There is a photograph of Marino Casem in The Advocate’s archives, black and white and grainy. By today’s digital standards, it would be quickly discarded.

But a photo is more than the way it looks. It is often what it says. In this one, in the triumphant first moments after Southern beat archrival Grambling in the 1988 Bayou Classic, there is Casem, drained but smiling, receiving a kiss on the cheek from linebacker Chris Scott as he cradled the game’s defensive MVP award from the Jaguars’ defense-dominated 10-3 victory over the Tigers.

For what the photograph lacks in sharpness to the eye, it defines Casem perfectly. A football man. A winner. And a fatherly figure (Godfatherly, to borrow from his famous nickname) to so many young men whom he coached and influenced in a 40-plus year career at Alabama State, Alcorn State and Southern, in a life that ended Sunday with Casem’s death at his Baton Rouge home at age 85.

“They (Marino and Betty Casem) didn’t have any children,” said veteran Baton Rouge sportswriter Joe Macaluso, who covered SWAC football for the State-Times newspaper during the Casem era. “His players were like his children. He was tough when he needed to be, but he could be kind-hearted, too.”

Casem won as a coach and his knack for winning permeated the athletic departments where he worked. He led Alcorn State to seven Southwestern Athletic Conference championships and black college football national titles in 1968, 1969, 1974 and 1984. In '84, the Braves went 9-0 during the regular season and became the first historically black college or university (HBCU) to finish No. 1 in the NCAA Division I-AA (now FCS) poll.

It was a swan song of sorts for Casem, who after the 1985 season left Alcorn to become athletic director at Southern from 1986-99. He served as coach and athletic director much of his tenure at Alcorn as well and twice coached the Jaguars, going 7-4 in 1987 and 1988 and 5-6 in 1992 as he bridged the gap between Gerald Kimble and Pete Richardson. He finished with a career record of 159-93-8.

Richardson’s success would rival Casem’s; he won five SWAC titles and four black college national championships (the last after Casem retired). It was part of Southern’s all-around athletic success during the Casem era, as the program won six of the first seven SWAC Commissioner’s Cups.

“All that success Coach Casem had at Alcorn in the SWAC would have translated in the SEC, the Big 12, the ACC or anywhere else,” former Alcorn player and current Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier told Mississippi Today in 2017. “The reason I say that is discipline is the foundation at every level of football, and he was a disciplinarian of the first order. He was also a great teacher, who was compassionate with his players. Those qualities resonate at every level. When the players know you care and you give them structure and you teach, they’ll play for you. That’s a fact.”

Casem’s passing highlights a now bygone era of HBCU college football, when talented black players were unwelcome on the campuses of major Southern football powers (Casem played at Xavier in New Orleans in the 1950s and finished at Northern Colorado after the school dropped football). The stars of that era, players like Southern’s Harold Carmichael (a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee this year), Grambling’s Tank Younger, Alcorn’s Roynell Young and Jackson State’s Walter Payton helped make College Football Hall of Famers of their coaches. Men like Casem, Southern’s A.W. Mumford, Grambling’s Eddie Robinson and Jackson State’s W.C. Gorden.

Only Gorden is left, now 89. All the rest have left memories and long, long shadows in which their successors must dwell. Casem’s career intersected with all of them.

Casem wasn’t just a football coach. As an athletic director, he was a major force on the national level, serving on numerous NCAA committees including the Division I executive committee and football rules committee, the I-AA football committee and I-AA athletic directors committee.

“The Southwestern Athletic Conference will forever be indebted to the contributions and historic achievements of former Southern and Alcorn State Head Football Coach and Athletics Director, Marino Casem," SWAC commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland said in a statement.

A man with a gift for storytelling and a rich wordsmith, one of Casem’s greatest legacies is what stands as perhaps the most apt and succinct description of college football that has ever been expressed:

“On the East Coast,” Casem said, “football is a cultural experience. In the Midwest, it’s a form of cannibalism. On the West Coast, it’s a tourist attraction. And in the South, football is religion, and Saturday is the holy day.”

As an epitaph, it will more than suffice for a man, and a football life, on an amazing scale.


Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com