When Ole Miss and Auburn face off Saturday night for an important SEC football game at Auburn, much of the ESPN hype will be about Oxford-born and former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze coaching against his former team.
That’s understandable. But if you take one step down the coaching rung at both schools, there will be another intriguing dynamic along both sidelines. Ron Roberts, the Auburn defensive coordinator, once coached at Delta State both as a defensive specialist and then as head coach. Ole Miss defensive coordinator Pete Golding first played and then coached under Roberts at Delta State, where they are a huge part of the Cleveland school’s rich football history. The two remain close friends who talk often. Both are very good at what they do and are highly respected in the coaching business.
Delta State, under present coach Todd Cooley, is off to a 7-0 start and plays West Florida in Cleveland Saturday in a 3 p.m. showdown of national Division II powerhouses. Even so, later that evening, many Delta eyes will be watching closely the goings-on at Jordan-Hare Stadium on the Auburn plains.
Delta State’s current success somewhat mirrors that of Roberts when he was the DSU head coach for five seasons (2007-11), and the Statesmen won 10 or more games in four of those five seasons. Delta reached the D-II national championship game in 2010 and the national semifinals in 2011. Roberts, a native of Visalia, California, also spent two years as defensive coordinator at Delta before becoming the head man.
Yes, and during his time as Delta’s defensive coordinator, he inherited an under-sized but hard-hitting safety named Pete Golding from Hammond, Louisiana.
“Pete was just a great player,” Roberts says of Golding. “He was all the things you look for in a safety. He was instinctive, knew where to be and where everybody else was supposed to be. He also returned kicks for us. He was a player who I knew would become a great coach if that’s what he chose to do.”
In fact, Roberts urged Golding, a business major, to go into coaching, and upon graduation, Golding became a graduate assistant to Roberts. Golding then took his first full-time coaching job at Tusculum (Tennessee) University. And this will tell you something about what Roberts thought of Golding: After Golding had spent three years at Tusculum, Roberts brought him back to Delta State where he became the defensive coordinator at the ripe old age of 25.
Southern Miss athletic director Jeremy McClain was the athletic director at Delta State at the time, and he will tell you quickly that Roberts and Golding made his job easier than it might have been. In fact, at the time, DSU was pretty much a factory for producing football coaches, especially on the defensive side of the ball. McClain likens the Delta State football coaches’ office at that time to a classroom with Roberts as the instructor. He taught his coaches to coach and then let them coach.
Another Delta defensive coach during that time was current Baylor head coach Dave Aranda. Still another was Karl Scott, the current Seattle Seahawks defensive passing game coordinator, who coached with Golding under Nick Saban at Alabama.
Says McClain, “It was fun to watch them work.”
Those Delta State teams ran a 3-3-5 defense, much the same as Ole Miss and Auburn run now. The 3-3-5 defense has provided perhaps the best answer to today’s spread-the-field, throw-it-all-over offenses that have revolutionized the game. The defense is known for disguising stunts and blitzes, which can come from all angles.
It doesn’t take a really long memory for Ole Miss fans to know of Roberts’ expertise in that regard. Just think back to Jan. 1, 2022, and the Sugar Bowl: No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 8 Ole Miss. The balks-hawking Baylor defense sacked Ole Miss quarterbacks 10 times, put Matt Corral on crutches and dealt the Rebels a 21-7 defeat.
Roberts was asked in a phone conversation earlier this week what he sees as the difference between that Ole Miss offense and the one he faces Saturday at Auburn.
“What jumps out at you is the running backs,” Roberts said. “They are at a different level. They have a lot of different gears. The quarterback is playing at a really high level. The first thing you have to do is prevent the big play. They make a lot of them.”
It’s funny. Despite his close relationship with Golding, Roberts knows little about the Ole Miss defense, except that, generally, it has improved over past seasons. And he knows that without watching.
“I know they’re sound, they’ll be in the right places,” Roberts said. “Pete’s always gonna do a great job.”