When Southern football players returned to practice Tuesday, they were greeted with abundant sunshine, a calm breeze and a rare slice of good news.
By then, the word was out: The Southwestern Athletic Conference had altered its decision to suspend players all at once for their roles in a postgame fight with Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Oct. 15.
Instead, the league agreed to spread the Jaguars’ 15 suspensions over three weeks.
At every station on the SU practice fields, energy and smiles were aplenty.
Players looked renewed. Relieved, even, by news of the SWAC’s decision.
“It’s going to help us out a lot,” senior center Lee Almanza said.
Predictably, Alcorn coach Melvin Spears was not a fan; Spears said he believed the decision sent “the wrong message” to young players.
And predictably, fans of rival schools trashed the decision on Twitter and Facebook, some of them claiming it was a clear-cut case of the conference giving Southern and UAPB preferential treatment. There is, of course, evidence to the contrary. This summer, the conference chose to ban Southern from this year’s championship game because of substandard APR scores.
Furthermore, if the SWAC were truly trying to help Southern and UAPB in a well-conceived scheme, it might’ve conveniently missed key pieces of video evidence and suspended only a handful of players.
Naturally, this means little to rival schools; to them, perception is what matters.
But just for a moment, forget all that. Think about something that no one seems willing to discuss.
This decision, this reprieve of sorts, this so-called lucky break means nothing if the Jaguars lay an egg Saturday against Alcorn.
Their coach, Stump Mitchell, went to bat for them.
It’s also homecoming.
It’s also senior day for 16 players. Sure, some of them are little more than walk-ons and special-teams regulars.
But some of them are first-rate players who deserve more than they’ve gotten at Southern - guys like Almanza and safety Demetric Rogers.
They were there when Southern parted ways with Pete Richardson after 17 years - once an unfathomable move.
They were there, front and center, when the team staggered to a 2-9 record last season.
All the players were there this year, when the Jaguars almost held on to beat Jackson State ... almost held on to beat Florida A&M ... almost held off Prairie View ... almost rallied at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
For much of this star-crossed season, Southern has failed to play a complete game from start to finish.
This week, they face Alcorn, a 2-4 team with its own problems. Thanks to a rare bit of good fortune, this is SU’s best chance to for a win before the Bayou Classic.
The Jaguars can’t afford to let it slip away.