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Southern coach Dawson Odums gets fired up with his players after the Jaguars blanked Mississippi Valley State 55-0 on Nov. 19, 2016, at A.W. Mumford Stadium.

On a broiling Wednesday afternoon in 2016, at the start of another successful football season at Southern, players filed into the field house at A.W. Mumford Stadium, reporting for preseason camp.

Cell phones buzzed. Teammates laughed. Assistant coaches, trainers and equipment managers hustled from one station to the next.

These were the customary first steps in another long, demanding journey under Dawson Odums — a coach who spent nine years at SU, who loved to apply military principles to football, who wore sweatshirts during 100-degree practice sessions, who mixed an all-business attitude with a dash of trash-talk.

Yet on the eve of camp, Odums was nowhere in sight. He was out hunting for pencils and paper. 

The Southern football office was short on supplies, and rather than wait on a fresh delivery, Odums had to make a run to Office Depot himself.

At Southern, there was always one more job to do. Coaching there is a little like trying to run a 100-meter dash at the Olympics in flip-flops: It’s a world-class opportunity, and if you win, you've got it made. But the task is gonna be a whole lot harder than it ought to be.

As the late, great Marino Casem often said, it's tough on the Bluff.

Six days have passed since Odums bailed for a six-year contract at Norfolk State, taking with him a track record that we can only now appreciate in full — four Southwestern Athletic Conference Western Division titles, the outright SWAC championship in 2013 and a 6-3 record against Grambling in the Bayou Classic.

Why did he leave?

And why would Southern let him go?

Ultimately, only Odums truly knows why he walked — and he’s not saying.

Ultimately, maybe Southern couldn’t do much more to keep him.

Odums spent nine-plus seasons at Mumford. That’s a long time for any coach to stay in any one spot — and by the end of his run, Odums was the longest-tenured coach in the SWAC. Only one of two things happens to a coach when he stays in one place for too long: He reaches retirement age, or he reaches the unemployment line. If you’ve had success, it’s better to stay a step ahead.

Though he’ll only get a small bump in pay in Norfolk, Virginia — reportedly a raise from $210,000 per year to $240,000 — Odums will get long-term security. He’ll be closer to his North Carolina roots, and he’ll compete in the Mid-East Athletic Conference, which, given an exodus of member schools in recent years, is suddenly less competitive than the SWAC.

Odums became head coach at Southern under difficult circumstances. Hired in 2011 to handle the defensive line, he was promoted to defensive coordinator a year later — but after two games, SU reassigned head coach Stump Mitchell and gave Odums the interim job.

Odums went 4-5, snapping a four-year losing streak to Grambling along the way. Meanwhile, then-athletic director William Broussard searched for Odums’ permanent replacement. Broussard negotiated with Brian Jenkins, then of Bethune-Cookman, and talked to James Spady, who later got the top job at Alabama A&M.

Ultimately, Odums got the job and got to work.

And boy, Southern needed serious work.

Just as he was taking over, the athletic department found itself in trouble with the NCAA, the result of massive problems with its Academic Progress Rate and even worse problems with its academic bookkeeping.

In 2013, every single athlete at Southern was ineligible for NCAA postseason play because the university had been unable to properly document that they were academically eligible. (The football team was able to play in the SWAC championship game because it counts as part of the regular season.)

On the day of the 2014 season opener against the Ragin’ Cajuns in Lafayette, five starters were pulled off the team bus because the athletic department couldn’t confirm that those players were academically eligible.

NCAA penalties prevented the Jaguars from conducting spring practice for several years, and it wasn’t until 2018 that they were fully in the clear.

Despite all this, Odums finished 53-16 in SWAC play, including 29-5 over his final five seasons.

Now he’s gone. It is up to athletic director Roman Banks and deputy AD Trayvean Scott to find a capable replacement, and it won't be easy. Searching for a good football coach is sort of like skydiving out of a perfectly good airplane: It sounds like a thrill, right up to the moment you have to do it.

Yes, Southern's athletic department is on much more solid footing these days under Banks.

And yes, Southern should always be a powerhouse.

But for decades now, Southern has also been a delicate mixture: strong academics, great football tradition, political minefield.

Since the legendary Arnett W. Mumford hung up his whistle in 1961, the Jaguars have gone through 11 coaches. Only two of them won an outright SWAC championship: Pete Richardson, a five-time champion and an icon in his own right, and Odums.

As for this latest search, expect Southern to pursue someone with Louisiana ties, SWAC experience or both. And expect the search to heat up this week.

It’s an attractive job, among the most glamorous in the nation. 

But filling Odums’ shoes will be tough, because the big man made his job look a lot easier than it is.


Email Perryn Keys at pkeys@theadvocate.com.​