Take a look around Southern University, and you’ll see all the telltale signs.
Grass is changing colors. Leaves have started to vanish. Short-sleeve shirts are the next to go. Football season is almost over, and on The Bluff, it’s been mostly long and disappointing.
At 1 p.m. Saturday in Montgomery, Ala., when the Jaguars (3-6, 3-4 Southwestern Athletic Conference) face Alabama State in the Cramton Bowl, they’ll be heavy underdogs against a strong, balanced team that’s very much in the hunt for a SWAC title.
It’s a meeting of two teams who have essentially traded places. A decade ago, Southern was one of the premier teams in black college football; Alabama State was little more than an also-ran.
In fact, only two years ago, Hornets coach Reggie Barlow felt his seat getting a little warm. His program was dealing with scholarship losses and a ban from the SWAC Championship Game — just as Southern is now.
Now, Alabama State is a powerhouse. Southern is an also-ran.
Is it possible, then, that the Jaguars might take a cue from ASU? Is it possible that Southern can follow a similar blueprint, and that beleaguered coach Stump Mitchell could one day be the happiest guy in Baton Rouge?
“Coach Mitchell, he’s doing a good job over there,” Barlow said. “I’ve been where he is in trying to implement the mindset, and heck, you’ve got to change it.”
Over his first three years at Alabama State, Barlow had a 12-21 record, his teams following hot starts with late-season slides.
Even though the program was on probation — the Hornets were found guilty of several rules violations that occurred from 1999-2003 under coaches L.C. Cole and Charles Coe, and they weren’t eligible to compete for the SWAC title in 2009 — those up-and-down records were tough to swallow for ASU fans.
During that ’09 season, which ended with a 4-7 record, someone slashed the tires on Barlow’s car.
Then, last year, the Hornets followed a 3-0 start with three straight losses. But they rebounded with four straight wins to clinch the Eastern Division. Alabama State lost 11-6 to Texas Southern in the SWAC Championship Game, missing what would’ve been its first title since 2004, when Tarvaris Jackson led the Hornets to a 40-35 win over Southern.
This season, ASU rose to No. 1 in the Sheridan poll of black colleges before it suffered a heartbreaking 20-19 loss against Alabama A&M in the Magic City Classic last month.
Still, they can win the Eastern Division again with a victory and an A&M loss to Jackson State.
In other words, with Barlow in charge, Alabama State has made a slow, steady climb toward the top of the SWAC.
How did it happen?
And how might Southern follow the Hornets’ lead?
“I don’t know a whole bunch that’s going on over there,” Barlow said, referring to SU.
“I just know that when you’re new and trying to change the mindset, most people think it just builds with the coaches and the players. But the mindset has to be changed with everybody. The people that clean the building, the strength and conditioning coach, the compliance people — everybody’s got to be thinking like you think.”
Barlow also said the team made significant strides when the roster was filled with his own recruits, saying, “When you sign a kid, an 18-year-old, a lot of times, when they know you’re the guy that brought them in, they’re going to play a little harder for you.”
Mitchell, with a 5-15 overall record in his second year, has to hope that’s the case.
“I think that maybe … with some of the new coaches at new programs, it’s how soon can you get guys to buy into the reason that you’re there,” Mitchell said Monday.
“It’s because a change had to be made — not necessarily in the head coach, but a change in the guys that are playing. Because every coach in this conference ... has quality staffs that (are) going to put together a heck of a game plan.”