Southern nose guard Gabe Echols remembers his first game in A.W. Mumford Stadium.
The Jaguars played a lethargic game and lost to Mississippi Valley State 6-0 to fall to 0-2 in 2012.
“It was a bad, bad feeling,” Echols said this week. “Nobody likes to lose, but to lose in that fashion — not to mention that we were on (ESPNU) live, and nobody likes to lose in front of the world.”
The loss and the start to the season were so bad that Stump Mitchell was removed as head coach and defensive coordinator Dawson Odums was promoted to interim coach — and later made full-time head coach.
When Echols and his fellow seniors play their final game in Mumford Stadium against Alabama A&M on Saturday, they can hold their heads much higher than they could have imagined after that 2012 home opener.
The Jaguars went a respectable 4-5 the rest of that season, won their first Southwestern Athletic Conference championship in 10 years in 2013 and returned to the championship game before losing to Alcorn State last season. This Jaguars team (5-4, 5-2) is on the verge of being mathematically eliminated from the West Division race, but it can clinch a third consecutive winning season by beating the Bulldogs (2-6, 2-4).
“I think any time you can put a stretch of winning seasons back-to-back, it’s always a blessing,” Odums said. “This senior class has a chance to go out as winners. They came into a situation where it was losing, so it’s been a (180-degree) turnaround.
“When you get to a point where your expectations are to go to a championship, you can say you turned things around. You created an environment that just says it hurts that we’re not playing for the championship. I think it’s good that our seniors are going to be going out knowing that they had a chance to taste that.”
Odums personally recruited Echols in his role as defensive line coach under Mitchell. Fellow defensive linemen Christian Allen and Audry Thompson also are part of this senior class.
“We all got here about the same time,” Odums said. “The good thing is you stay the course. When you start something, you don’t always see the outcome. You get in it and it gets tough, and a lot of people want to get off the boat on the journey and these guys stuck it through.
“They reaped the rewards of being in a program that was going through difficult times, and hopefully we’re able to transition them into society as winners, and that’s what football offers.”
Echols and Allen are among 11 seniors who are starters. The others are linebackers Daniel Brown and Martin Henry, safety Dionte McDuffy, wide receivers Mike Jones and Bradley Coleman, tight end Montrell Jones, offensive linemen Reginald Redding and Eric Janeau and kicker/punter Greg Pittman.
Janeau said the top accomplishment in his five-year career was the improvement in the program from the back-to-back 4-7 records that he experienced at the outset.
“Most of us came from winning programs, and we were used to winning,” he said.
Now Southern has gotten used to winning again.
A victory Saturday would not only clinch a winning season with one game left in the Bayou Classic in two weeks, it would enable the seniors to have a fond memory of their home finale.
“You never want to come back to visit your alma mater with a bad taste in your mouth knowing that you lost your last home game,” Henry said. “You want to leave a good mark so when you come back you have a good feeling.”
The other seniors are wide receivers Justin Morgan, Nico Talbert and Mason Ceasar; running backs Malcolm Crockett and LonDres Johnson; offensive lineman Allen Spry; linebackers Javon Allen, Darez Joseph, Jason Dykes and Marcus Jones; and defensive back Jamal Jenkins.
Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, the seniors are leaving Mumford Stadium a better place than it was for Echols’ first home game.
“I think our legacy is that, no matter how bad a program seems,” Echols said, “if you can get a group of young guys to come together and play as a team with structure, discipline and commitment — all the things that every team talks about but few do — success will come.”
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.