I have a confession to make. Well, not really so much a confession as a lament. You see, I have the misfortune of being a fan of both the Southern Miss Golden Eagles and the New York Mets. That’s the sports equivalent of continuously punching yourself in the nuts year-round. While these two athletic entities may seem worlds apart: professional franchise in America’s biggest metropolis vs. college program in the moderately-urbanized Deep South, they actually have a lot in common—painfully. Both are forever seen as "the other team" in town, figuratively for Southern Miss and literally for the Mets, historically living in the shadows of the two SEC schools in north Mississippi and the almighty Yankees, respectively. Both the Golden Eagles and the Mets have a history of almost manic behavior, treating fans to both the highest of highs and also the lowest of lows.
The Mets had the miracle of 1969 and a decent run into the early ‘70s only to fall to horrific depths in the early ‘80s. They rebounded in the mid-80s, building a contender that peaked with a dominating regular season and near-miraculous World Series title in 1986 and what appeared to all to be a budding dynasty. After an injury-plagued year in ’87 came absolute domination of the National League in 1988, but that was derailed in the playoffs by a heavy underdog led by Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson: a Dodger team the Mets had handled 10 out of 11 times in the regular season. From there, the Mets became the Dynasty That Never Was, suffering through the early '90s with a futility only matched by the franchise’s early days as an expansion team.
Southern Miss has similarly had its moments of greatness during the modern era of college football: a 30-14 beatdown of Archie Manning’s #4 Ole Miss in 1970, a run into the Top 10 in 1981, a stunning 38-29 handling of Alabama in 1982 to end Bear Bryant’s 57-game home winning streak, a season-opening upending of #6 Florida State Seminoles in 1989, and an "Alabama State Championship" in 1990 with victories at both Alabama and Auburn, to name a few. As with the Mets though, the "dynasty" never manages to come together as the team invariably stumbles at the hands of an underdog in devastating fashion. The 1970 team finished 5-6 while dropping games to the likes of West Texas A&M and even losing its own Homecoming. A 3-point loss to Louisville in Game 10 killed the then-8-0-1 1981 team’s shot at the Sugar Bowl. The week after scoring those 38 points in Tuscaloosa, the ’82 team only managed 6 vs. Louisiana Tech in a losing effort in its home finale. The 1989 team lost to an unranked Mississippi State the week after shaking the earth in Tallahassee. A head-scratching loss to North Carolina State in the 1990 All-American Bowl dropped that team out of the national rankings heading into the off-season. Perhaps the worst loss of them all, though, was in 2000, when a Southern Miss team that had only lost 2 league games in the first 4 seasons of the newfangled Conference USA stood on the very edge of the Top 10 and perhaps permanent national significance after two Top 20 finishes in the previous 3 years, a nail-biting 3-point loss to Tennessee, a 21-0 thumping of Alabama, a 28-6 win over Oklahoma State, and 4 conference wins to start the year. Poised for a breakthrough before a full house ready to burst, the Eagles were blitzkrieged at their own homecoming by Louisville to the tune of 49-28. Honestly, as SMQ has alluded to previously, the program never fully recovered from that day.
The similarities between the Mets and Southern Miss don’t stop there, though. Take a look at the last two men chosen to lead their respective charges: Willie Randolph and Jeff Bower. Bower, as anyone who finds themselves reading this should already know, was the home-town kid made good. A prolific quarterback at Southern Miss during the early-to-mid '70s who later married the homecoming queen and had a stint as an assistant coach thereafter, Bower was hired as the Sothern Miss head coach in 1990 (just prior to the aforementioned All-American Bowl). The Mets made a similar move prior to their 2005 season, hiring Willie Randolph as their manager. Randolph was a Brooklyn native and actually grew up a Mets fan prior to eventually finishing his playing career with them. Both men were cheered by fans and media hoping for a storybook ending. Both also had promising spikes of success, Randolph’s 2006 squad won the National League East for the franchise’s first half-pennant in 18 years, and Bower’s aforementioned late ‘90s teams were arguably the best stretch of football season-for-season in school history.
