UC Picture
Tailgating at the University of Southern Mississippi | Courtesy of University Communications at the University of Southern Mississippi

The smell of seasoned barbecue sizzling on the grill, fans and students enjoy the sounds from the Pride of Mississippi marching down the Eagle Walk. The sight of high-arching, bright lights and fresh white hash marks on the matrix turf of M.M. Roberts Stadium are just a few traditions that one will witness on a mild Saturday evening in the fall at the University of Southern Mississippi.

USM The Rock
Tailgating is a huge part of the game-day tradition at The University of Southern Mississippi. | Courtesy of University Communications at the University of Southern Mississippi

It is nothing like experiencing 36,000 electrifying fans and students at “The Rock” screaming, “Blackkkkk,” and the immediate pause before hearing “Golddddd.” Or hearing USM cheerleaders, in their uniforms filled with school spirit, yelling the “Nasty Bunch” or “OOOOOO…. G-O-L-D, GO-BIG-GOLD” cheers to hype up fans and students.

NCAA Football: Texas State at Southern Mississippi
Aug 31, 2013; Hattiesburg, MS, USA; A general view of M.M. Roberts Stadium at halftime of the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles football game against the Texas State Bobcats. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook

Tanner Watson, a 2014 graduate of USM, said Southern Miss does not just win football games.

“They embarrass their opponents with a blistering offensive attack and suffocating defense,” Watson said. “There’s never a question who the best team on the field is.”

Dating back to 1990, Southern Miss has recorded 23 winning seasons, 16 bowl game appearances and five Conference USA championship wins over the last 25 years. According to sports-reference.com, the 2011 USM football team recorded 12 wins, the most victories the program has seen in the last 53 years.

The Golden Eagles won the C-USA championship, defeating the Houston Cougars, a team that was ranked sixth in the nation before the championship game. Then they went on to defeat the Nevada Wolfpack in the Hawaii Bowl to cap a magical season.

For players like Darrion Goudy, who was a redshirted freshman in 2011, remembered how special it was to win a conference championship and a bowl game.

“That was one of the best experiences I have ever had. It meant so much to me because I saw how all of the hard work we put in really paid off in the long run,” Goudy said. “The leaders on that team really stepped up and taught us how to come together as one.”

The 2011 season was a special one. Alumni and students were excited. Larry Fedora, who served as the Golden Eagles head coach in 2011, kept players motivated and prepared them for each game.

Nicolet Hopper, who was a freshman cheerleader during the 2011 season, said the game day atmosphere at The Rock was one that was very contagious.

“The fan support was incredible during my first year. It was a blast, “Hopper said. “The fans were engaged which made my job as a cheerleader easy.”

Things seemed bright for the future of Southern Miss football.

But a dark future loomed.

Related article: Fedora leaves for the University of North Carolina

Fedora decided to take a job at the University of North Carolina following the 2011 campaign, leaving Southern Miss in the hands of Ellis Johnson, who became the Golden Eagles head coach. Johnson had previously served as the defensive coordinator at the University of South Carolina.

Riding high off of a 12-2 season, people were eager to see what was in store for the 2012 campaign. With many of the players from the previous season being gone due to graduation, fans, students and the city of Hattiesburg still expected USM to succeed.

Nothing, however, was the same. The team became a laughingstock. The energetic fan base and excitement that was centered around football season began to diminish. The Golden Eagles finished 0-12 that season and were the only FBS team to win a game.

Joshua Campbell, a December 2015 graduate of USM and former sports editor of The Student Printz newspaper, said it was a hard time for Southern Miss football and its fans.

“To go from conference champs and a 12-2 record to 0-12 was devastating for the program,” Campbell said.

Following the 2012 campaign, Johnson was fired as head coach. Southern Miss hired Todd Monken, who had served as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, to be the next head coach.

With a winless 2012 season behind them but a new head coach, there was a sense of optimism from fans and students going into the 2013 season. After losing the first six games of the season and getting embarrassed for homecoming against North Texas, 55-14, fans again began to lose faith. This time, however, the support for the team became a lot worse.

Benjamin Cornelius, a senior advertising student at USM, said the entire atmosphere on campus during football season was dead.

“There was a lack of passion and fanfare. It got to the point where losing was expected and no one cared,” Cornelius said. “Tailgates were pointless and Saturday pageantry dissolved faster than the teams win percentage.”

