Sometimes, when universities feel an economic crunch, or when they’re in the mood to de-emphasize athletics on campus, they’ll consider a move to drop football.
And sometimes, the academic folks win. They drop football.
Jorge Baez and Jamie Payton faced a very different, very rare problem.
They arrived at Southern this season after their previous university closed down.
Not the football program. The entire school.
In the spring of 2010, Baez was the wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator at Lambuth University, a private NAIA school in Jackson, Tenn., that was founded in 1843.
Payton, a graduate of Dutchtown High, was a productive linebacker.
Lambuth had been around for more than 150 years, but Baez and others had begun to see signs of trouble. Big signs.
The school was running out of money.
“(That) summer, we went without getting paid. The whole school,” said Baez, now the receivers coach at SU. “And when the fall came around, we didn’t know if we were actually going to have a football season.”
Almost daily, Baez said, players came into the football office and said they were sorry; that they had no choice but to hit the road.
The coaches had a unique selling job on their hands.
“You’ve got to be ready when you line up, because the other team doesn’t care about your situation,” Baez recalled telling them. “They just want to beat you.”
Others, including Payton, stuck around.
The team survived one more year, and though the Eagles went only 4-6, two of their wins were fairly impressive.
On Sept. 11, Lambuth notched a 23-14 upset over Georgia State, a Football Championship Subdivision school.
A week later, Lambuth played at West Alabama, a Division II powerhouse. The Eagles scored another upset, 14-13.
By the spring semester, however, coaches and players figured their clock was running out.
Baez thought he’d be out of a job. A Miami native, he’d been a graduate assistant at Ole Miss, where Stump Mitchell’s son, Jared, was a wide receiver.
“It started out with the fact that they were going through the pay deal again. It was, ‘Hey, we might not get paid this month,’” Baez said. “So at that time, I knew I had to be on the lookout. I saw on one of the websites that Southern had lost a receivers coach. I shook every bush I could to get in touch with coach Mitchell and put myself out there.”
Baez was fortunate. Though he didn’t officially join the Southern staff until July 1, he agreed in principle to accept the job in April.
About a week later, Lambuth announced it was ceasing operations, effective June 30.
That left Payton alone in Tennessee. He didn’t have a school, much less a football team.
“It started out as a rumor at first,” Payton said. “Me and the guys, my teammates — we didn’t figure it would actually come to be. But when we learned it was true, we had to embrace it and run with it.”
Run, he did.
When Baez learned that Lambuth’s fate was sealed, he started to sell the SU coaching staff on Payton.
“There was no doubt he could play at this level. You turn on the film, and it’s obvious what the kid could do. Smart kid, good kid, and he was a great leader,” Baez said.
“He would wake people up during the summer and say, ‘Hey, man, we’ve got to go work out.’”
It didn’t hurt that Payton is a hometown guy.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Southern had been short on linebackers.
It certainly didn’t hurt that in three seasons at Lambuth, Payton had 226 tackles, 12 sacks and four interceptions from 2008-10.
“He has had a really good camp,” defensive coordinator O’Neill Gilbert said. “And I think every day, we see steady progress.”
Payton has worked almost exclusively with the first-team defense. Barring a disaster, he’ll be in the starting lineup when the Jaguars play their season opener at Tennessee State on Sept. 3.
“I got a phone call from the coaches here at Southern and figured it was a great opportunity,” Payton said. “I can come home, and my family can come watch me play. I took it and ran with it.”