Timing is everything, the saying goes, and while it was a long time coming for newly hired Southern football coach Jason Rollins, it worked in his favor.
Dawson Odums’ resignation after nine years on the job opened the door for Rollins to move into a head coaching position in his 26th season.
Suddenly, though, time is more of an enemy.
With fewer than 18 weeks to get ready for an 11-game fall season while recovering from a five-game spring campaign that ended two weeks ago, Rollins enters his first head coaching job scrambling more than in a hire under normal circumstances.
Rollins, 46, will be working on a one-year interim contract that will pay him a $250,000 base salary. If he can bring continuity to the program, he will earn every penny. He will be highly motivated to follow in Odums’ footsteps and win the job permanently.
While Rollins showed some jitters in his first news conference he also exuded a realistic view of what he’s about to attempt. There was no declaration about putting his stamp on the program, there will be time for that later. His first goal is a smooth transition and in that he seems assured.
“I’m confident in our guys, our staff, our leadership,” Rollins said. “Those three things together, you can’t help but be confident.”
Odums did Rollins another favor, leaving behind a stable program full of experience and with an expectation of success. Southern had won the previous two SWAC West titles and perhaps a normal fall season would have resulted in a third.
Rollins spoke fondly of the head coaches he learned from, among them Tommy Tate, Scott Stoker, Matt Viator, Frank Wilson and Curtis Johnson, but most of all Odums.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been in the building,” Rollins said. “We speak all the time. He told me just follow the process; the process is in place. Recruit great kids and keep in their lives. He was the dean of the SWAC and won a lot of games, an excellent football coach. You learn a lot from each coach you are under. I definitely learned a lot from him.”
Rollins’ first goal was to reach a team he and four other assistants have been around for a little more than a year. Southern had 47 fourth- or fifth-year players and expects to have most of those back in August.
“Making sure our team is comfortable, let them get to know us,” he said, identifying his priorities. “Being transparent and open with them, let them know who is going to be coaching them, keep the continuity going.”
Rollins did make one reference to a change in recruiting strategy. Odums liked to work Florida, especially Ocala, where he netted SWAC Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Lewis among a steady stream of Jaguars. Rollins talked of starting closer to home.
“We’re going to be in your backyard, we’re going to start inside and work our way out,” he said. “This is the most fertile recruiting ground in the nation. We’re going to start here. Within a tank of gas, we should get everything we need.”
As for staying close to home, credit Southern athletic director Roman Banks and the search committee for making the judicious choice while pressed for time to do their due diligence. When NFL Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk’s name came up, Banks and company resisted the urge to follow in Jackson State’s footsteps in hiring Deion Sanders.
Sanders might turn out to be the best thing ever to happen for Jackson State and the SWAC, but that wasn’t the right type of move for Southern.
Banks said he sought advice from all levels, including former NFL player and coach Herm Edwards and former Jaguars coach Pete Richardson. When Banks spoke to the other members of the Jaguars staff, Rollins' name kept popping up.
“Southern football is a brand in itself,” Banks said. “We get caught up in clichés and clashes, but I try to steer my emotions to doing the right thing. Every day I woke up I came back around to the student-athletes, what was the right thing for them to be successful. We have a good program in place. We can improve on that. We knew coaches put in a new system. You could see them maturing throughout the spring season.”
Rollins' job is to keep the train moving. He’s waiting for the summer school schedule to come out to set his calendar. Among the myriad of decisions to make is when the rest ends and conditioning for fall begins. Odums said at least 12 players were scheduled for or had surgery.
Rollins will have to play by ear how much hitting his team does in fall camp with an eye toward the Sept. 4 opener at Troy. His head will be spinning until then but his message to Jaguar Nation is clear:
“Gas up those RVs, get the charcoal ready, open up the tailgates,” he said. “The Jaguars are about to prowl. Southern is the standard.
“We have an expectation. We all know it. We expect to meet the expectation.”