Jay Ladner, center, was introduced as the new head basketball coach at Southern Miss Thursday. Here, he is surrounded by the two men who hired him, athletic director Jeremy McClain, left, and president Rodney Bennett.

This would have been the early 1990s. Richard Williams was in the process of turning around Mississippi State’s basketball program en route to the Final Four and young Jay Ladner, in his early 20s, was trying to decide what to do with the rest of his life.

Ladner, a recent Southern Miss graduate in pre-med and biology, was selling pharmaceuticals, making good money but wanting to do something else. He was aching to coach basketball.

Rick Cleveland

J. Larry Ladner, Jay’s dad and a former high school coach himself, wasn’t all that fired up about the coaching idea. He knew the hours were long, the pressure to win was high and the pay proportionately low – unless you hit the big-time. Jay’s father called his friend, Richard Williams, to ask a favor. Simply put, he wanted Williams to try and talk young Jay out of this coaching idea. A meeting was set up. Williams and young Ladner talked.

“After about an hour of listening to Jay, I called his daddy back,” Williams said Thursday. “I told him, ‘Coach, I got news for you. That boy of yours is going to coach basketball. Nobody is going to talk him out of it. That’s just all there is to it.’”

Richard Williams

Said Williams, “Jay was all ate up with it. There was just no way he was not going to coach.”

And so coach, Jay Ladner has. He has won everywhere he has been. And, Thursday, he was introduced as the new head basketball coach at his alma mater, Southern Miss.

Ladner called it “a dream come true.” He said Southern Miss was “a destination job, not a stop” for him. He said his teams will “play fast but not wild.” He said he believes Southern Miss basketball can return to the same kind of glory it enjoyed when he was a reserve player on some of the late M.K. Turk’s greatest Golden Eagle teams.

Richard Williams, who now does color commentary for Mississippi State basketball and has followed Ladner’s career closely, believes Southern Miss has slammed home a dunk with Ladner.

“Jay’s an outstanding coach and a first-class person,” Williams said. “He’s a teacher first. He coaches his players the right way. What I mean is, he coaches them hard, but it’s not personal when he criticizes them. He’s trying to make them better players.

“I’ll tell you what I know about the situation,” Williams continued. “I know how badly Jay wanted that job. I know how good a coach he is, and I know Southern Miss could not have hired a coach who will be as passionate about that job as he will be. That’s his school and that’s his dream job. It’s the same way it was for me at Mississippi State. Nobody is going to outwork Jay in Hattiesburg, and he’s not looking to go anywhere else.”

After Williams resigned at State and moved to Bay Saint Louis in 1999, he ran into Ladner, who was coaching at St. Stanislaus College, actually a high school, in Bay Saint Louis. Ladner invited Williams to practice. Long story short: Williams became a volunteer assistant coach.

“I can’t tell you how many hours we spent together just talking basketball,” Williams said. “I hope I helped Jay, but I know it was good therapy for me.”

Ladner won a state championship at St. Stanislaus and produced big winners year after year. He then moved to Jones Junior College where he won a national championship, the first Mississippi team to do so. Jones became the lowest seed ever to win the national championship, beating five higher seeds in five consecutive days. At Southeastern Louisiana, his last job, he inherited a downtrodden program and advanced it from nine, to 12, to 16 and then 22 victories.

Jay Ladner was a substitute guard on Southern Miss’s NIT championship team in 1987.

“If you know basketball and you look at the places where Jay’s been, you know there were lots of times he didn’t have as much talent as the teams he was playing against,” Williams said. “But they were so well-coached they won a lot of games against teams that had better talent. I know, I saw it.”

Williams was one of three coaches Ladner cited as his biggest influences when Jones won the national title in 2014. Turk, to whom Ladner dedicated that championship, was another. And the third was his father, a member of the Mississippi Association of Coaches Hall of Fame.

J. Larry Ladner turned 82 on Thursday and called his son’s hiring at Southern Miss the best birthday present he has ever received. How about that? The son he once didn’t want to coach now has the coaching job he always wanted.

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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.