I like Stump Mitchell. You have to admire a 5'9" guy that busted his butt to prove his detractors wrong. A man molded by the rigors of The Citadel as a collegiate player before proving everyone wrong as a running back in the NFL for over a decade. He's the guy who would become an assistant coach at the game's highest level for another decade. From his first days on Southern's campus he's been friendly and approachable. I immediately got his cell phone number and he's answered or returned every single call. He graciously drives to WAFB-TV for any interview request. I asked him to play in my "Celebrity Softball Game" in July to raise money for Wounded Warriors of Louisiana. He happily accepted the invite. As I quickly learned, the guy can swing a mean bat. Leading up to his first season, he was active at many other events in the community, shaking hands with fans of the Jaguar Nation while making a tour through Louisiana and Texas. From what I observed during his spring and fall workouts, I believed a strong foundation of discipline and fundamentals was being laid. Players were up at 5 am, pushed to be more than the 6-5 team they were the season before. Even after losing star quarterback Bryant Lee and his top target and record setter Juamorris Stewart I believed it could be possible.
Well, it's been an absolute nightmare.
Here we sit in early November and the Southern Jaguars are 2-7 overall, a woeful 1-6 in the SWAC. AW Mumford Stadium was a measly one third full (If you believe the listed attendance of 8,329. Some say it was more like 5,000) for Texas Southern's brutal 54-7 pounding of Mitchell's first year club. The Tigers out gained the Jaguars by an astounding count 499-134, out rushing them 246-49, a true indication they got absolutely whipped at the line of scrimmage.
You probably know Mitchell proclaimed Southern would go 12-0 this season. He actually did so more than once. We seemed to hear it on a daily basis during August. There's nothing wrong with a new coach being confident and trying to get his young men to believe in themselves. There's nothing wrong with trying to inspire your fan base for the big debut, and to be honest, the Jaguar Nation had grown a bit stale. However, it's a prediction that Stump probably shouldn't have made.
When asked if he would like to pull a Marty McFly, and hop in the time machine to change anything he did or said in the past … Mitchell quickly stated he couldn't change the rules football is played by, placing much of the blame for this season's failures on his team's penalties.
Yes, the Jaguars have been endlessly penalized this season, averaging 120 yards per game in flags by Mitchell's latest account. But when you get skull drug by 47 points at home … it ain't just because of the penalties. There are much bigger and more glaring problems here.
"It's not our opponents who have defeated us," Mitchell said at his most recent press conference, "We've defeated ourselves."
Defensive coordinator O'Neil Gilbert was at the same podium shortly after, saying Southern simply does not have the talent to play the football this coaching staff desires at this point.
"We have to go out and get players at every position," Gilbert said of Southern's impending 2011 recruiting class, "We're lacking in athletes. We plan on recruiting this state hard and we believe we've already pinpointed some players that will help us."
Mitchell will certainly take them, but his statements were a bit different.
"These players are talented enough to win," he said, "Some people say I inherited Pete's team and this is not my team. These are my players. And I love them all."
Pete, of course, is Pete Richardson, the legendary coach who was fired by Athletic Director Greg Lafleur, shortly after the completion of last season. Indeed, Richardson hadn't won a SWAC Championship since 2003 or appeared in the conference title game since 2004. Things had grown a bit stagnant. But it's hard to imagine a Pete Richardson team at Southern University sitting at 2-7 overall, 1-6 in the SWAC … under any circumstance.
I like Lafleur too, but make no mistake … his future with the Jaguar program is married to Stump Mitchell's hire. The AD and the powers that be at Southern turned their collective back on Heisma Northern, a former Jaguar standout and alum that would've belly-flopped his way down I-10 from Prairie View A&M to take their jobs. The outstanding defensive coordinator with PVU Panthers has been named their "Coach in Waiting", after helping transform the laughing stock of college football into a sudden SWAC force. The Baton Rouge native and Glen Oaks graduate helped lead PVU to their first SWAC title in 45 years last season, while his D was one of the best in the country. His deep SWAC roots (he also coached 7 years at Grambling as an assistant) seemed to make the most sense for a possible hire. Southern shook their head "no" on Heisma, and yes Doug Williams also. They instead hired a coach with an 8-24 career collegiate record.
Stump Mitchell has defended that record, saying Morgan State was a program in horrific shape when he arrived and coached there from 1996-1998. Mitchell says he even had to cut the grass of the fields with a push lawnmower. He says he improved that program tremendously from its deplorable, previous condition. Perhaps judging that 8-24 mark is a bit unfair. Or is it?
So here we are. There is no Delorean, no Doc, no time machine. What's done is done.
Stump Mitchell deserves time. He deserves the opportunity to stock his football team with the kind of recruiting class and talent that will make the Jaguars winners again. He deserves the opportunity to mold his program and give it his own identity. But if the Jags are sitting at 2-7 a year from now, or God forbid, worse … things are going to get ugly.
Mitchell has said he indeed has a long term plan and that he is in it "for the long haul". So if an NFL running backs job comes a calling with a $450,000 annual salary … will Stump decline? That's what Mitchell says.
The final two games of Mitchell's debut season provide tough obstacles. The Jags host SWAC East leader Alabama State (6-3 overall, 5-3 in the SWAC) this Saturday before a bye week and "The Bayou Classic" against the best of the SWAC West Grambling (8-1 overall, 7-0 in the SWAC). I'm certainly not hoping for it … but we could easily be staring at a 2-9 finish and a 1-8 mark in conference play.
Well, at least Southern has men's basketball to look forward to.
Or maybe not. That's a totally different column, for a different day.
My commentary, as usual, does not reflect the opinion of WAFB. They are my thoughts. What are yours? I welcome your comments ... just submit them below.