As the 2013 season came to a close, the Golden Eagles were staring yet another winless season square in the eyes. But the light bulb came on and the Golden Eagles looked dominant against the Blazers. Southern Miss finally ended its 23-game losing streak, defeating UAB, 62-27.

When the Golden Eagles earned their first win in two seasons, Hopper said she remembered vividly of what it was like for the team to win.

“You would have thought we had won the NCAA Football national championship game,” Hopper said. “We were ecstatic to have finally broken the slump.”

The UAB win served as motivation going into the 2014 season. What was next for the Golden Eagles? Another losing season? Would this be the year Southern Miss competed for a C-USA championship and returned to a bowl game? Those were the dreams of Golden Eagle players and fans.

Southern Miss improved, but still failed to live up to expectations, finishing 3-9 overall and 1-7 in conference play in 2014. The players and the fan base were accustomed to winning, but instead were becoming used to being a bottom feeder in C-USA.

Goudy, who was now a redshirted senior finishing his final season in a black-and-gold uniform, recalled how difficult it was to have three straight losing seasons, but remained positive through the experience.

“It was tough. It was hard to stay motivated at times,” Goudy said. “When we realized the reason we played the game, such as doing it for our fans and the love of the game, it made everything a lot easier.”

Going into the 2015 season and year three of the Monken era, the Golden Eagles lost their first game of the season to in-state rival Mississippi State, 34-16. Despite the loss, fan support for the Golden Eagles remained strong.

ESPN Recap: Southern Miss vs. Mississippi State (2015)

When USM won its first two games following the loss to Mississippi State, Hopper said she knew there was something “special” about this team.

“With every win, you could feel the Southern (Miss) spirit catching back on,” Hopper said. “The stands were (full), people around town were supporting black and gold.”

After Southern Miss defeated the University of Texas at San Antonio, 32-10, and earned its fourth win of the season, Johntre Goudy, the brother of Goudy, said it served a milestone for them and period of realization.

“When we all made it into the locker room and we sung that fight song… It was at that moment we realized that we not only were a good team, but a special group of individuals,”Goudy said.

The Golden Eagles never looked back, winning five straight games to earn a spot in the C-USA Championship game against Western Kentucky and a spot in the 2015 Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl against the Washington Huskies.

However, missed opportunities and turnovers hurt Southern Miss as the Golden Eagles lost to the Hilltoppers, 45-28. Washington’s ground game was too much for Southern Miss as the Huskies defeated the Golden Eagles, 44-31.

“Sometimes in life, things don’t always go as planned. Tough times don’t last, but tough people do,” J. Goudy said after losing this year’s bowl game. “It’s all about growing as a man and learning how to handle disappointments with the best in conduct.”

Julius Kizzee, a junior broadcast journalism student at USM, said despite the team losing in the conference championship and bowl games, Southern Miss had re-established itself as a dominant threat in C-USA. He said what he experienced during the season was truly surreal.

“The energy inside ‘The Rock’ was like anything I had seen in the years that I had experienced Southern Miss football. What Coach Monken was able to do was to resurrect a program that had hit rock bottom,” Kizzee said. “People did not just hear about USM football team, they were able to see and realize that we actually had a good team.”

Nearly 30 days after Southern Miss lost to Washington in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, Monken decided to take a job as the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leaving the Golden Eagles to once again hit the reset button.

Related article: Todd Monken leaving Southern Miss for Tampa Bay Bucs

Jay Hopson, the former Alcorn State football coach, was hired to be the new head coach for the Golden Eagles.

Related article: Hopson hired as USM football coach

Campbell said he is curious to see how the team will shape up going into the 2016 season.

“It will be interesting to see how the offense performs. Nick Mullens had a breakout season and became an elite quarterback, but will he be able to sustain it with a new offense being installed,” Campbell said. Will Ito Smith be as effective without Jalen Richard there to lessen the workload? These adjustments could cause USM to sputter some early in the season.”

For Campbell, other supporters of USM football and USM football players, it has been one crazy, unpredictable ride from the top, to the very bottom and back up again.

“It was a struggle to get to where we finished this past season,” J. Goudy said. “Only people on the team truly understand the unique grind it took to get there. We turned our program back around.”