In 1959, when he first came to Alcorn State for a job as an assistant football coach, Marino Casem was fresh off of a two-year stint in the Army.
He was all of 25.
“I didn’t know what the deal was with life,” Casem said.
For most of the next three decades, Casem learned it on the fly at Alcorn State, buried deeply in the Mississippi forest.
And along the way, he taught many others how to play some pretty good football.
Saturday afternoon, the Braves will pay tribute to a coach who gave them 17 winning seasons and seven Southwestern Athletic Conference championships as their head coach from 1964-85.
Saturday night, during halftime of Alcorn’s game against Mississippi Valley State, the school will add his name to the football stadium.
Jack Spinks Stadium will become Casem-Spinks Stadium.
“It’s a long time coming for a guy that had an incredible career here,” said current coach Melvin Spears, an Alcorn alumnus.
“He’s done things great things - not only here, but everywhere he’s gone. He’s one of the pioneers in our conference and around the country. I’m just elated about the opportunity to walk down in that stadium and see coach Casem’s name up on the rafters.”
Casem left Alcorn in 1986 to become athletic director at Southern, a post he held until he retired in 1999.
Casem also served as Southern’s coach from 1987-88 and again on an interim basis in 1992.
After he retired, Casem stayed in Baton Rouge.
He was home, as usual, enjoying another easy day this summer, when he got a call from Alcorn President M. Christopher Brown II.
Brown informed Casem that the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning approved the renaming of the stadium.
“I really didn’t know it was happening,” Casem said. “I knew that there had always been a group trying to get something done. I didn’t know that (the stadium) was a part of it. ...
“But it’s certainly a humbling experience, to have a permanent edifice with your name on it.
“So many people played a big part in what I am. They deserve all the credit.”
Born in Memphis, Tenn., Casem played college football at Colorado and got his first coaching job directly out of school, as an assistant at Utica Junior College in 1956.
After two years in the Army, he moved to Lorman, Miss., for the first time, serving as an assistant football coach and P.E. teacher at Alcorn.
After a short stop at Alabama State, Casem returned to Alcorn as head coach in 1964.
It was then and there that the chatty, quotable fellow quickly earned his reputation as an American original.
Casem loved to say that he and his school “did so much with so little for so long,” and they proved it.
Alcorn won four outright titles and shared three more.
One of Casem’s favorite seasons was 1984, when a crowd of 63,808 packed Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Miss., to see the undefeated Braves hand high-flying Mississippi Valley State its first loss, 42-28.
The turning point came when Valley quarterback Willie Totten underthrew a pass to Jerry Rice.
Alcorn cornerback Issiac Holt intercepted the pass and returned it for a touchdown.
Those 1984 Braves finished 9-1 and claimed one of Casem’s seven conference titles.
Holt was one more than five dozen players Casem sent to the NFL.
One of them, Leslie Frazier, is now head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.
Casem, for his part, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
“I grew into manhood at Alcorn,” he said. “It formed my life habits. It was a very, very, very, very lasting experience.”
As for the stadium, it opened in 1992, in time for the final three years of the Steve McNair era.
It was named after former Alcorn player Jack Spinks, who became the first black Mississippian to be drafted by an NFL team. A guard, Spinks played for four teams in five seasons.
Now, the place has room for one more name.