University of Washington

UW opponent Southern Miss climbs back from the depths

Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre presided over one of Southern Mississippi’s best stretches of football when he played for the college in the 1980s. Souther Miss faces Washington in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Saturday.
Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre presided over one of Southern Mississippi’s best stretches of football when he played for the college in the 1980s. Souther Miss faces Washington in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Saturday. The Associated Press

Brett Favre attended the University of Southern Mississippi. So did singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett. So did Hall of Fame punter Ray Guy. So did New England Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins. And so did I.

I was there four decades ago: after Buffett and Guy, but before Favre and Collins. Over those years USM football teams had its highs and lows, of course — but far more highs. Far more than most Northwest sports fans might realize, it is a program very much used to winning. Although when the Golden Eagles got around to their lows, they didn’t fool around: an 0-12 record in 2012.

Now, just three seasons removed from one of the most epic tumbles in the history of college football, Southern Miss is back in a bowl game, meeting the Washington Huskies on Saturday in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

On the surface, it’s a pairing of obvious differences. A directional mid-major from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, against a power conference icon from Seattle.

But there are similarities, too. UW, after all, had an 0-12 season of its own back in 2008. But those shared humiliations make both teams’ return to bowl status — even Heart of Dallas Bowl status — a marker of resurrection.

Yet as the schools prepare to meet for the first time, it could be that what they share most is a history of football success. Certainly, UW’s successes have come on bigger, brighter stages: Rose Bowls and even a national championship, compared to USM’s Beef ‘O’ Brady bowls and Conference USA championships.

Still, Southern Miss alums are rightly proud of their football history. The school has a .582 all-time winning percentage, 37th among FBS programs. At least one Golden Eagle has been selected in 11 of the past 15 NFL drafts.

USM never quite reached the national-darling status of Boise State; never quite graduated to a power conference like TCU. But this was once a Southeastern commoner that SEC royalty scheduled at their own peril.

Among the giants these Eagles have felled: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Florida State, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, TCU, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Illinois and in-state rivals Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

The Golden Eagles have played in 22 bowl games and won 10. They went bowling in 14 of 15 seasons starting in 1997, including a run of 10 consecutive seasons from 2002-2011. Their 2011 Hawaii Bowl win over Nevada capped a 12-2 season — the most wins in the history of a program now in its 99th season.

For a school like Southern Miss, that kind of success — a top 20 finish in the Associated Press poll — is often followed by a coaching search. That’s what happened as Larry Fedora cashed his get-out-of-Hattiesburg card for a shiny new contract at North Carolina.

USM was used to this. Bobby Collins departed for SMU after lifting the Eagles to a school high-water-mark No. 9 national ranking during the 1981 season.

Curley Hallman went 23-11 from 1988-90 — with Favre as quarterback — and bolted for LSU.

But in each case, while the coach left, the winning remained.

That ended with a thud in 2012, when the innovative, offensive-minded Fedora was replaced by old-school, defensive-minded Ellis Johnson.

Poof. Just like that 12-2 morphed into 0-12. It remains the only time in NCAA history that a team nosedived from 12 win to 12 losses over back-to-back seasons.

Southern Miss greeted its 0-fer the same way Washington did: by changing coaches. USM reached again to Oklahoma State — from where it had plucked Fedora — and hired OSU offensive coordinator Todd Monken.

He restored the aggressively fast-paced spread offense that UW fans will see Saturday. But tactics changed faster than results.

The Monken era began with 11 consecutive defeats — extending Southern Miss’ losing streak to 23 games, which only seemed like eternity. But when the streak ended, it ended with an exclamation point: a 62-27 rout of Alabama Birmingham.

A 1-11 record doesn’t beat much, but it beats 0-12. And it reminded all concerned that if Southern Miss hasn’t yet produced a United States president or even a Supreme Court justice, it’s pretty good at producing guys who can write beach songs and guys who can play football.

In 2014, the Golden Eagles ticked up to 3-9. And that set the stage for the 9-4 breakthrough this season, with one bowl date remaining against relative giant Washington.