Long before his knees and back surrendered to the demands of the NFL, long before he talked of leading Southern to an undefeated season, long before he took his first college class, Stump Mitchell was a dreamer.
Too short and too slow to be a blue-chip prospect in high school, Mitchell got a scholarship offer from only one college football program: The Citadel.
There, before his freshman season, Mitchell submitted a list of personal goals to his coach, Bobby Ross.
He wanted to make the dean’s list, win the Heisman Trophy, lead the nation in rushing and move on to the NFL.
Those goals were preposterous. This, after all, was The Citadel, not USC.
Ross called the young running back into his office. In so many words, he asked Mitchell: Shouldn’t you make these goals a little more realistic?
“Stump just looked at me,” Ross recalled. “He said, ‘The goals stay. I’m not changing ’em.’ ”
Mitchell didn’t win the Heisman, but he finished second in the nation in rushing in 1980, then spent nine years in the pros.
That early success fortified in Mitchell a strong personal belief: With big dreams and extremely hard work, he could achieve almost anything.
But as Southern football fans learned, all too painfully, big dreams and hard work didn’t make him a coaching success.
Southern reassigned Mitchell on Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours after a 6-0 loss to Mississippi Valley State that was entirely embarrassing and utterly indefensible.
It was a surefire sign that Mitchell’s program, at 6-18 overall, was headed nowhere fast in Year 3.
In fact, when the news spread Friday, it was met with joyful cheers from many SU alumni, who all but bragged about the move on Twitter and Facebook.
In reality, however, these are not happy times at SU.
Barring a miraculous turnaround, led by interim coach Dawson Odums and a re-energized team, this season is probably shot.
And with another coaching change comes another start from scratch.
Now, no one knows when the Jaguars might return to the top of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Could be two years. Could be four. Could be more.
Unlike the 1990s glory days, Southern can’t afford to gamble on recruits with borderline grades.
And the rise of rival programs like Prairie View and Texas Southern give young Houston-area athletes another reason to stay away from SU.
Long story short: The coaching job at Southern isn’t easy anymore, and not nearly as attractive.
On the other hand, SU couldn’t afford to wait any longer for The Big Turnaround.
Had the Jaguars given Mitchell so much as one more week, they risked alienating the few die-hard fans they have left.
The loss to Valley — a team with one win in its previous 24 games, a team that dropped its season opener to NAIA Concordia College — offered yet another chance to question Mitchell’s skills as an offensive play-caller.
Of course, questionable play-calling can be overcome with talent.
But apparently, Southern still doesn’t have enough. That, too, is thoroughly surprising.
Although Mitchell uncovered several hidden gems — among them, walk-on Lee Doss and junior college transfer Mike Berry, two talented receivers — he also made questionable judgments on scores of others.
Still, despite all the foibles and a 6-16 record after two years, fans had reason to believe Mitchell might be close to winning big. In 2011, the Jaguars lost four games by less than a touchdown, and this year, they were loaded with veterans who had valuable experience.
What’s more, Mitchell’s players were making strides in the classroom. Unlike other coaches who give little more than lip service to academics, Mitchell demanded success and got it, navigating the team through serious problems with the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate.
And even if Mitchell had gone 8-24 in the late 1990s at Morgan State, he had 11 years of experience as an NFL assistant coach, not to mention a staff with a decent pedigree.
The potential was still there.
Then came Thursday’s game — a new low, littered with turnovers, penalties and blown assignments. The final play — a 15-yard pass attempt from the 39-yard line, when Southern had to have a touchdown — may have sealed Mitchell’s fate.
Southern had no choice. It had to pull the plug.
That made many people happy. But Friday’s news was not cause for celebration — not for Mitchell, not for Southern, not for anyone.
It was, simply put, a sad ending for a good man who had good intentions, big dreams, an incredible work ethic and a terrible record.