Marino Casem, left, with Leslie Frazier at Frazier’s 2017 induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.

This was 17 years ago, the summer of 2003. My assignment was to cover the inductions of Alcorn State’s Marino Casem, the legendary coach, and Jackson State’s Willie Richardson, the splendid pass receiver, into the College Football Hall of Fame, then located at in downtown South Bend, Ind.

Of the countless trips made over the years to cover various athletic events, this one stands out. Number one, Casem and Richardson were by then long retired and had become dear friends of mine. Number two, here were two authentic Mississippi sports heroes who had spent most of their college football years in relative anonymity, finally getting their just due on the national stage. That weekend they shared the stage with the likes of Dan Marino, Reggie White, Kellen Winslow and Ronnie Lott.

Believe this: They belonged. Obviously, Richardson, an NFL star for the Baltimore Colts, would have caught touchdown passes at Southern Cal, Notre Dame, Alabama or Ole Miss had he been given the chance. Casem, hailed as The Godfather of the SWAC, would have won as a coach at any of those places and charmed the national media, just as people such as John McKay, Bear Bryant and Johnny Vaught did.

Rick Cleveland

Don’t just take it from me. Listen to Leslie Frazier, who played for Casem at Alcorn, won a Super Bowl ring with the Chicago Bears, has been an NFL head coach and is now the highly respected defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills.

“All that success Coach Casem had at Alcorn in the SWAC would have translated in the SEC, the Big 12, the ACC or anywhere else,” Frazier said. “The reason I say that is discipline is the foundation at every level of football, and he was a disciplinarian of the first order. He was also a great teacher, who was compassionate with his players. Those qualities resonate at every level. When the players know you care and you give them structure and you teach, they’ll play for you. That’s a fact.”

This is written today because of sad news of Casem’s death Saturday. The old coach and athletic director passed away at 85 at home in Baton Rouge. We lost Willie Richardson suddenly and far too early four years ago.

What also made that assignment 17 years ago so memorable was watching the two aging gentlemen soak in the long overdue acclaim. Here’s what Casem, who coached Alcorn to seven SWAC championships said: “After 42 years of involvement in college football, the greatest thing to ever happen to me is happening here today.”

Then-Gov. William Winter makes a presentation to football star Willie Richardson at his 1979 induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.

And this, from Richardson: “When I was at Jackson State, we had players who could have played anywhere and I mean anywhere. Maybe a lot of people back then didn’t know that, but we as players knew it. I feel like I represent a whole lot of players here.”

That weekend, Casem told me for the first time about how he almost did not become a football coach. He grew up in Memphis and graduated from college at Xavier in New Orleans, where he had studied to become a physical therapist. But while Casem waited for a job offer, his future wife lined up a football coaching job for him at Utica Junior College, where she then worked as an assistant to the president.

“The day I took the coaching job all the hospitals started calling,” Casem said. “So later on, every time Betty Jean would complain about the coaching business and all the long hours, I’d tell you, ‘Well if it hadn’t been for you I’d be running a hospital by now.’”

He probably would have, too, because Casem was a force of nature, possessor of a magnetic personality, high intellect and a work ethic that never stopped. Casem took over at Alcorn, a remote outpost, even for the SWAC. “One way in, one way out, unless you know the gravel roads,” Casem once told me.

“To me, Alcorn was the perfect place to be a football coach,” Casem said. “It was a great place to train an athlete because you didn’t have all the distractions you had other places. Our players focused on football. You had their attention.”

Casem said the key to winning at the Alcorn was no different than that at Southern Cal or Notre Dame.

“Hard work, discipline, integrity, fundamentals and more hard work,” Casem said. “We didn’t take any short cuts at Alcorn.”

Yes, he said, there had been times since he had retired from coaching that he wondered about what it might have been like to coach at one of college football’s national powerhouses and earn the kind of money those “big-time” coaches were making.

“But I never thought about it back then; I never envied what others had,” he said. “I was totally focused on winning where I was. That was plenty.”

Plenty, indeed. And leave it to The Godfather to put college football’s pull on our society in perspective with these immortal words:

“On the East Coast, football is a cultural experience. In the Midwest, it’s a form of cannibalism. On the West Coast, it’s a tourist attraction. And in the South, football is a religion, and Saturday is the holy day.”

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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.