Covered in sweat, physically spent and anxious to wrap up a long preseason, Southern football players gathered around Stump Mitchell near the 20-yard line on the south end of A.W. Mumford Stadium.
There, they took a knee. There, they listened as their 5-foot-8 coach delivered a fiery post-scrimmage speech — a speech intended to fire up the Jaguars for the week that lay ahead.
This week, he told them, the season arrives. This week offers a chance for everyone to see how far they’ve come.
“These guys will be ready,” said Mitchell, whose team faces Tennessee State in Nashville, Tenn., at 6 p.m. Saturday, more than ready to forget about last year’s gruesome 2-9 record.
“We’ve got some guys that are mature — more so than we had last year. And we’re just excited that (the season) is here.”
It is, without much doubt, a pivotal one for Mitchell, who enters the second year of a three-year contract.
He takes pride in being a dreamer, Mitchell also knows he needs to be a winner.
So let’s say SU take a few baby steps this season. Let’s say they finish 4-7 or 5-6.
Of course, most Southern fans won’t be satisfied with that. When your school has one the proudest, most successful programs in the history of black college football, you expect more.
The real question is whether fans will believe it’s time for another change.
As they ponder that question, they should keep this in mind: It’s harder for Southern to win than it used to be.
A litany of forces is working against the Jaguars.
• The first month is downright brutal, with games against Tennessee State, Alabama A&M, Jackson State and Florida A&M. Southern might be a better team and have only a 1-3 record to show for it.
• Whereas other Southwestern Athletic Conference teams have 63 scholarships to spread among 85 players, the Jaguars go into this season with only 54 scholarships — the result of NCAA penalties related to Southern’s Academic Progress Rate.
• Also, because of NCAA-mandated restrictions on practice time, the Jaguars won’t start game-week preparation until Tuesdays.
• Finally, in case anyone forgot, SWAC presidents and chancellors voted to ban Southern from playing for the league championship — yet another offshoot of the APR penalties. Few people expected the Jaguars to contend for a Western Division title. Still, it’s not fun to enter the season knowing you can’t win it all.
What, then, will make this year a success?
Is a two- or three-win increase enough to reassure the Jaguar Nation? Will it reassure fans that Mitchell’s program is on the right path? Or will they demand another change?
Mitchell himself acknowledged Saturday that “everybody didn’t want me here. ... I know that. But what they do want is a winner. And that, they’ve got.”
The next three months will tell.