West Point, shown here celebrating in 2019, is among several perennial Mississippi high school championship towns. (Photo courtesy of Keith Warren. Illustration by Bethany Atkinson.)

The Mississippi high school football state championships return to Veterans Memorial Stadium this weekend for the first time since 2013. For many, it will be like a family reunion.

That’s because for many of the participants, the state championship weekend has become an annual event. It is almost as if perennial powerhouses, such as Class 5A West Point, Class 4A Louisville, Class 3A Noxubee County, Class 2A’s Taylorsville and Calhoun City and Class 1A Lumberton, could make their travel plans a year in advance. In Class 6A, Oak Grove will play Oxford for the championship, just as they did last year.

In Mississippi football hotbeds such as West Point and Louisville and Taylorsville and Bassfield, winning is passed on from generation to generation. These boys will be playing for a championship, just as their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers did.

And that brings up the question: Why is this the case? Is there something in the water? Why do some communities and towns produce champions year after year, decade after decade, while other communities do so rarely, if ever?

In other words: What makes a football town?

I wanted to know. I asked around.

Mike Justice

“I’ll just tell you what I think,” said retired coach Mike Justice, who coached state champions at Calhoun City, Louisville and Madison Central. “The players develop a habit a winning, and they keep doing it, and eventually they win big. The younger kids, the kids in elementary school, grow up going to the games and looking up to those high school kids. This is especially true in the smaller towns. They see the adulation the players get. They want some of that themselves. It is self-perpetuating.

“In small towns in Mississippi, a high school football star on a winning team is as well-known as anybody in town,” Justice continued. “The little kids see that. That becomes a goal.”

Both Justice and M.C. Miller, who won championships at Noxubee County and Louisville, believe that winning becomes a habit and can be passed down from class to class, generation to generation. Miller, 73, played his high school football before integration at Camile Street High in Louisville.

M.C. Miller, here interviewed after Louisville’s 2018 state championship victory.

“We were winning big,” Miller said. “On the other side of town, Louisville, the white school, was winning big. And when they put them together, they kept on winning. Winning can be a habit.”

Indeed. Vince Lombardi once wrote a book: “Winning is a Habit.”

“Winning is not a sometimes thing,” Lombardi once said. “It’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while. You don’t do the right thing once in a while. You do them right all the time time. Winning is a habit.”

Justice put it another way: “You can write this same story 20 or 30 years from now and these same towns, towns like Louisville, Calhoun City and West Point will be part of it. It’s important to those people. You don’t worry about getting your players to practice hard in those places. They get after it. That’s all they know.”

Another factor, both Justice and Miller say, is those players, in those towns, expect to win – almost like a birthright.

Justice: “Here’s the deal when you play a bunch like Calhoun City. They know how to win. They ain’t gonna give it to you. You’re gonna have to whip them. You’re gonna have to whip their ass. And that ain’t gonna be an easy chore. Never has been.”

You look over the match-ups for the six championship games and you see so much football tradition – but you also see one interloper, one team that doesn’t really fit the mold. That would be Class 1A Biggersville, which will be playing for a state championship for the first time ever. Biggersville is far up in Hill Country, six miles from Corinth, a three-and-a-half hour drive from Jackson. Like most schools in that part of the state, basketball always has been the sport of choice. The school also has had some baseball and track and field success. There have been athletes there, but they just didn’t always play football.

But every tradition has to start somewhere and it surely appears veteran coach Stan Platt has started one in football at Biggersville. When he arrived in the summer of 2016, he had eight players – eight! He had to recruit the school’s hallways and the other Biggersville athletic teams. He found enough players to finish 4-7 that first season. But he also inherited an eighth grade team that finished 8-0, and he coached that team, too.

Biggersville coach Stan Platt

Those eighth graders are now seniors. They were 8-4 as freshmen, 12-2 as sophomores, 10-2 as juniors and now 13-0 as seniors.

“You know when we won four games that first season it was like we had conquered the world,” Platt said. “Now, these seniors are 43 and 8 over the past four seasons. And we’ve had some good classes behind them.”

The community has bought in. “We’ve had great support from the administration,” Platt said. “The baseball and basketball coaches have helped. Every Friday, a different church in the community brings us meals. We’ve got great support. And our fans travel. We’ll have a big following in Jackson.”

So will Lumberton. They’ve been doing this for years.

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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.