Seven days before the Southern University football season began, on a stifling hot Saturday afternoon, Stump Mitchell stood near the 40-yard line near the south end of A.W. Mumford Stadium, his team having finished its final scrimmage of training camp.
Mitchell was excited about the challenge ahead.
In his typical straightforward way, the second-year coach said he knew he wasn’t exactly the most popular man at Southern. With a strong year, however, he hoped to change that.
“I mean, look: Everybody didn’t want me here. That’s the bottom line,” Mitchell said that hot summer afternoon. “I understand that. I know that. But what they do want is a winner. And that, they’ve got.”
Fast-forward to Tuesday, when the team returned to practice inside Mumford. The season has been sprinkled with three wins, a handful of near-miss losses and a growing sense of frustration.
At 1 p.m. Saturday in Montgomery, Ala., he and the Jaguars (3-6, 3-4 Southwestern Athletic Conference) face Alabama State (7-2, 7-1), widely regarded as one of the toughest teams in black college football.
Two weeks later, they’ll finish an up-and-down season against Grambling in the Bayou Classic.
Southern is still technically alive in the race for first place in the Western Division — but Mitchell said he understands the fans’ frustration with a team that had the potential to win more.
But if he’s looking for an escape route, well, he’s not letting on. Mitchell said again Tuesday that he realizes his team needs to win — because ultimately, coaches are judged on wins and losses.
Finally, Mitchell added, he said he believes he’ll be back next season.
“I love being here at Southern University. I think we’ve made some strides; it’s no question about that. But the bottom line is, we have to win. We have to play that way,” he said.
It’s worth noting that Mitchell is in the second year of a three-year contract that pays him $200,000 annually. It’s also worth noting that the university declared financial emergency, called exigency, last month.
As for the team, it’s coming off a 29-15 loss against Texas Southern in Houston. It might have been the Jaguars’ most disappointing game since a season-opening 33-7 road loss to Tennessee State.
“We have a young team,” Mitchell said. “I think we’re capable of winning these next two games, and I also think we’re capable of being good next year. But I’ve got two games left. Coach them one at a time, and that’s the way it is.”
More PT for LB Johnson
Mitchell said sophomore linebacker Larry Johnson — used sparingly until Southern was hit with a three-week wave of player suspensions — will continue to play on defense now that the suspensions are almost over.
Johnson started each of the past two games. He had a team-high 9.5 tackles against Alcorn State on Oct. 29 and two tackles last week against Texas Southern. He’ll help fill out a linebacking corps that will miss Franchot West, who’s among four players serving the final round of suspensions stemming from an Oct. 15 fight at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Mitchell also said safety Jonathan Wilson, a former McKinley High School standout, will probably play more often than he has to this point. Wilson played in the secondary at TSU after Mychal Bell suffered a right hand injury.
“It’ll be good to get those (suspended) guys back,” Mitchell said. “But it’s also refreshing to know that we have some guys who did take advantage of the opportunity.”
Punts on point
Mitchell again praised the punting job last week by senior Manuel Canto, who averaged 33.7 yards per punt, but more importantly, landed two kicks inside the Texas Southern 10-yard line (they were downed at the 5 and the 1).
“That was outstanding,” Mitchell said. “Unfortunately, we were not able to hold them there.”
That’s certainly true.
Texas Southern responded with touchdown drives of 95 and 99 yards.
Saturday’s game will stream live on Alabama State’s website at www.bamastatesports.com/showcase. The cost is $5.95. ... In losing Saturday, the Jaguars clinched their second consecutive season below .500. The last time SU had back-to-back losing records was 2005-06, when it finished 4-5 and 5-6 under then-coach Pete Richardson. ... Texas Southern has won three straight games against Southern, including last week’s 29-15 victory. It is the first time TSU has won three straight games in the series since 1970-72, according to school records. ... Southern has won four of its past five games against Alabama State, though the Hornets won last year’s meeting 21-19.