Jason Brownlee was off to the races on this 76-yard touchdown catch and run during the first quarter of Southern Miss's victory over Louisiana Thursday night at Hattiesburg. (Photo courtesy of Joe Harper/BGNphoto.com

HATTIESBURG — The sport wasn’t baseball, but Southern Miss swept a doubleheader Thursday.

At 3 p.m., an overflow crowd gathered in USM’s Thad Cochran Center and cheered as if attending a football pep rally, as Joe Paul was introduced as the 11th president in history of the 112-year-old university. It was an almost surreal atmosphere. I mean, I’ve often heard similar cheering when a football coach or basketball coach was introduced, but never for a university president. As Thomas Duff, who led the Institutions of Higher Learning search, commented, “These kinds of announcements are usually jeered, not cheered.” This one was cheered thunderously.

Rick Cleveland

Then, three or so hours later, Will Hall’s surprisingly proficient football team jumped out to a 20-2 first quarter lead and then held on for a 39-22 victory over the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, a team that has won 41 games and four Sun Belt West Division championships over the past four seasons. Don’t look now but the Golden Eagles are 3-1 and a half game behind Troy in the Sun Belt West standings. Hall’s Golden Eagles have now won five of their last six games and seven of 10 over the past two seasons.

As Hall put it afterward, “We’re not a finished product. We’re really young. We’ve got 71 players who are freshmen and sophomores. We gotta go to work again tomorrow. We got to pick up the shovel and dig some more. We’re not there yet, but, man, are we coming and doing it the right way.”

Hard to say which cheers were louder: Was it when wide receiver deluxe Jason Brownlee scored on a 76-yard pass from true freshman Zach Wilcke to give Southern Miss a 20-2 lead? Or was it a few moments later, during a TV timeout, when Paul was introduced to the football crowd as the university’s new president? Paul received a standing ovation – and the loudest cheers were from the student section. You just don’t see and hear that every day on a college campus.

Those students apparently have been paying attention. The plan for hiring a new president had called for a nationwide search that probably would last into next year. Dr. Paul, who will turn 69 on Halloween, changed that plan. During his three months as interim president, Paul worked with such energy and accomplished so much in terms of fund-raising, recruitment and campus-wide goodwill, it became clear to all that the right person already was in place. Paul, of course, has a much, much longer history at the school, having graduated from USM in 1975 and having served the school in varying capacities for nearly all his adult life. As Will Hall put it later Thursday night, “Joe Paul bleeds black and gold. He knows everybody, everybody knows him.”

Joe Paul speaks to an audience as he is named the 11th President of the University of Southern Mississippi during a formal announcement ceremony at the university’s Thad Cochran Center in Hattiesburg. (Photo by Eric Shelton) Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Hall is right. Indeed, this column should come with a disclaimer. I’ve known Paul for 50-plus years. We graduated in the same class. His motto is “leave it better than you found it,” and he always does. My opinion: Southern Miss hit a home run with this hire. 

And it is becoming increasingly apparent that athletic director Jeremy McClain knocked the ball out of the park on Dec. 2, 2020, when he hired Hall as football coach. Despite a remarkable string of injuries – particularly at the all-important position of quarterback – Hall’s team has made steady progress in not quite two years time. You could see it coming last November when Hall installed a “super back” offense with running backs playing quarterback and won the last two games in decisive fashion.

This season, despite losing their starting quarterback, two starting inside linebackers and several others to injuries, the Eagles clearly improve with each and every outing, Defensively, the Nasty Bunch has become nasty again. They swarm to the football. They hit. Hard. The special teams are excellent. Punter Mason Hunt isn’t Ray Guy, but some of his kicks will remind you of the greatest punter in the history of the sport. Offensively, the Eagles piece it together, depending mostly on Brownlee and running back Frank Gore Jr., who puts every ounce of his 5 feet, 8 inches and 195 pounds into every play. Thursday night, Gore ran for 87 yards and threw a beauty of a 52-yard touchdown pass to talented and speedy freshman Tiaquelin Mims, another mite-sized dynamo.

Late Thursday night, someone asked Hall if was time to start dreaming of a conference championship.

“Dude, man, I’m the biggest dreamer in America,” Hall said. “I’m a 5-foot-7 dude who played quarterback. I dream all day long. But right now we have to figure out a way to win each week. We’re growing and we’re getting better and I hope everybody sees it.”

Southern Miss students appear to see it – and more. In the student section Thursday night, some students held up big posters with photos of both Hall and Paul.

Said Hall, “I’m a big Joe Paul fan and I was before this president thing ever came about. Me and Joe are alike in a lot of ways. We’re not afraid to dream. We’re not afraid to create a big vision and then be the first to jump out in front of everybody and start digging.”

At Southern Miss, there was a lot of digging going on Thursday. The future appears bright.

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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.