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Inside Game Day
Saturday, October 19, 2013

By Al Myatt

Southern Misstery

Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

GREENVILLE East Carolina avoided the pitfall of playing down to the level of its competition on Saturday with a pounding of Southern Miss that kept the Pirates on pace for their goal of the Conference USA championship.

The Pirates played well enough for their reserves to get meaningful game experience in the 55-14 rout, but one of the intriguing aspects of the matchup didn't involve ECU at all.

It was the mystery of Southern Miss, as in 'What the heck has happened to those guys?'

They used to be bad. That's bad in the sense of intimidating.

Now they're just bad as in not good.

Used to be they'd hit you, never would help anybody up and they were going to try to hit you harder the next play. They owned the line of scrimmage and they would keep knocking you off of it. That was when Jeff Bower was coaching.

They weren't too shabby when Larry Fedora got his system up and running either. Austin Davis was a good leader at quarterback and the Golden Eagles were a sparkling 12-2 his senior season in 2011.

Then Fedora went to Chapel Hill and the problems began in Hattiesburg.

Fedora's successor, defensive-oriented Ellis Johnson, came in and the drop off wasn't immediately apparent when ECU opened up its Conference USA schedule a year ago with a 24-14 win at The Rock. It was the first loss in a home opener in this millennium for the Golden Eagles but they had a solid athlete at quarterback, freshman Anthony Alford, and there appeared to be some of that yesteryear talent on defense.

But USM never got it together. They experienced the most precipitous fall in the Football Bowl Subdivision, going from 12-2 to 0-12.

There were some issues with Alford and he left USM.

Johnson was terminated by athletic director Jeff Hammond, a former USM quarterback and retired Army general who was something of a hero to much of the fan base.

Hammond hired offensive-minded Todd Monken from Oklahoma State, the same program that groomed Fedora before his arrival at USM.

Dr. Rodney Bennett became the new president of Southern Miss in February.

Hammond's contract expired at the end of June and was not renewed.

His replacement was Bill McGillis, former associate AD at South Florida.

McGillis was on the sideline Saturday and looked like a man trying to figure out his next move.

Here's some of the information McGillis was probably processing: The Golden Eagles are 0-6 under Monken and have lost 18 in a row. There was no perceptible improvement in performance after an open date that followed a 24-23 loss at home to previously-winless Florida International.

Does McGillis give Monken, a coach he didn't hire, enough time to get the job done with players he's recruited?

It's a similar situation to what Terry Holland faced when ECU was struggling in the John Thompson coaching era.

No wonder Monken, who had described the winless campaign last year as "a one-year speed bump," seemed distracted and un-engaging at the C-USA media day in July.

He had figured out his personnel situation in spring ball. He probably knows he's standing on quicksand as far as administrative support.

Holland pulled the plug on Thompson before the end of the 2004 season and hired Skip Holtz.

That led to Conference USA championships in 2008 and 2009. Then Holtz went to South Florida.

ECU's situation at that point parallels that which USM experienced with Fedora's departure.

The Pirates have been much more successful by comparison since Ruffin McNeill was hired.

The difference on the field Saturday can in part be attributed to a higher degree of administrative continuity and judgment at ECU.

Holland has moved to other responsibilities as AD Emeritus, but Jeff Compher obviously knows how to direct an athletic program. Dr. Steve Ballard, ECU's chancellor since 2004, played shortstop in a College World Series for Arizona. How cool is that as far as being able to relate to athletics?

Southern Miss is in a state of disarray. Monken has a four-year deal in the neighborhood of $750,000 annually.

Can the Golden Eagles afford a buyout? Can they afford not to?

There is no one on the present Southern Miss staff with a connection to the program's successful past.

McNeill, in contrast, has former Pirate players such as Kirk Doll and Marc Yellock on staff in addition to himself.

Here's a suggestion, Mr. McGillis: Look into the possibility of Tyrone Nix, defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee, if you haven't already. He was one of the greats at USM and his brother, Derrick, who is on the staff at Ole Miss, is as well.

The fan base is no doubt looking to reconnect with its winning past.

But wins for USM are becoming a fading memory.

E-mail Al Myatt.

PAGE UPDATED 10/20/13 12:50 AM.

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