momentum built right up to kickoff, the start of the game," Collins said. "I think we fell behind in the ball game and then came back and won the football game."
ENDING THE STREAK
With 12,154 faithful Golden Eagle fans looking on, Southern Miss broke the dreaded losing streak with a 14-12 victory over Memphis.
"What that proved to us is that we had lost some games, but we hadn't lost the team," Collins said.
You can hear the passion slowly creep out of him. His southern drawl thick and smooth, like honey escaping from a jar.
"We went on and won the next one (vs. UT-Arlington) and that propelled us into a better or stronger team the next year."
Collins' Eagles took that momentum and used it to build a solid foundation. Southern Miss would finish the next season at 6-6 with wins over Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn; a remarkable turnaround from the previous year that wouldn't have happened without snatching those final two victories. It goes to show just how important these final three games are for the 2013 Golden Eagles. Winning despite adversity brings out the true nature of a program and serves as an enormous confidence shift the following year.
"I don't think that there's any doubt it lights a spark in you and that if you go into your offseason weight and running programs with an attitude (like) we're on the right track (but) we've got to continue to work… if we continue to do that, then good things will happen," he said.
Collins would go on to accept the head-coaching job at SMU in 1981 and enjoyed plenty of success, winning a Cotton Bowl with an undefeated team in his first year and stringing together three double-digit win seasons in his first three years in Dallas. The Mustangs beat Texas in Austin one year and Collins was at the press conference following the game. A sports writer in the back of the room asked him if it was the biggest win of his career. The wiry southerner from Laurel, Mississippi stunned the room with his answer.
"I said no and they were shocked. Why wouldn't it be? Your team's playing in Texas, you're playing the University of Texas and you win the ball game. What was your biggest win? And I told them. I said it was the Memphis game."
So how did he do it? A second-year head coach following up a seven-win campaign with one of the worst years in school history doesn't exactly seem like a confidence boost. But Collins attributes that win, and the one after, to his stubbornness. The same, no doubt, will be said about Todd Monken.
"We, as a staff, we didn't change. We didn't change as far as our offensive philosophy or defensive philosophy. We continued doing the things that we'd been doing," he said. "The drills on the field, what we expected from the players, weight training during the season. We just stayed with the program that we had brought to the University of Southern Mississippi and we tried to continue to get better."
A lot can be said of the similarities between Todd Monken and Bobby Collins. Both are fierce competitors who bring a unique offensive philosophy to the game of football. Both are stubborn to a fault and want nothing but the best for Southern Miss. And both display a tough, never-back-down attitude that's come to define who they are.
Collins has watched Southern Miss flounder this season and truly knows how tough it is. He's been in the same situation the Golden Eagles are in now and it's one of hopelessness and despair. But his advice to Monken and the team serves as an active reminder that things can get better. And they most certainly will.
"I've watched them and, having coached here, I've bled with them. I feel for them", Collins said. "I can say I can understand what they're going through and that they've just got to keep doing what they feel is the right thing to do and keep working hard and I think the players will respond to that. I guess more than anything else, just keep on keeping on."
Monken will prepare his team for a battle Saturday against a talented FAU team that comes in to Hattiesburg as 17-point favorites. He could be coaching in the most important game of his career and he doesn't even know it yet. Like Collins, the former offensive coordinator will one day look back on this season and smile at the trials and tribulations. It might even be sooner than you think. But until that day, Southern Miss fans can take pride in the fact that, despite what has transpired over the past nine games, nobody within the locker room has given up.
"There's a toughness, there's an attitude, there's heart, there's character, there's courage, that's always been a part of Southern Miss' football program. I think that the players, when they come in, they have known about this and, as they continue to work, that tends to come out," Collins said. "You can hang your hat on it. You can hang your hat on the fact that they're gonna come to work each day, give you all they've got, go on the field and play extremely hard and not only handle the wins, but can handle the defeats."
That's what Southern Miss is.
It's fighting through the bad times knowing good times are ahead. It's playing through the pain to reach your fullest potential and understanding your worth. It's doing what needs to be done to get the job done.
That may not be apparent right now but it will be. And when it is, Bobby Collins will be there to witness it, just like he did forty years ago. Because he sees himself in Todd Monken. And that's a good thing for Southern Miss.