Southern coach Jason Rollins has a smile that works.
It’s not the ear-to-ear type that lights up a room everywhere he goes. It’s subtle, warm, endearing and almost always present. It loosens up strangers and reassures subordinates. It suggests a deep humility, braced by confidence he learned growing up and playing football in the isolated, southeast Texas country town of Newton.
But if smiles and humility were the only things required of a successful head football coach, there wouldn’t be so many openings every year.
Rollins was hired as Southern’s 19th football coach in May, and he will get no leeway or wiggle room from a fan base that boasts nine Black college national championships and 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles.
Right along with the aforementioned qualities is toughness, determination, intellect and work ethic — words that are never left out of a conversation with anyone who knows him. When he needs to get players’ attention, he can reel off a tirade without caring who’s within earshot.
Rollins had never held, or applied for, a head coaching job before, and he'd been at Southern barely a year when he was handed the reins after 25 seasons as an assistant. It came with the "interim" caveat attached.
That tag was unnecessary to the new Jaguars coach, whose basic philosophy is that “every job is interim; you have to sell yourself every day.”
And so, with the 2021 season opener at Troy less than a week away, Rollins has gone about the task of selling himself, not every day but every minute. He had already connected with most of the team, even the ones outside of his position, the secondary.
He’s had the same kind of connection with his fellow assistants, who supported his promotion. Rollins' next step was to go out into the community and give the fans a taste of his positivity while also sending players anytime the school or community needed volunteers.
No job was too small. Rollins might be at the top of the flow chart, but he has been right there to line the practice field, pick up trash or mop the floor.
What struck athletic director Roman Banks most about his first football hire was Rollins' “country boy” persona.
“He’s got a lot of country boy in him. He really is humble,” Banks said. “When he’s in the room, it’s not like he’s the coach and the big bad wolf.”
Southern players caught on quickly.
“He’s genuinely a good guy,” defensive end Jalen Ivy said. “He cares for his players. Football coaches coach, but what can they do to change a player’s life? That’s what I value, and he’s second to none.”
Curtis Barbay changed Jason Rollins’ life.
“He’s the one who told me I’d be a coach,” Rollins said.
Before he died in 2010, Barbay was a Texas high school legend. He coached three generations of Newton High School players — including Rollins’ father, James — and won 317 games and two state titles in 36 seasons. He did it with a simple, unchanged formula: toughness, discipline and precision.
There were only a handful of plays in the Eagles’ Wing-T offense, and they might throw two passes per game. Larger schools rarely wanted to play the Class 2A powerhouse, but Barbay took on all comers.
Football is the lifeblood of Newton, a town of less than 2,000 and no stoplights when Rollins graduated in 1992.
Barbay was more than just a mentor. When not involved in football, they fished and attended the same church together, Our Lady of LaSalette Mission in Kirbyville. A devout Catholic, Rollins carries a rosary with him at all times.
Rollins said his ability to make players feel at ease comes straight from Barbay.
“I loved him,” Rollins said. “He always made you feel good and gave you confidence. He didn’t care if you were a star; he treated everyone the same. He was very tough on the practice field. You didn’t want to disappoint him.”
Rollins developed into an all-state defensive back and running back while also participating in basketball and powerlifting.
Barbay’s nephew, Kevin, now an assistant coach at Central Michigan, said Rollins was the typical Newton kid — “tough country boys that could be coached hard.”
But Rollins picked up on so many of his mentor’s other qualities.
“From my very earliest age, I have memories of Jason, and he’s one of my favorite all-time people,” said Kevin Barbay, a ballboy for his uncle when Rollins played. “Jason biggest attribute is the way he treats people. It’s phenomenal. I knew that as a young kid, and I know that now. That’s why he’s so successful in this business. He’s a hard worker and so knowledgeable, but the way he treats people is what sets him apart. I know the entire community of Newton is so proud of Jason.”
Newton is closer to McNeese State than any Texas college, and Rollins followed the path of several previous Eagle athletes who ended up in Lake Charles. There was one problem: Rollins badly tore ligaments in one of his ankles after receiving a scholarship.
“It was typical country boy stuff,” he said with a laugh of the non-sports injury.
Rollins had two years of rehab before he could get on the field. To keep his scholarship and to travel with the team, he worked as an equipment manager.
Ultimately, Rollins’ persistence paid off. He dressed out as a junior and played in two games as a senior, recording two tackles as a backup strong safety and special-teams player. After the 1996 season, he stayed on as a graduate assistant, laying the groundwork for his future.
Rollins developed a close relationship with Cowboys assistant Tommy Tate, who later became head coach and hired Rollins away from Northwestern State in 2004.
“I was in his hip pocket every day,” Rollins said. “I knew every drill and went to every meeting. He truly taught me everything about defensive backs. He’s the smartest DB coach you could be around.”
Rollins made a similar impression on Tate.
“From Day 1, you could sense the passion he had for football,” said Tate. “Being from Newton, that’s what they do. He always had a great day and a positive attitude. He was a breath of fresh air.”
Rollins was on his way. Two years at McNeese were followed by 11 at Tulane, where he coached under four head coaches and alongside his current Southern defensive coordinator, Lionel Washington. In 2016, LSU assistant Frank Wilson was hired as head coach at Texas-San Antonio and hired Rollins almost immediately.
The two coaches had led parallel lives. Wilson played at Nicholls while Rollins was at McNeese and both got into the coaching ranks around the same time. They already knew each other well through mutual friends and crossed paths many times on the coaching trails.
Coincidentally, their paths will collide in Week 3 this season. Wilson is in his second season as head coach at McNeese, which plays at Southern on Sept. 18.
“When I got to UTSA, he was always a guy on my short list because of his football intellect and how good a job he did recruiting,” Wilson said. “I asked what his dream job was, and he said to be head coach at Southern. The job he got was the job he wanted, the one he coveted. It’s a beautiful thing to see someone’s dreams come true.”
Wilson was one of multitudes of fellow coaches happy to see Rollins get his chance.
“He’s the reason I’m in the game now,” said Darion Monroe, a graduate assistant at Central Florida who played defensive back at Tulane under Rollins.
“He was an extension of my parents. He demanded I was damn near close to perfect on and off the field. He made me into a leader from a guy who was just ‘go with the flow.’ He made me a captain and brought my voice out.”
Said David Pittman, who played under Rollins at Northwestern State: “He was a key person in a major developmental phase of my life. The wisdom he has helped me to develop as a player but in becoming the man I am today, the core values I stand on. He really taught me how to handle adversity.”
Tate, now head coach at Opelousas Catholic, is particularly proud of his protégé.
“We have each other’s back,” Tate said. “I was so pleased and happy; Southern did the right thing. They got a good one. They’ll be well-prepared and play with a lot of confidence.”
Perhaps no one is as happy for Rollins as his wife Danna, a Southern graduate whom he met when he coached at Ball High School in Galveston, Texas. She’s a teacher at Southern Lab, and they have a 15-year-old son, Tieler. But Rollins said he doesn’t want to think of himself as having arrived as a head coach.
“I’ve never thought that way; it makes you complacent,” he said. “I don’t want to lose my edge. It’s still a journey. I do the same things I would do if I hadn’t moved one chair over. Pick up trash, mop the floor, help line the field. No job is too small. Frank used to say that.
“I want to be all about the players. I have an alma mater. I want them to be proud of their alma mater, so they can look back and say. ‘I had a hand in this, a great college experience.’ ”