USM shakeup sickens scribe

Published 6:00 am Thursday, November 29, 2007

Forgive me for feeling nauseated.

Shocking changes in the college football coaching ranks haveunsettled my stomach. Especially difficult to digest was the forcedresignation of Coach Jeff Bower at Southern Miss.

The Magnolia State was still rattling about the firing of EdOrgeron at Ole Miss last weekend. Monday’s news of Bower’sdismissal left me dumbfounded.

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Good grief!

Bower had forged a football program worthy of nationalrecognition and respect during his 17 years at the helm. He notonly won consistently,14 straight winning seasons and 10 bowlappearances in the last 11 years; he did it with class andhonesty.

Often lost in the shadows of SEC members Mississippi State andOle Miss, Southern Miss worked overtime and won quietly. The GoldenEagles also won legally, minus NCAA sanctions.

Bower and his staff recruited and signed players who were oftenoverlooked by SEC powers Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU,State and Ole Miss. Usually, the prospects were a step slow and ajust a little short in stature and poundage.

Many of USM’s stars were created in the weight training room.The latest standout is running back Damion Fletcher, Tuesday’swinner of the 2007 Conerly Trophy. Fletcher, nearly an unknown outof Biloxi High School, has become a 2-year superstar at USM,rushing for over, 1,400 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns as asophomore.

Bower’s loyalty is synonymous with high moral values andold-school tradition. He was wooed several times by big-timecolleges in search of his coaching talent. They offered more moneyand more notoriety.

Bower, a former USM quarterback, was content to live inHattiesburg, raise his family and bleed black and gold. So much forloyalty.

When a friend heard about Bower’s dismissal, he said, “You havegot to be kidding.”

The real jokesters are in the USM administration. Athleticdirector Richard Giannini and USM president Dr. Martha D. Saundersthink they can do better than Bower.

They both are in for a sobering surprise.

“We should win Conference USA every year,” snorted aninfluential USM alumnus. “Bower ain’t doing a good enough job.”

Another mover and shaker whines about poor home game attendance.”Bower ain’t putting fans in the stands.”

Southern Miss is regarded as a suitcase school. Students go homeon weekends. Many of them are scraping just to make ends meet. Theydon’t come from wealthy families. They go home to mooch groceriesand supplies for the next week.

Seriously, how many Southern Miss graduates can afford seasontickets for themselves and their families?

Many grads are in the education field. They don’t have the extradollars required to feed and haul an SUV full of children andrelatives to a USM home game.

By contrast, Ole Miss and State are cranking out doctors,pharmacists, lawyers, professional businessmen, engineers andveterinarians They can afford season tickets and expensive stadiumsuites.

Certainly, Conference USA is a second-level conference. Thereare no automatic invites to the Bowl Championship Series. USM’sstadium fan base is about 14,000.

USM’s brave slogan of playing anybody, anytime, anywhere,certainly rings true. It finds the Eagles on the road, playing thelikes of Tennessee, Auburn and Alabama.

The Eagles usually absorb a loss on hostile turf. Imagineplaying in front of 100,000-plus orange-clad fans at Tennessee. Theonly compensation is a few hundred thousand dollars to pad USM’sanemic athletic budget.

It also will be a snowy day in July before any of the SECschools return the favor and set foot in M.M. Roberts Stadium. Thespectacular Southern Miss halftime show could be performed in thenude and the stadium seats still wouldn’t be full.

OK, maybe one time.

Consider the average attendance at Southern Miss basketballgames. It has reached a pathetically low level since Coach M.K.Turk retired.

Reed Green Coliseum often resembles a half-empty tomb. You canhear the shoes squeak and the fans cough.

Excuse me. I think I hear a funeral dirge for the USM athleticprogram.

Write to sports editor Tom Goetz, c/o The DAILY LEADER, P.O.BOX 551, Brookhaven, MS 39602 or