Three days before his world premiere as head coach of the Southern men’s basketball team, Roman Banks enjoyed a quiet moment with his assistants.
Down a hallway, in the main area of the F.G. Clark Activity Center, players warmed up for “Fun Day,” a lively little preseason gathering for fans and alumni. Meanwhile, Banks and his staff were out of public view. In a few minutes, they’d take center stage and introduce their first team at SU - a team charged with restoring pride, if not a winning record, to a program that’s fallen on extremely hard times.
At that moment, however, Banks was lounging on a couch in his office, he and his assistants filling the air with quiet chatter.
By all accounts, it was a little chill-out time - a short moment to relax before the party began.
As for the party, Banks enjoyed it. It included a 3-point shootout, a slam-dunk contest and a refreshingly engaged crowd of about 1,000 - mostly students, most of whom did their level best to avoid the Activity Center during basketball season.
Now, however, it’s back to work. The party’s over, and the season begins.
At 7 p.m. Friday, the Jaguars open their season against Dillard in the back end of a men’s-and-women’s doubleheader.
“It’s nervous energy right now. ... The guys have been working hard,” said Banks, the former SU assistant who returned from Southeastern to begin his first job as a Division I head coach.
“You’re still trying to learn what to expect from each individual, and I don’t really know that yet. Hopefully, we go out and perform the way we’ve performed in practice. That’s just about playing hard, and I think we give ourselves an opportunity to win the game in the end.”
After that, the team begins a vicious road schedule that includes Texas A&M, Providence, Rice and UTEP, among others. The Jaguars don’t play another home game until Dec. 29, when they host Loyola in a final tuneup before SWAC play begins.
So, yes, this game is important. It’s the first chance for Banks to see what he has before the team faces incredibly strong competition.
By now, most Southern fans know about all the obstacles Southern faces this season, and last week, Banks told his Jaguars they couldn’t just assume they’d defeat Dillard, an NAIA program. After all, he said, Southern hasn’t won enough games lately to assume anything.
“I don’t think we’ve won a home opener here in a few years,” he said, “so that’d be a nice thing for us to do.”
Actually, Southern won its last two home openers, against New Orleans and Auburn-Montgomery. But the last two seasons have indeed included some ugly nonconference losses. Defeats to NAIA Xavier and Tougaloo come to mind.
And over the past three years, the team posted a 17-74 record under then-coach Rob Spivery, including a 4-26 mark last season. The Jaguars missed the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament for the second straight year, and Spivery was fired with one season left on his contract.
Now, because of an APR score of 852 - well below the NCAA’s 900 benchmark for avoiding severe penalties - Southern is already banned from postseason play, even before the team has hoisted its first 3-pointer of the season.
How do they climb out of the canyon? Old-fashioned work.
“One thing I must say (is), as much pressure as I’ve been putting on the guys and pushing them to the hilt, that they have responded,” Banks said. “We’ve had some inconsistent days, but you expect that as a coach, bringing in a brand-new system, when you don’t have anyone (who’s been) engaged into your program before.”
The program is new, and Banks hopes that one day, the team’s old habit of winning championships will return. For now, he’ll settle for baby steps, signs of improvement, a chance to build something special from the ground floor.
“I’m excited about it and nervous about it at the same time,” Banks said. “But like I say, I know we’ll be in the coliseum two hours before gametime. We’ll be ready.”