Have team, will travel

Now in his 13th season at Southern Miss, head coach Jeff Bower has accomplished something that no one could have predicted: build an otherwise unassuming Hattiesburg school into a consistent winner.

Under his leadership, the Golden Eagles--nobody's idea of a traditional power in college football--have posted an impressive 83-60-1 record. Bower has taken USM to bowl games six of his 12 years at the helm.

Current Tide running backs Coach Sparky Woods has spent most of his career in the South, most recently at Mississippi State. During that time he's been impressed by what Bower has accomplished with limited resources. "He's done a great job," Woods said of Bower. "They've got a chance to beat anybody they play, and they've beaten a lot. They're a very competitive football team.

"I don't know how anybody else could have done a better job than what Bower has done there. He does an excellent job of coaching."

Since joining Conference USA in 1996, Bower's Southern Miss squad has won four league titles. Bower has been named conference Coach of the Year twice. "He's pretty much been the big guy in Conference USA," Woods said. "He's won it more than anyone else."

Under Bower's direction, Southern Miss has been willing to travel to hostile stadiums for games with big-name opponents. (Getty Images)

Plenty of mid-major teams manage a good season now and then. But dating back to the 1994 season, Bower and Southern Miss have put together a string of nine straight winning seasons. USM has gone post-season bowling in four of the last five years.

"They've been a team that every year has been good," Woods said. "They have not had many up and down years. They're competitive every year, and that's a credit to Coach Bower."

Traditionally homecoming opponents in college football have been patsies, weak-sister squads brought in for a guaranteed win. But Tide Head Coach Mike Shula knows that Saturday's opponent will be anything but.

"Anytime you play a Southern Miss football team, it's going to be one of the hardest hitting games we're going to have all year," Shula said. "I think our players realize that, especially our older guys. It was that way when I was here as a player, and just talking to some of the guys just around this building that are here that have played in games it continues to be the same way."

Bower's personal record against Alabama is only 2-9. But as he demonstrated just three years back, Southern Miss is more than capable of beating Alabama--especially in a down year for the Tide. "They've been real competitive against Alabama every year," Woods said. "They'll be the same way this year."

Alabama comes into the game having lost three games in a row. This isn't one of Coach Bower's stronger Golden Eagle squads, but their exciting 22-20 win over Cincinnati last week has them feeling good about their chances.

Shula commented, "They are well-coached. They do a lot of things in all three phases to try to create some confusion. You can kind of throw out the week before anytime you are playing Southern Miss because you know you are always going to get their best."

Bower's 144 games coached make him only the second Southern Miss coach to direct more than 100 games. His .580 winning percentage is particularly impressive when you look at USM's schedules. Only 55-of-144 games were held in Hattiesburg. In-state rivals Ole Miss and Mississippi State refuse to play their little-sister school, and most of the surrounding SEC programs follow suit. So during Bower's tenure, Southern Miss has been forced to go on the road to get games against big-name opponents.

"He takes his team just about anywhere to play and plays very well," Woods said. "They're a team that will come in and get after you. They get excited playing in front of a big crowd. They'll attack you. They're a challenge for anybody.

"Any team that schedules them had better get ready to play."

Looser admission rules give Southern Miss an edge over SEC schools in recruiting partial qualifiers. But Bower and the Golden Eagles have often simply out-recruited their in-state rivals for Mississippi talent. And of course Southern Miss has traditionally been the third-choice of many Alabama state athletes that are snubbed by the Tide and Tigers.

"He's done an excellent job of recruiting the state of Mississippi and around," Woods said of Bower and his staff. "He does a great job of coming into Alabama and getting players as well. They've got good players.

"Hattiesburg is a good location, in terms of getting in your car and driving to find good players."

Year in and year out, few college coaches do more with less than USM's Jeff Bower.

Though the future of the series is now in doubt, Bower knows how valuable the annual game with Alabama has been to his school's recruiting and national status.

"Sure, it's always been a good game to get exposure in that state," Bower said at his weekly news conference. "Kids know we are going to play Alabama every year, but I know that is probably going to end in '05 or '06.

"It has always been a good game for us. We will probably use Friday to go out and recruit in the state of Alabama. It will be a big week for us."

When a head coach is successful at a mid-major school, producing winning seasons and going to bowl games, almost inevitably he's quickly hired away by a wealthier program. But Bower has been either a player, assistant or head coach at Southern Miss since 1972.

Occasionally his name gets mentioned when bigger jobs come open, but Bower remains at his alma mater. "He's stuck it out," Woods said. "He fits in there really well, and the people there really appreciate him."

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