Keys: Now the work begins for Southern football

Advocate staff photo by Heather McClelland -- Southern University Chancellor James Llorens, center top, holds the trophy with the football team after the team defeated Grambling State in the Bayou Classic in November. Southern won, 38-33.
Advocate staff photo by Heather McClelland -- Southern University Chancellor James Llorens, center top, holds the trophy with the football team after the team defeated Grambling State in the Bayou Classic in November. Southern won, 38-33.

By PERRYN KEYS

Assistant sports editor

You want tough?

Consider the journey of Southern running back Jerry Joseph.

Saturday afternoon in the Bayou Classic, with the Jaguars down 14 points in the first quarter to archrival Grambling, the fifth-year senior checked into Southern’s huddle and heard the play-call he’d been waiting for: 95 Right, Halfback Throwback.

In the lead-up to the Jaguars’ thrilling 38-33 victory, one that capped quite a tumultuous season — doesn’t an early-season dismissal, a winning streak, a losing streak and a soon-to-be-under-way coaching search add up to a tumultuous season? — the SU staff had installed the play especially for Joseph, a guy who wanted to play football so badly, he had doctors completely remove a torn meniscus from one of his knees.

All week, offensive coordinator Chad Germany told Joseph to expect the call.

“I said to him, ‘Coach, if you call it in the game, I’m going to score,’ ” Joseph said.

And score he did.

Joseph found himself wide open on the back side of the play. He made the catch, then made a defender miss at the goal line for a 13-yard touchdown — the first and only score of his five-year career.

Joseph looked around the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Lots of empty seats, sure. But a crowd of 45,980 nonetheless, let alone a national audience on NBC. What a moment this was for him.

Southern poured it on for the next two quarters, then held on for the win.

“Getting that ball and scoring that touchdown in the Bayou Classic, it was the best feeling,” said Joseph. “We didn’t have the best year, but you know that for us, this is like our Super Bowl. It was great.”

Joseph’s touchdown was the ultimate comeback moment for a player who’d been through quite a lot since he came to SU from Ville Platte in 2008.

That first year, he had nine carries for 18 yards. Then was declared academically ineligible. Two years later, he came back, joining Stump Mitchell’s program in 2011.

That season, Joseph had a whopping nine carries for 25 yards.

He came back again for a fifth and final year.

That’s when he suffered a torn meniscus early in preseason camp.

For Joseph, that should’ve been the end. He didn’t have another year. He couldn’t apply for a medical redshirt. He was out of time and out of chances.

But instead of undergoing season-ending surgery to repair the damaged tissue in his left knee — an operation that would have ended his career — Joseph opted for another operation.

He had doctors take the meniscus completely out.

You want tough? There you go.

If Southern’s football team had an entire roster of players whose talent matched Joseph’s toughness, perhaps the Jaguars wouldn’t have finished 4-7 for the second year in a row.

Perhaps they would’ve saved Mitchell’s job.

Instead, SU reassigned Mitchell after a Sept. 13 loss to Mississippi Valley State, bringing an end to a tenure that lasted only 24 games.

Yes, it’s been a tough year on the Bluff. It’s been a tough few years.

And now that this season is over, it’s about to get even tougher.

Another coaching search now begins at Southern. This one will be conducted by Athletic Director William Broussard, who’s been on the job for less than 10 months.

Dawson Odums, the interim coach who led the team to a 4-5 finish in nine games, will get a look and an interview.

Odums helped his case by beating rivals Jackson State, Florida A&M and Grambling in the same year, but he could’ve helped himself with a better overall record.

As for Broussard, if he’s got a short list or a lead candidate, he’s not telling.

For the past two-plus months, Broussard has been nothing but politically correct, saying only that the search will begin once the season ends.

You’ve got to believe, however, that Broussard has worn out his computer mouse for weeks, feverishly scanning the Internet for compelling candidates.

Southern tried the professional route last time, replacing the legendary Pete Richardson with a man who spent 11 years as an NFL assistant.

At the time, the Stump Mitchell experiment looked like it should work.

It didn’t.

The other top candidates from 2010, Heishma Northern and Darrell Asberry, are now head coaches at rival schools within the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

And though their tenures are far from over, they’ve both gotten off to grim starts (Northern is 8-14 in two seasons at Prairie View; Asberry went 2-9 in the first year of a massive overhaul at Texas Southern).

It all begs the question: Where does Broussard go from here?

Does he try to grab a sitting head coach from another Division I program?

Does he find a hidden gem in the Division II ranks?

Does he dare gamble on a coordinator with little to no experience in the No. 1 chair?

And how much can Southern reasonably pay?

They’re all tough questions, but Broussard is a sharp guy. He has probably asked himself these questions many times already.

Starting now, he has to find the right answer.

The season is over. The coaching search begins in full, and now it’s up to Broussard to get it right.

He can’t afford to get it wrong.

At Southern, it’s been too tough for too long.