Last summer, when Stump Mitchell boldly predicted his Southern football team could go undefeated, he didn’t exactly win over rival coaches.
When his team fell disastrously short, finishing 2-9 ... well, he obviously didn’t win over the Jaguar Nation.
Still, as this summer begins and Mitchell prepares for his second year at SU, you have to feel a little sympathy.
Thursday afternoon, Southwestern Athletic Conference presidents and chancellors voted to keep SU and Jackson State from participating in the league’s championship football game, essentially expanding a one-year postseason ban handed down by the NCAA.
Now, some three months before the season begins, Mitchell has to find a way to motivate his 18-to-23-year-old players — to give them reasons to keep fighting on every down, in a season that can’t possibly end with a title.
How’s your summer going?
The NCAA penalty was the result of historically poor APR scores based on poor academic performance. It prohibits teams from competing in things like bowls, playoffs or the NCAA basketball tournament.
It doesn’t cover things like conference championship games, but Thursday’s SWAC vote took that extra step. Most fans and administrators seemed to expect it.
Two days later, however, Mitchell said he’s still upset.
He gives two reasons.
First, the SWAC championship is an extension of the regular season, and as Mitchell sees it, why should his players get banned from a regular-season game?
“They shouldn’t keep us out. They shouldn’t keep Jackson State out,” he said. “If either of these two schools make it to that game, our fans will support it. ...
“And the thing is, to me, the presidents need to understand the reason for the APR. It’s meant for improvement. It’s not meant to hurt the kids. This decision hurts my kids.”
Second, the latest APR data covers Southern’s academic performance from 2006-07 through 2009-10 — the final four years of the Pete Richardson era, before Mitchell arrived on campus.
And while Mitchell’s critics (rightfully) had a field day with last year’s on-field results, they can’t question his commitment to academics.
Any player whose GPA sinks below 2.5 must attend study hall — two hours per night, five times per week.
Assistant coaches conduct class checks, and at least once last year, when Mitchell got word that a player was acting up in class, he suspended the kid.
The new policies are starting to pay off.
Mitchell said 21 players finished the spring semester with a GPA of 3.0 or better.
Despite all this, Southern is out of the SWAC title picture, thanks to Thursday’s vote.
That said, no one’s making plans for a Stump Mitchell pity party, and rival teams like Alcorn State and Grambling won’t be tempted to go easy on SU out of sympathy.
A rugged path lies ahead.
Three months before the season opener, Mitchell is already fighting uphill.
This might be toughest challenge yet.