M.C. Miller, here interviewed after Louisville's 2018 state championship victory. Credit: Rick Cleveland

HATTIESBURG – So much for everybody’s storyline on the Class 4A State Championship game, where gray-bearded, 69-year-old M.C. Miller was ending a 45-year high school coaching career. His Louisville Wildcats were facing the Poplarville Hornets here Saturday morning and afternoon.

Rick Cleveland

Would they send Miller out with a victory?

Well, Louisville, down 14-0 in the second quarter, fired back for a 25-20 victory over Poplarville on a sunny, sultry December day that seemed more like late spring than winter.

So that part of the story held up.

But then there was this from Miller’s post-game interview, his trademark toothpick dangling out of the right side of his mouth. Asked by this reporter if he was certain he was going to retire, he replied, “Nah, I’m not positive about that. Lot of people are offering me jobs. I’ve got to make a decision. I may not be through.”

If Miller does call it quits, he goes out a big winner. Saturday’s victory was the 282nd of his career, compared to only 109 defeats. It was his third state championship victory following state titles at Noxubee County (2008) and Louisville (2013).

“This one feels good, mighty good,” Miller said.

Well, not so much the Gatorade bath he received as the final seconds ticked down. Clearly, Miller wasn’t happy about that. For a moment, it looked as we might have a 69-year-old committing assault on the sidelines. Thankfully, he seemed to get over it quickly.

Surely, Miller was feeling some relief. This was an all-day struggle for his Wildcats, who finished 15-1 and with a 13-game winning streak. Poplarville’s Hornets, running from the old-fashioned, still-effective Wing-T formation, stung Louisville early and kept stinging until a lost fumble with two minutes, 33 seconds remaining removed their stinger. The Hornets, who finish 13-2, had won 13 straight before Saturday.

Pearl River County has to be the Wing-T capital of the football universe. Picayune still runs a version of it. Pearl River Central still runs it. And Jay Beech’s Poplarville team runs it, often to perfection.

Louisville running back Kevon Jackson, 21, scored two touchdowns Saturday. Credit: Keith Warren/MHSAA

The Wing-T? Young fans might not even know the term. It has a lot of the same concepts as the old, single wing offense, only the quarterback goes under center. There’s a lot of misdirection involved. Often, the defense finds itself trying to find the football. Often, the defense finds it too late. The Wing-T involves a lot of motion, a lot of fakes and almost no passing. Poplarville threw the ball only twice, completing none.

But the Hornets ran it 56 times for 278 yards – five yards per pop. “When something works, you keep doing it,” Beech said.

They moved the chains, kept the clock running and might well have won the game if not for injuries to two of their best offensive players. Quarterback Antonio Barnes and running back Chase Shears both missed much of the game with leg injuries and cramps.

Beech wouldn’t blame the loss on the injuries but did admit, “It put us in a bind losing two of our best players against a big, physical team like Louisville. We just couldn’t hold on. It was hot out there and we sort of just wore down.”

It will wear you down trying to tackle a quarterback like Louisville’s 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior Deonte Yarbrough, appropriately named the game’s MVP. Yarbrough ran 19 times for 160 yards. He completed 12 of 20 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns.

“This is a blessing,” Yarbrough said afterward. “We had to win it for Coach Miller. He’s a great coach. We wanted to send him out right.”

Whether they are sending Miller out for good, we don’t know. We do know that Randal Montgomery, who has been the head coach in waiting this season, will take over at Louisville next year. And we can guess that Miller will soon go in the Mississippi Association of Coaches Hall of Fame. He was nominated just this year. He’s a slam dunk. We just don’t know if he’ll coach again. We know that, coaching or not, he won’t run out of those toothpicks.

“I’ve always got a pocket full of them,” he said.

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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.