Jay Hopson, shown here arguing a call, wanted badly to hire ex-Baylor head coach Art Briles as his offensive coordinator.

Jay Hopson’s job is to win football games at Southern Miss. He’ll get fired if he doesn’t win enough. Never mind graduation rates and playing by the rules, the bottom line is the same as it always has been in college football. Just win, baby. Or else.

Rodney Bennett

Rodney Bennett, Southern Miss president, directs the university as a whole. His job responsibilities are described here: Responsible for implementing policies and effectively managing the institution; sustaining and enhancing the institution’s mission and overall operations, while fostering and building upon the existing traditions, distinctiveness and strengths of the university.

Hopson , the football coach, wanted to hire former Baylor head coach Art Briles as his offensive coordinator to help win games. Chances are, Briles would have. He is widely thought to be one of the brightest offensive minds in college football. Bennett, the president, presumably believed the hiring of Briles – who lost his job amid a sexual assault scandal involving multiple players at Baylor – would send a bad signal, negatively affecting Southern Miss as a whole. Indeed, just the act of interviewing Briles has brought USM widespread national attention, primarily negative.

Rick Cleveland

Bennett presumably weighed all the positives and negatives and then quashed the hiring. Given his responsibilities, I would have, too. (Full disclosure: I am a Southern Miss alum.)

Hopson, through Stadium Network’s Brett McMurphy, then issued the following statement:

“Although I respect the decision of Dr. Rodney Bennett, I disagree with it. I am so grateful for the grace and forgiveness God gives me which allows me to inherit his kingdom, which I do not deserve. I have interviewed Art Briles for an assistant position at Southern Miss and I believe he is a man who deserves a second chance. He is a man that seemed sincere and humble in his interview and personally he committed no crime. He may not have acted in the proper protocol, but that would be my JOB at Southern Miss! He was interviewing for an assistant position, even though I believe he will be a head coach at a major program in the near future. However, I believe he is a man who does love the Lord and deserves a second chance. He has been banned from employment in college football for three years and has been punished. I understand both sides have opinions, this is just mine.”

What happens next is anyone’s guess. The university, in a statement, said it will have no more comment on the matter.

Hopson, quite obviously, is frustrated. His three-year record at Southern Miss is 21-16 overall and 15-9 in Conference USA. That 62.5 percent winning percentage in the conference comes despite the fact USM pays its assistant coaches lower than any team in the league. Lately, Hopson has been losing assistant coaches not only to Power 5 conference schools but also to rival schools in CUSA. Coaches have left for higher salaries.

In Briles, Hopson had the opportunity to hire a proven coach at a cut-rate salary. Briles just needed a job to get back in the game. He already had secured a $15 million buyout from Baylor. He did not need the money; he wanted a job. He wanted back in it.

Bennett surely weighed all that. He probably also weighed this: If Briles had been hired to coach at USM and had been successful, his USM tenure would have been short, probably one season. Was all the negative reaction and publicity worth that? Presumably, Bennett decided, no, it wasn’t.

Knowing Hopson, I have no doubt he is sincere in what he says about second chances, about Briles and about his Christian faith. That still does not mean Bennett was wrong.

What shouldn’t be missed in all this: The goals of college athletics and college administrators have always been at odds.

College coaches are paid to win. College administrators are paid to educate. The two have little, if anything, in common.

What has happened at Southern Miss illustrates this perfectly. What happened at Baylor – including paying a fired coach $15 million – illustrates this also. What has happened before in well-publicized NCAA cases at Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss also illustrate it.

Again, what happens next at Southern Miss, if anything, is anyone’s guess. The ball, much to his chagrin, is in the president’s court.

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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.