The time and place were appropriate: It was late November on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf, and Southern coach Dawson Odums was speaking forcefully about what he fondly refers to as "The Journey."
If you ever want to know what it feels like to be a recruit in a living room Odums is actively pursuing, just watch him speak in a public setting. Odums radiates enthusiasm and positive energy.
He was the last of several people to take the microphone and address the crowd gathered at a press conference Monday, kicking off Bayou Classic week. The people he addressed had that glazed look on their faces that only comes after listening to 40 minutes of people thanking corporate sponsors. Smartly, Odums was positioned as the anchor leg, and he brought it home.
All eyes focused on Odums as he spoke on The Journey.
“What a journey it’s been,” Odums said.
He only skimmed the surface, though. He didn’t have enough time to give the full spiel. What is important are the basics: It is Bayou Classic week, and Southern is in the hunt. Again.
Sustained success on its own is as boring as those corporate sponsor thank-yous, though. No story is worth telling unless it has adversity, its moments when doubt comes in equal helpings as belief. Here is where Odums’ journey brings the goods.
It is Bayou Classic week. Southern is in the hunt, again. And, most important, the Jaguars has reached this point even though all the powers that be are seemingly working against them. Again.
This has been the standard operating procedure during Odums’ time at Southern, from the very beginning. He took over a Southern football program that had just completed the 2012 season with one of those bad performances that gets incrementally more horrifying as you add layers.
1. Southern was shut out.
2. Southern was shut out at home.
3. Southern was shut out at home by woebegone Mississippi Valley State.
That loss cost Stump Mitchell his job. The Southern that Odums inherited did not seem to be one capable of dealing with adversity.
The program Odums is currently in command of is intimately familiar with hardship — he will tell you, with confidence (and maybe correctly), that no other football coach in the country has dealt with as much as his has in the past five years.
Not only is Southern comfortable with adversity as a bed buddy, but the Jaguars consistently have refused to let the adversity weigh them down on their quest for Southwestern Athletic Conference supremacy.
There was the infamous game in 2014, when, without warning, several starting players were prohibited from traveling to Lafayette for the season opener at the last minute because of concerns about their academic eligibility. The Jaguars showed up minutes before kickoff.
Academic certification issues plagued Southern throughout the season. The Jaguars responded by winning the SWAC West division for the second consecutive season.
The academic side of things led to an ongoing saga with the NCAA that has stripped Southern of its ability to hold spring practices for the last three years. Odums is fond of reminding people who ask about his four-year starter at quarterback that he has never participated in spring practice.
Last year, the NCAA finally released its full findings from a long investigation into Southern’s academics. With the findings came official sanctions, dropping Southern’s allowed football scholarships per year from 63 to 58.
With the official sanctions came inevitable negative recruiting from programs that compete with Southern. The Jaguars were battling both numbers and perception on the recruiting trail.
This season, Southern's biggest issue was injuries; quarterback Austin Howard went down and grabbed his knee in Southern’s season-opening win against South Carolina State.
The knee injury kept Southern’s most important player on the sideline for two full games and at least moderately limited him for four more.
Southern started the season 1-3. The Jaguars dealt with adversity and overcame it and now sit here at the latest juncture of The Journey, winners of six straight with a chance to keep its season alive one more week.
Odums is proud — of his players, his coaching staff and himself — for reaching this point again. That’s the long story as to why he so passionately spoke about his journey and the journey of the kids under his direction on the Bluff.
But sometimes long stories can be summed up pretty succinctly.
“They come not understanding adversity, but along the journey, they learn how to deal with it,” Odums said.