However, both coaches also had their hard times. While the Louisville loss was the most devastating, Bower’s teams upheld the unfortunate Southern Miss tradition of tripping up at the most inopportune times. A season finale loss to a rather pedestrian Houston in 1996 cost the Eagles—ranked at the time--the first out-right CUSA championship, with the Cougars taking the tie-breaker and Liberty Bowl bid. How big was the loss? The Liberty Bowl felt so gypped it changed the rules for picking the conference representative and eliminated the tie-breaker the next season, thus allowing the bowl to pick its preferred co-champion should the situation ever arise again. Eight years later, a ranked (yet otherwise lifeless) Southern Miss managed to get throttled 52-24 at home by a Cincinnati team that had just earlier lost to Army, providing relief for the Black Knights 19-game losing streak. Similarly, Randolph’s Mets made their case for baseball infamy in 2007, losing in uglier and more original ways the entire month of September en route to blowing a 7-game lead with 17 left to play and finishing 2nd to the Philadelphia Phillies. Bower didn’t have a particularly good 2007 himself, as his consensus-1st-place-pick Golden Eagles struggled to a 7-6 regular season low-lighted by a 38-16 skull-dragging on the blue turf in Boise and 3 home conference losses: a outright whipping by UCF; a blown 10-point lead with 5 minutes left vs. Memphis; and a would-be thumping on ESPN Prime Time by Rice, who led at one point 31-7, but allowed to the Eagles to save some face with an inadequate comeback.
As well all know, Bower, famously (at least in Southern Miss circles) resistant to changing things up with the exception of offensive coordinators who somehow only manage to produce the same results of their predecessors, was pushed to resign shortly after the season ended. Having seen the team picked by everyone to own a weak conference fall flat on its face, Southern Miss fans and its administration came to the conclusion that they’d all already seen Bower’s best work…and it stopped being that about 5 years ago. It was time to try something different. As we all also know, the media along with other outsiders howled, especially about the circumstances of Bower being unceremoniously forced out after 14 straight winning seasons. Cries of, "Who does Southern Miss think they are?" and "You're Southern Miss! Who are you going to hire?" ruled the day. Some even went as far to say that there was no hope the move could possibly turn out well. Whether it will or not remains to be seen, as football doesn’t resume for another month or so, but the early returns have been encouraging.
Returning to the Mets for a moment, Randolph’s squad never seemed to recover from the 2007 collapse. Despite a $138 million payroll, three everyday players who started the 2007 All-Star Game, a 29-year-old ace with 2 Cy Young awards , and a handful of others not long removed from All-Star status, the Mets were only hanging around .500 and mired in inconsistency the first half of 2008. As the Mets found themselves at 34-35 and 6 ½ games out of the East lead in mid-June, team brass came to the same conclusion the Southern Miss brain trust did: the team’s performance as compared to its expectations was unacceptable and a change had to be made. Bench coach Jerry Manuel was named interim manager for the rest of the season. The media along with other outsiders howled, especially about the circumstances of Randolph being fired after a West Coast game. Mets ownership was ripped a new one. Nobody ever asked the Mets who they thought they were, but no one held back in telling the franchise that Willie Randolph was too good for them and wasn’t the problem in the first place.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Mets becoming the laughingstock of professional sports, though. The changes Manuel made appeared to start paying off. The Mets went on a 10-game winning streak through the All-Start break, and this past Thursday, the Mets took sole possession of first place in the National League East. The sports pundits, having already invested themselves so heavily in defending Randolph and castigating the Mets, were forced to resort to other, juvenile (or as a buddy of mine put it, "moronic") explanations for the turn around.
Perhaps the folks closest to a situation can make the best assessment after all. May Southern Miss once again enjoy the same fate as the Mets.