Tony Hughes and his JSU players during traditional post-game alma mater after victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

 

When 57-year-old Tony Hughes took the football head coaching job at Jackson State 11 months ago, he also took more than a $100,000 cut in pay.

That’s how badly Hughes wanted to be a head coach after 31 years as an assistant. At Mississippi State, he made more than $400,000. At JSU, he makes less than $300,000.

“I wanted to be a head coach,” Hughes said. “At 56, I didn’t know how many more chances I would get.”

Monday, Hughes remembered a conversation with his former boss, Dan Mullen, minutes after he took the JSU job.

“Come sit in my office for 10 minutes and you’ll change your mind,” Mullen told Hughes.

Rick Cleveland

Nearly a year later, Hughes hasn’t changed his mind, but he knows a lot more about where Mullen was coming from. When you are the head coach, every significant problem ends up on your desk.

Hughes’ JSU Tigers limp into Saturday’s season finale at Alcorn State with a 3-7 record and having suffered three of their last four losses by a touchdown or less. Hughes likens it to the first season he spent with Mullen at Mississippi State.

Tony Hughes encourages Tigers from sidelines.

It was 2009, Mullen’s first season at State and largely one of frustration. The Bulldogs lost several close games and were 4-7 heading into their final game with Ole Miss, an eight-win team headed to the Cotton Bowl.

“The record didn’t show it, but we were improving and coming together as a team,” Hughes said. “Dan kept saying, ‘Stick with the plan,’ and that’s what we did.”

And State whipped nationally ranked Ole Miss 41-27 in that Egg Bowl, which Hughes believes reinforced the behind-the-scenes progress and helped vault State to six straight bowl seasons.

Hughes strongly believes his Tigers are making similar behind-the-scenes progress this year in terms of competing, effort, discipline, work ethic and coming together as a team. He talked of a Sunday night practice following last Saturday’s excruciating loss to Alabama A&M. Hughes said he planned a brief workout.

“But our players, especially the seniors, didn’t want to stop practicing,” Hughes said. “They kept saying, ‘Come on coach, let’s keep going,’ This is the day after they gave everything they had and came up short. Our guys keep fighting, keep working. That’s all you can ask for.”

Hughes is the fourth head coach in four seasons at JSU. You inherit special problems when you take over a team that has had three coaches in three seasons. That’s just a fact. Such turnover leads to morale problems, lack of discipline, lack of commitment, direction and focus, and that’s not to mention recruiting gaps.

Hughes believes the Tigers are making progress in all those areas, and he also knows that fixing that last part – recruiting gaps – ultimately will determine whether he succeeds at Jackson State as Mullen has at MSU. Recruiting gaps? Hughes says he has seven players in the class that will be juniors next season. Expect him to supplement that class with junior college players.

And Hughes is nothing if not a recruiter. His success in that area has been well-documented in stints at Ole Miss, State and at his alma mater, Southern Miss.

“There are enough football players in Mississippi that we can recruit the players you need to win at Jackson State,” Hughes said. “I firmly believe that.”

Hughes is still adjusting, he says, to the role of head coach, especially in terms of relationships with his players.

Tony Hughes pleads his case with official.

“When you are a position coach, your players stop by all the time and want to watch film with you or just kick back and talk,” Hughes said. “When you are a head coach and a player comes to office, you know one thing: He’s got a problem he wants to talk to you about. It’s like the player comes in and you immediately ask, ‘What’s wrong?’ That’s been an adjustment for me.”

A victory over Alcorn would not solve all of JSU’s problems, but it surely would help. Primarily, it would accentuate the progress Hughes believes his first team has made.

Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.


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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.