HATTIESBURG – Coach Tony Vance’s Hattiesburg Tigers, the state’s No. 1 ranked high school football team, are riding high, undefeated through seven games. They score an average of 47 points per game and win by an average of 31.
They come at you in from all directions and at high speeds, these Tigers do. In the first half of their most recent game, a 60-7 victory over Pearl River Central, they averaged 27 yards per play.
But what you first should know about Vance’s Hattiesburg football program is that it has been a slow, careful building process from a firm foundation. This did not happen overnight. This was a process. It had to be.
And it began with more than a bang. Vance arrived on the job on Feb. 11, 2013. That was the day after a monstrous EF4 tornado blew through Hattiesburg with winds of more than 170 mph, causing more than $35 million of damage, including much to the Hattiesburg High campus.
“Some welcome, huh?” says the 43-year-old Vance who can smile about it now.
The storm took the roof off Buddy Watkins Gymnasium, which also provides the football team’s locker room, weight room and coaches offices. The Tigers went through Vance’s first season without all that.
And you need to understand, Vance was Hattiesburg’s fourth football coach in four years. The Tigers not only didn’t have a roof over their heads, they had no set system, no identity, before he came to town.
“That’s why we hired him,” says Cheyenne Trussell, the athletic director who hired Vance away from Charleston High in the Delta. “Tony didn’t try to sell us on a quick fix. He talked about the process and what it would take. He talked about discipline, both on the field and in the classroom. He talked about how he was raised and what he believed in. He had a testimony and he clearly was a great communicator. Our kids needed that. We had some great candidates, but Tony was our guy. He was genuine.We got that one right.”
Trussell has since moved to Starkville, and Vance is now Hattiesburg’s athletic director as well as football coach. Trussell laughs when he remembers a meeting with Vance after the 2013 season. Vance’s first Tigers lost their first four games, finished 4-8.
“Tony came in, pretty distraught, and said he understood if I wanted to let him go,” Trussell says. “I told him, ‘Hold on, remember what you said, this is a process.’”
It was. And the process has become a track record. The Tigers finished 5-7 in 2014, 8-4 in ’15, 10-3 in ’16, and 14-1 last season when they reached the State 5A championship game before losing to powerful West Point. They are 7-0 this season, including a 51-19 thrashing of 6A powerhouse Oak Grove, which is 6-1. Notice a trend?
“We’ve still got a ways to go,” Vance says. “We can play better defense. We have to play better defense. We can play better special teams. We can get better.”
Oak Grove’s Nevil Barr, now retired after a remarkable coaching career that included a 6A State Championship and 38-6 trouncing of Vance’s first Hattiesburg team in 2013, has watched the Hattiesburg program from a few miles away.
“Hattiesburg has always had talent,” Barr says. “They’ve had a lot of coaches through the years and some of them were danged good ones but they’ve always lacked in terms of continuity and stability.
“Tony has given them that. I’ve seen his teams grow more disciplined and tougher. He relates to those kids well. He connects with them. Man, they play hard. He’s tough on them, but they obviously enjoy playing for him. Like any good football team, they don’t beat themselves. They don’t make mistakes. That’s a tribute to Tony.”
So who is this guy, this great communicator, this coaching wizard, this Tony Vance – and where did he come from?
Glad you asked.
His story – a long story made short here – explains a lot.
He is the 12th of 13 children born to the late Dorothy Vance, whom Tony Vance calls “the smartest woman I’ve ever known.”
“My mama didn’t have any formal education after middle school, but she was a Head Start teacher and she raised 13 of us without any help,” Tony Vance says. “About all we had growing up was the love of our mom – and that was enough.”
The Vance family lived in a what Tony describes “as an old, three-room shack” in the Delta community of Tippo, 14 miles out from Charleston where Vance attended school, played football and later coached.
“You could see the stars through our roof,” Vance says. “When it rained, we got out the pots and pans to catch the water.”
Tony Vance said his father moved out of the house when he was a toddler and then died when he was 10. “The only thing I learned from my dad was how not to be,” he says.
And from his mother?
“I learned the value of education,” he answers. “She always stressed school as the way to better things. I learned about hard work. We lived off the land. I learned the value of discipline. I learned about being tough. My mama was a tough lady. She was a strong believer. If we weren’t in school, we were in church.”
Dorothy Vance had to be tough. She was raising 13 children, teaching Head Start kids, working the land – all this, while suffering from diabetes that eventually led to kidney failure.
“She started dialysis when I was eight,” Tony Vance says. “Three times a week every week.”
Meanwhile, Tony Vance played football at Charleston and then Coahoma Community College. He was about to play for Mississippi Valley when one day he was taking his mother to dialysis and noticed how hard it was for her to even get in and out of the car.
“It was no way to live,” he says, and he says he was determined to do something about it.
That something was a kidney transplant. Tony Vance and all his siblings were tested as prospective donors. Tony turned out to the best match.
It meant giving up football, which Tony Vance says is the easiest decision he ever made.
“My mama was the happiest, the most healthy she had been that I could ever remember,” he says.
She died seven months later.
“She caught a cold, and because of the anti-rejection drugs, her immune system wasn’t what it needed to be,” Vance says.
Slideshow by Mississippi Today photographer Eric J. Shelton:
Dorothy Vance missed Tony’s coaching career, his marriage, his four children. She didn’t see him win 60 games while losing only 10 at Charleston. She didn’t see him coach in two straight state championship games, including one he won.
And she couldn’t help him make the decision when Cheyenne Trussell called from Hattiesburg back in 2013 with a job offer.
“We had it going at Charleston,” Vance says. “It was not an easy decision.”
At Hattiesburg, he coaches many boys from single-parent homes, boys who need discipline, need a role model, need to understand the value of education, need to know that any goal is possible to attain if you work hard enough for it. Tony Vance can relate.
“We had to win off the field before we started winning on it,” he says. “We had to start winning in the classroom.”
The Tigers have. In 2016-17, they won the MHSAA’s scholar-athlete award for having a cumulative grade point average above 3.0.
This year, the stated goal is to win both – the academic award off the field and the state championship on it.
“I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, but we aren’t satisfied,” Vance says. “We’re going for it all.”
Surely, Dorothy Vance would be most proud.