There was a time when a championship drought of just three seasons had Southern’s football team itchy.
And so in 2003, the letters “RTD” graced the plate above each facemask of every helmet.
“Return to Dominance.”
The pledge came from David Oliver, then the SU offensive coordinator and a former All-American tight end at Northern Colorado. He’d first heard the phrase used by the University of Colorado’s football program. Plus, RTD is the name of the transit system in Denver.
That juggernaut of a team, sprung from the ashes of a 1-5 start the season before, made good all year long on that motto, going 12-1 and winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference and black college national championships in the process.
As Southern, which last had a winning season in 2009, prepares for a 5:30 p.m. homecoming showdown Alcorn State — the lone team to defeat the Jaguars in an amazing season — the notion of the kind of late-October showdowns that were played with regularity in the Pete Richardson era rekindles thoughts of that 2003 team, the school’s last with a conference title let alone a national crown.
And as this team tries to return Southern to dominance, looking back at the 2003 team’s accomplishments seems worthy.
Southern certainly returned to dominance that season, finishing with a 20-9 conference championship game victory over Alabama State.
“That was a pretty cohesive group of kids,” said Oliver, now the head coach at St. Amant. “It was a fun team to coach. There was a lot of unity between all the players on the team. Sometimes on a team, there is some separation between offense and defense, but those guys were all good friends across the board.”
That unity took hold, of all places, after a calamity-riddled, injury-laden start to the 2002 season. Southern won five its final games to end 2002, including a 48-24 drubbing of rival Grambling, which was 10-1 and undefeated in conference play entering the Bayou Classic.
“We had a great offseason,” Oliver said. “We met after the previous season and decided that we needed to make some changes if we were going to be successful and we came up with a ‘Return to Dominance’ theme.”
Southern quarterback Quincy Richard added that the longevity of fellow teammates contributed to the success.
“There was a lot of guys on that team that had been together for a long time, and we just had great chemistry that year,” Richard said.
In the offseason, Richard assumed leadership of his fellow teammates, including leading an offseason workout program that entailed the skill position players heading to the LSU indoor practice facility to compete against the players donning purple and gold.
“That 1-5 start, it was like the world was ending to us,” Richard said in reference to 2002. “When I came to Southern in ’99, the winning tradition had been installed and a nonwinning season was something Southern wasn’t used to.
“After that year, our mindset was ‘never again,’ and we just kicked it into overdrive.”
Richard went on set the single season mark for passing yards and touchdowns in school history in 2003 with 3,427 as well as 33 passing scores, being named SWAC Offensive Player of the Year.
“Quincy Richard just became phenomenal for us that season,” Oliver added.
Meanwhile, defensive back Lenny Williams was the SWAC Defensive Player of the Year.
Southern kicked off the season with a bang when return specialist Ezra Landry returned the opening kickoff of the season 83 yards for a touchdown against Mississippi Vally State, catapulting the team to a school-record 520 points in a single season and 40 points per game which led all Division I-AA schools.
“I thought Ezra Landry sparked our whole year,” Oliver said. “He’s an underappreciated Jaguar. He was a little, small guy, but he would set us up with the best field position all year long. I don’t think he receives the respect that he deserves as a great Southern football player. We started near midfield on nearly every possession because of his returns.
“That was a year where we could seemingly score at will.”
The Jaguars scored at will through the first seven games, scoring no less than the 29 points they put up in the season opener.
However, Southern ran into trouble in the eighth game when Alcorn visited A.W. Mumford Stadium.
The Braves took down the Jaguars 36-34 on the arm of ASU quarterback Donald Carrie, who threw for 379 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-winning 24-yard strike to receiver Charlie Spiller with 40 seconds remaining.
“We were steamrolling people that season,” Richard said. “The next thing you know, we were in a dogfight with Alcorn.”
And the lone loss that season is forever entrenched in Richard’s memory.
“That game was actually on the day of my 22nd birthday,” he added.
Yet Southern would not be denied of its ultimate quest that season.
The Jaguars found themselves in another dogfight three weeks later against Texas Southern when the two teams were tied 17-17 late in the fourth quarter and the defense forced a punt.
Southern had lost its Landry because of injury and was scrambling to find a replacement. Richardson entered Williams into the game as the team’s punt returner in hopes of a big return. Williams did just that and then some, reeling off an 82-yard touchdown return for the game-winning score with 1:09 remaining.
“My whole career at Southern I wanted to play a little bit of offense,” Williams said. “And I also wanted to return punts. But coach Richardson would never let me, because I was always a big part of the defense. I begged coach Richardson to let me go back there all the time, and for some reason this time, he said go ahead.”
Williams’ game-winning score set the stage for a crucial Bayou Classic in the Jaguars’ next contest that featured two of the SWAC’s best quarterbacks in Richard and Bruce Eugene of Grambling, which entered the contest undefeated in conference play.
With the division championship and a trip to the conference title game on the line, the two signal-callers did not disappoint in the much anticipated matchup, as they combined to pass for 961 yards and eight touchdowns as the Jaguars won 44-41.
“It was just a terrific season,” Richard said. “It was one of those years when everything came together.”