The four Southwestern Athletic Conference Championships and four HBCU national championships Southern won during his two stops and aggregate 13-year tenure are never far from Mark Orlando’s mind.
“I wasn’t from there, and felt more at home in Louisiana than any other place I coached,” Orlando, now in his first season as offensive coordinator at Alabama State. “The reach out of the fans to the coaches and players was a great experience. I can see it’s still there. They’ve got a great program going.”
The return of Southern’s football program to its former prominence of competing for and winning Southwestern Athletic Conference championship is something Orlando can identify with.
At least for one weekend in October, Orlando hopes to spoil Southern’s run of success through the conference when Alabama State (2-3, 2-2 SWAC) hosts the Jaguars (2-2, 2-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“I remember being part of that tradition, the Bayou Classic, the home crowds, the band,” Orlando said of Southern. “I always felt like in Baton Rouge with LSU and Southern, it was the college football capital of the world. It was an unbelievable energy of college football on a Saturday night in Baton Rouge.”
Orlando’s career has spanned 36 years, covering eight schools that have had a distinct theme — the Gulf States region ranging from Texas to Florida.
“I still enjoy it,” said the 62-year-old native of Westfield, New York.
He’s also managed to endure the pitfalls of coaching, being let go at Southern at the end of the 2009 season and Prairie View in 2014, to continue his passion: tutoring young quarterbacks and developing high-powered offenses.
Chronologically, Orlando is four jobs removed from Southern. He worked at Bethune-Cookman for a year in 2010 under Brian Jenkins where they led the nation in total offense and won the MEAC championship before returning to the SWAC for four years at Prairie View.
When Jenkins took over Alabama State’s program, his first venture into the SWAC, he hired Orlando to bring his up-tempo spread offense and knowledge of the league.
“I was very fortunate after I was let go, coach Jenkins reached out to me,” Orlando said. “I love the style in the SWAC, which is more wide-open.”
The growth of Orlando’s offense was stunted somewhat when Alabama State was unable to conduct spring practice because of academics-related sanctions.
The Hornets took another step back in a season-opening 24-14 loss to Tennessee State when quarterback Daniel Duhart suffered an ankle injury and missed the next three games.
With Duhart back in a reserve role and expected to play against Southern, Alabama State has relied on Elliott Richardson to direct an offense rated seventh in the SWAC in scoring (24.8) and total offense (357.8).
Moreover, the Hornets have averaged 32 more points in their two wins over Mississippi Valley and Texas Southern with Richardson rushing a team-best 47 times for 311 yards and six TDs. He’s completed 61 percent (39 of 64) of his passes for 383 yards and 5 scores.
“It’s coming together,” Orlando said. “I was very disappointed in the first three games, but the last two’s the type of production we’re accustomed to and hopefully we can keep that going.”
Jenkins’ hiring represented the second time he reached out to Orlando following a dismissal.
Orlando, who worked at SU from 1993-2001, returned three years later to be a part of Pete Richardson’s staff for another six years until they were let go in ’09.
Orlando, who broke into coach with Richardson for two seasons at Winston-Salem State, said the two talk almost every other week. He called Wednesday to wish his former boss and close friend a happy birthday.
“He taught me a lot to be in this profession,” Orlando said. “I miss him and I think the profession misses him.”