Grambling’s unexpected and dramatic ascension from the Southwestern Athletic Conference cellar to championship contender in one year has left a lot of people scratching their heads. But not at Southern.
“Yeah, it’s believable,” Jaguars receiver Justin Morgan said.
It’s believable because Southern authored a similar (albeit less dramatic) turnaround just a year ago: It came off a 4-7 season to win its first SWAC championship in 10 years.
The Jaguars are in position to win another, but first they must beat the resurgent Tigers in the Bayou Classic on Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Both teams are 7-1 in the conference, and the winner claims the West Division title and a berth opposite Alcorn State in the conference title game Dec. 6 in Houston.
Southern’s turnaround, like Grambling’s, began with a coaching change, which Morgan called “devastating” for any team. In the Jaguars’ case, Dawson Odums was promoted from defensive coordinator after a 0-2 start under Stump Mitchell in 2012.
“When Coach Odums first started,” co-offensive coordinator Chad Germany said, “he stressed the importance of not only being on the same page but being on the same sentence and the same word on the same page. I think as a staff we bought into that, and I think the players bought in. I think we echo the same things — discipline and accountability.”
Southern won its first game under Odums and played respectably in finishing 4-7. It showed enough progress that the SWAC coaches and sports information directors picked the Jaguars to finish second in the West last season.
“A lot of times, it isn’t about players. It’s about, ‘Can you get guys to play well?’ ” Odums said. “It’s a lot easier to get guys to play well when you’re winning. When you have a setback, do they revert back? That’s when it comes to mindset.”
Odums talks a lot about the Jaguars’ mindset, meaning their ability to stay focused, regardless of what might have happened most recently — good or bad. That trait was tested thoroughly last season, and Southern was up to the challenge: It was 3-1 in overtime games, including a double-overtime win against Jackson State in the SWAC title game.
“I think seeing some success from (Odums’) philosophy of discipline and accountability,” Germany said, “that allowed the players to say, ‘OK, let’s buy into this more and more and more.’ And I think each game and each season that number began to increase from the players, but I think almost immediately the buy-in was there from the coaches and it helped to build a solid foundation.”
This team’s mindset was tested early this year, even though the Jaguars were picked to repeat as West Division champs and managed to stay out of overtime, at least so far.
Uncertainty over many players’ academic certification led to a lot of roster and depth-chart changes early in the season. Playing short-handed and sometimes learning of players’ absences hours or in one instance minutes before kickoff, Southern started 2-3 and 1-1 in the SWAC before beginning its current six-game win streak.
The Jaguars are 21-12 under Odums, including a five-game winning streak to finish last season’s title run.
“Coach Odums, that’s a different breed of coach right there,” Morgan said. “He’s one in a million. He’s got a way to get you amped up over anything. It doesn’t matter if it just walk-throughs; he can get you amped up. He knows how to hype us up, and he can calm us down and get our minds focused on the game.”
Many players have said the team is closer than it was under Mitchell.
“(Odums) preaches discipline every day,” wide receiver Willie Quinn said. “He got the whole team to come together like a brotherhood.”
When players talk about accountability, they’re referencing a fair set of rules equally applied. Star receiver Lee Doss was suspended for a key game at Alabama State last November for violating a team rule. Mike Jones stepped in and had a career game with three long touchdown receptions.
Last month, Odums benched starting quarterback Austin Howard at the start of the game at Jackson State for missing curfew. Deonte Shorts started and led Southern to a touchdown on the game’s first possession. Shorts, playing for the first time in more than a month because of injury, got carried away with his celebration, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty — and a benching from Odums. Howard entered the game on the Jaguars’ next possession and directed a touchdown drive of his own.
Whether it has been Odums disciplining players for their mistakes or players being withheld from play for academic record-keeping mistakes out of the players’ and coaches’ control, the team generally has responded effectively to setbacks.
“Coach Odums is a people’s coach,” defensive back Jaleel Richardson said. “He gives you motivation to play the game. As a family, whatever he says, you know it’s in the best interest of us. Whatever he tells us to do, we do it.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.