When P.W. Underwood took over as Southern Miss head football coach in 1969, he was the first head coach of the Big 3 schools in the state to integrate the football program. The first African-American football player he recruited was Willie Heidelberg, who in 1970 scored two touchdowns in a highly celebrated game that Southern Miss won 30-14 against Ole Miss, then ranked No. 4 in the nation.
“That singular event made people start to think we needed a bigger stadium in Hattiesburg, which started the drive for what eventually became M.M. Roberts Stadium, ‘The Rock,’ and also helped the other two schools in the state decide to integrate their football programs,” said John Cox, director of athletic broadcasting at Southern Miss and author of “Rock Solid: Southern Miss Football,” published last month by University Press of Mississippi. “That ballgame was maybe the biggest moment for Southern Miss football. (Ole Miss quarterback) Archie Manning was being touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate and that event put Southern Miss on the national map.”
Cox, who has been the voice of the Golden Eagles since 1982, and four-time Mississippi Sportscaster of the Year, said events like the 1970 Ole Miss game represented a theme that emerged throughout his research of the book.
“Individuals and events seemed to cross paths at just the right time in Southern Miss history that led to other big events,” he said. “For example, just before World War II, Southern Miss had an unbeaten season, finishing 9-0-1. The big question was, could they maintain that success after the war, which they did. Reed Green and Thad ‘Pie’ Vann were in the service together and ran across a lot of different players during the war. As a result of that, when they restarted the program in 1946, there was a great influx of players who came to Hattiesburg to play football at Southern Miss.
“Also, the president at the time, R.C. Cook, was smart enough to take some money that the university had made by housing military schools on campus and ploughed it into the football program, which enabled them to get back on their feet very quickly. How the school coped with that situation was one of my favorite stories.”
For several years, Cox, a 1978 graduate of Southern Miss, had considered writing a book about the school’s football program, which began in 1912.
“Ace Cleveland had been the longtime sports information director at Southern Miss and probably should’ve done the book,” said Cox. “When he retired in 1986, I thought that would’ve been one of his projects. He passed away in the mid-1990s and I got to thinking that somebody needed to chronicle those program-building years. Around 2000, I decided to do it. It took a year to add research to what I already had, about two years to write the thing, and another year to get it published.”
Southern Miss president Shelby Thames called Cox “a true talent.”
“It is amazing to me that he has so many facts, figures and moments of history of Southern Miss athletics in his memory,” said Thames. “ I have enjoyed reading my copy of the book and I know many other Golden Eagle fans who are happy to have the moments of Southern Miss sports history in the pages of this book.”
Selling well at Lemuria
Approximately 100 copies of “Rock Solid” have been sold at Lemuria Books in Jackson, especially during the October 25 booksigning, where end zone-leaping tailback Sammy Winder (1979-82) and quarterback Lee Roberts (1995-98) flanked Cox.
“I’ve been a Southern Miss fan all my life, and ‘Rock Solid’ is a very well done look at the football program,” said Bill
Kehoe, marketing director for Lemuria Books and a 1971 graduate of Southern Miss. “This book is a perfect addition to any Southern Miss fan’s library. It tells great stories about those we watched on Saturdays at the Rock, and later on Sundays in the NFL.”
“Rock Solid” also chronicles the unsuccessful attempts of the school in the 1950s to join the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), two probations in the early 1980s and less than memorable seasons.
“It shows how the school and the football program over the years have been able to add on when good things happen and recover and rebuild when bad things happen,” said Cox.
The book also delves into the achievements of legendary Southern Miss players, including record-breaking kicker Ray Guy, Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre and quarterback Reggie Collier.
“In the foreword, Brett writes that Southern Miss football has always been about a bunch of guys banding together and trying to accomplish something, more so than it’s ever been about superstars,” said Cox.
Because of the success of the Southern Miss football program — last year, the Golden Eagles were Conference USA champions — more fans are heading to The Rock.
“They’re fast becoming a team nobody wants to play,” said ESPN’s Gary Bender, before the Southern Miss/Houston game on October 7, which Southern Miss won 35-29 in overtime. The game marked the school’s 12th consecutive conference win and its 500th overall win.
“The three home games this year have had crowds of 30,000+,” said Cox. “It’s getting there, though it hasn’t happened as quickly as some people wanted it to. That Ole Miss game was only 30 years ago. The stadium has only been there since 1976. People are starting to get more involved and show more interest. Being in Conference USA has certainly helped that.”
Cox, who has worked at Southern Miss since 1978, described writing the book as a labor of love.
“Like Brett says in the foreword, when you put yourself in the middle of things, and you know the coaches, players and fans, it becomes a brotherhood,” he said. “I love the place, every minute of it. I knew I’d write about something more exciting than the day before. I hope I’m at USM for a long, long time.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.