Jackson State and Southern Miss will play one another in football for only the third time ever Saturday in Hattiesburg. While there is no Las Vegas betting line, USM surely would be a heavy favorite.
Those of us who were there will not forget the first time the two teams met nearly 31 years ago on Halloween, Oct. 31, 1987.
Brett Favre, just turned 18 was the USM quarterback. W.C. Gorden, the most successful coach in Jackson State football history, was in his prime. Jim Carmody, Big Nasty to USM fans, was in what was to be his final season in Hattiesburg. Ronald Reagan was president. Bill Allain was the Mississippi governor, although three days later citizens would go to the polls to elect Ray Mabus. Michael Jackson’s “Bad” was No. 1 on the music charts.
And college football’s landscape was so much different in Mississippi. JSU was a Southwestern Conference powerhouse, eager to test itself against one of the state’s Big Three. USM was the dominant team in the state back then, having won nine of its last 11 games against State and four of its last five with Ole Miss.
Ole Miss had dropped USM from its schedule after the 1984 game. State would discontinue the series with USM three years later.
Some of us in the Mississippi media had been calling for USM to play Jackson State for years. It just made sense. It made dollars, too. After all, USM usually played one game a year against a smaller Division I school, usually with about half of the seats at The Rock empty.
Play Jackson State, we said. Fill the stadium. Make some money. Keep it in the state.
Finally, they did. Economics demanded it. And Carmody, to his everlasting credit, wasn’t scared of it. Many coaches would have been. Jackson State, as we shall see, was more than a handful.
So many memories of that day:
• Of pre-game traffic backed up on Highway 49 from Hattiesburg to Jackson. Normally a 90-minute trip, it took three hours. If you had had a dollar for every blue and white pom pom you encountered on the ride down, you could have paid for your gas hundreds of times over.
• Of a packed stadium, mostly blue and white on the East side and black and gold on the West. The announced crowd was 33,687 in then a 33,500-seat arena.
• Of a beautiful, crisp fall afternoon, gloriously sunny. Of a pre-game coin flip when one of the Jackson State linemen, all 6 feet, 9 inches and 330 pounds of him, cast a shade on his USM counterparts.
• Of a scoreless first half with both defenses dominating. Favre was swarmed everywhere he went. The JSU defense, led by the great Darion Conner and guided by defensive coordinator James “Big Daddy” Carson, was magnificent. Conner must have made 20 tackles. Carson must have chewed up 20 cigars.
• Of a halftime show of two divergent band styles. The winner? Jackson State’s Sonic Boom had USM fans dancing in the aisles.
• Of a marvelous Jackson State running back, Lewis Tillman of Hazlehurst, who out-gained the entire USM team and would later play seven seasons in the NFL. USM had Favre, but that day Tillman was by far the game’s most effective offensive player.
• Of a speedy USM kick returner named James Henry, from Poplarville, who finally broke the scoreless tie with a 72-yard punt return in the third quarter. To tell the truth, JSU dominated the game both offensively and defensively but USM won it with vastly superior special teams.
• Of Shelton Gandy, USM’s dependable running back, scoring to make it 14-0 in the fourth quarter on a short touchdown run. USM added a field goal to make it 17-0 before Tillman finally scored late to make the final count 17-7, USM – a most deceiving score.
• Of Carmody and Gorden embracing at mid-field afterward. They knew they had been part of something new, something special.
“One thing ought to be clear,” Carmody told the media. “Jackson State is as good or perhaps better than a lot of Division I teams we play. They made few mistakes. They are sound fundamentally. They are well-motivated and well-coached. And when they tackle you, you stay tackled.”
Said Gorden, simply, “I think we showed we belonged.”
They did indeed.