East: From also-rans to champions in just one year

Amid the chaotic celebration on the turf inside Reliant Stadium late Saturday afternoon, a loud voice boomed.

“Come on, men,” Southern football coach Dawson Odums bellowed to his smiling, laughing and dancing players. “Come on. Get your helmets.”

Even as the Jaguars were celebrating their Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship, Odums was orchestrating his team — his program.

The allotted time for Southern to celebrate its heart-pounding, 34-27 double-overtime, marathon victory against Jackson State had expired.

It was time for the players to grab their stuff, get back to the locker room and reflect on the university’s first conference championship in 10 years.

It was mission accomplished for Odums’ team, but Odums’ mission continues.

It began 15 months ago when he took over a team in disarray after Stump Mitchell was fired in the wake of an ugly 0-2 start.

Odums and the team salvaged some respectability by winning four of the last nine games, convincing Athletic Director William Broussard to hire Odums full time nearly one year ago.

Another 0-2 start ensued this year, but then the wins started coming and formed this unanticipated championship run. Two victories were followed by a last-minute loss to the team the Jaguars would meet again Saturday.

Two more wins were followed by an overtime loss to Alcorn State — one of four overtime games Southern would play. That was the only overtime game that ended in defeat and the last game this season that would end in a loss.

The Jaguars won their last four regular-season games, earning a trip to the conference title game for the first time in nine years.

This was all new to these players — a winning season, a division title, a chance to play for a conference championship.

On Saturday morning, Odums showed his players a video that was a compilation of all the work they had done from the start of spring practice through last week’s Bayou Classic victory against Grambling.

Its purpose?

Jackson State had played in the SWAC title game a year ago and was undefeated in the league this season before losing its last game against Alcorn State in a contest that had no bearing on the standings. Odums knew his team was generally considered an underdog and he didn’t mind playing that up to them.

“We showed them that video to remind them of how hard they had worked,” Odums said, “and that they had just as much right to be here even though we weren’t the favorite.”

Odums said he was “very disappointed” that only three of his players had been chosen to the SWAC’s all-conference team. He wondered how the team that won the league championship could have done so with just three players considered among the best among their peers.

But he has a plan to change that, too.

Odums said he would be on the road Monday recruiting, trying to secure commitments from high school seniors who can come to Southern and continue to build on the success of this season.

“I want to get back here next year,” Odums said, “so I can show people that we’re building a program at Southern.”

Odums talks a lot about building a program that competes at the highest level on a consistent basis, one that players form a lifelong attachment to, one that inspires them to give back to — and come back to.

Southern used to have a football program like that.

Last month, members of the Jaguars’ previous SWAC championship team were honored at the final home game. Players from that 2003 team spoke to this year’s team about their experience with the program in its heyday.

As Odums reflected on this year’s championship, he was flanked by two seniors who played their last game Saturday and left the program better than they found it, left it as champions.

Seated to Odums’ left was quarterback Dray Joseph, who has thrown more touchdown passes than any other Jaguars quarterback.

Seated to his right was linebacker Anthony Balancier, whom Odums disciplined earlier in the season when Balancier disrespected an opponent in comments to the media.

They were the offensive and defensive most valuable players of the game.

Both were team captains, examples of what this program can accomplish.

“Ten years from now, when we have our first reunion,” Odums said, “and we refer back to the past, I can call on my own.”

Odums said these players “will never forget this moment.”

It’s certain that Odums won’t forget this moment, either — the day his fledgling program produced a championship team.