Signing-day switcheroo may have reshaped State’s fate

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Ed Kolenovsky, AP

Hugh Green, defensive end for the University of Pittsburgh, left, and his coach Jackie Sherrill hold the Lombardi Award, which Green won as the outstanding college lineman, Dec. 13, 1980.

The NCAA’s recent news of a new national signing period for Division I football brought back some old memories for this writer – and for some older ex-football players and coaches, as well.

The NCAA announced last week it will add a new three-day, December signing period to the traditional signing period that begins on the first Wednesday in February. My take: The new signing period will steal most of the thunder from the traditional national signing day that has become almost like a national holiday. Most athletes won’t wait until February. Schools are limited to a maximum of 25 recruits. Those 25 scholarships are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. I just don’t believe most players will wait until February. We will see.

At any rate, the new rule brings back memories of times when the Southeastern Conference, the old Southwest Conference and most major Southern independents observed a December signing date when prospective players could sign a letter of intent, a couple of months before making it official by signing the national letter of intent in February.

The overwhelming majority followed through on honoring that December letter of intent. A few notable exceptions did not.

Let’s take a trip back in time to the football season of 1976. The high school seniors who played that autumn might have been the greatest single recruiting class in this state’s history. It would surely rank in the top three or four senior classes of all-time.

“There were so many future superstars in that class,” said Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Tyrone Keys, who certainly was one.

Keys of Jackson Callaway, Glen Collins of Jim Hill, Johnie Cooks of Leland would become the guts of a Mississippi State defense that is still hailed as one of the best in this state’s history. That Mississippi State recruiting class also included Alan Massey, a four-year starter in the offensive line, and the splendid wide receiver Mardye McDole.

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

Many may have forgotten that the December Mississippi State signees also included Hugh Green of North Natchez, Lynn Thomas of Pascagoula and, probably most celebrated at the time, Ray Charles “Rooster” Jones, also of Pascagoula.

Two months later, in February 1977, Green, Jones and Thomas all signed the national letter with Pittsburgh, where they were recruited by none other than future Mississippi State head coach Jackie Sherrill.

“Everybody in the country wanted to sign Rooster Jones,” Sherrill said Wednesday morning in a telephone interview. “He was no secret, just a really great running back. Lynn Thomas was obviously going to be a great college cornerback.”

Hugh Green? The guy who would finish second in Heisman Trophy voting and win the Lombardi Trophy as the nation’s best lineman?

“We were watching film of Rooster Jones and Pascagoula, and I believe they played North Natchez twice that season,” Sherrill said. “We were watching Rooster, mainly, but kept noticing this North Natchez kid who played offensive guard and linebacker and was just all over the field making plays. We decided to recruit him, too, and we recruited him hard.”

Pitt got him, snatching him from State, and Green would become one of the most celebrated lineman in college football history.

“Hugh didn’t weigh but maybe 205 or 210 pounds in high school, and I don’t think he ever weighed more than 225 at Pitt,” Sherrill said. “Hugh was so quick and so strong. He was just a playmaker. He just blossomed in college. Some guys are as good as they are ever going to be in high school. Others, you have to project what they could become. Hugh was one of those. He just blossomed.”

Meanwhile, Rooster Jones, who rushed for 28 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 yards leading Pascagoula to a 12-0 record in 1976, never became nearly so effective at Pitt. Injuries were part of it, plus, said Sherrill, “Ray was a natural I-back and we went to a split backfield. He did have some great games for us when we ran the I.”

Tyrone Keys, who was an early enrollee at State long before early enrollees became commonplace, remembers hosting Green on his official visit to State.

“Hugh did push-ups before he went to bed, and then he did them again when he got up the next morning,” Keys said. “I remember that all he drank was milk, which would surprise a lot of people who knew him later on in the NFL. He was determined to be a great player.

Keys continued, “Later on when we all were in the NFL we talked about what our defense at State would have been like if Hugh and Lynn had gone to State, along with me and Glen (Collins) and Johnie (Cooks). I mean, can you imagine?”

Here’s something I never knew until Wednesday: Sherrill also tried to talk Keys into changing his mind and going to Pitt, as well.

“Pitt had just won a national championship,” Keys said. “They had Tony Dorsett, and Dan Marino and all those guys. Jackie was a smooth operator. He made it sound really, really good. But he didn’t know I was already in school at State. I wasn’t about to leave.”

And, yes, Keys said, he wishes Green, Jones and Thomas had stuck with Mississippi State, as well.

Said Keys, “No telling how many games we would have won.”

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Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today’s sports columnist, this year was named Mississippi Sportswriter of the Year — an honor he achieved for the 10th time — by the National Sports Media Foundation. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at [email protected]

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