Story of Alcorn’s Hopson is hard to believe
Published 11:58 am Wednesday, December 9, 2015
By Rick Cleveland
When Alcorn State first offered its head football coaching job to Jay Hopson in April of 2012, he turned it down. What has happened since should be a book and then a movie.
Problem is, even Hollywood might consider the story a bit inconceivable.
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The Alcorn football program was a train wreck. The previous year’s team had won just one conference game. Seven or eight of the top returning players had decided not to return. Fan support? Fewer than 500 fans had shown up for Alcorn’s final home game in 2011.
Hopson, a two-time cancer survivor who had grown up in nearby Vicksburg, wanted to be a head coach, but this wasn’t, he first thought, the right fit. The facilities were poor. The recruiting budget was worse. The salary pool for assistant coaches was worse still. And then there was this: If he took the job, Hopson would be the first white coach in history of the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Hopson, only a year removed from the defensive coordinator’s job at Michigan, turned the job down and began to contemplate a life outside football. Weeks later, Alcorn called him back. The negotiations resumed. Alcorn gave some. Hopson gave some. This will make a really long story short: He took the job on May 31, 2012. Says Hopson, “I just decided that I was supposed to do this.”
Hopson had to hire a staff. He had to meet all the players who remained and try to remember their names. Recruiting? Too late for that. He had to install an offense and a defense. He had to get ready for a first game against the defending SWAC champion, Grambling, and its famous coach, Doug Williams.
Hopson hired Fred McNair and Willie Simmons as his first two coaches and went to work. Boy, did he go to work.
Says McNair, who remains as Hopson’s assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach, “Nobody will out-work Jay. I don’t just mean coaching and recruiting. I mean everything. How many college head coaches line the practice field? Jay does that all the time.”
McNair showed up for work early one day and saw Hopson on the practice field pouring sand.
Sand? “Wild boars had rooted all over the practice field,” McNair says. “Jay was out there filling in the holes.”
Safe to say, that never happened at Michigan.
‘All purple and gold’
Hopson held his first practice at Alcorn on August 5, 2012, with a new staff and new players, installing a new offense and new defense.
“What I saw were a bunch of kids with eager faces who were willing to work and wanted to be part of a winning program,” Hopson says.
What he didn’t see was black and white, even if there were some Alcorn fans who would have preferred the school hire an African American coach.
“At Alcorn, we’re all purple and gold,” Hopson said. Besides, he didn’t have time to deal with race. He was racing to create a program basically from scratch.
Three weeks later, Alcorn beat Grambling 22-21.
“Still the greatest moment that I’ve experienced as a head coach,” says Hopson, who has won two league championships since.
His first Alcorn team won four games, all league games. He has experienced lots of “great” since. The 2013 Braves won nine games and finished second in the SWAC. The 2014 and 2015 teams have won a total of 18 games and two SWAC titles. Remember, this year’s senior class is the one Hopson didn’t get to recruit in 2012.
You can make a case that, all things considered, nobody in college football has done a better coaching job over four seasons than Jay Hopson and his Alcorn staff. Hopson still commutes 40 minutes to and from work from his Vicksburg home. In season, that means leaving at dawn, returning home late at night. Those rides give him plenty of time to think, and above all else, he has come to this conclusion:
“This was meant to be,” says Hopson. “It’s been a blessing.”
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.