Terrance Pope always knew he was born to coach.
Even before his playing days in college he had it in his mind that it would be fun for him to return one day and coach for South Panola, the High School that gave him his chance. It seemed to be the perfect fit for Pope with his fun, energetic personality and his ability to quickly connect with kids. Before he would get that chance though, he needed to move away from the place he called home and find a life elsewhere.
That place would be Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
If you asked Terrance Pope at the beginning of his playing days back in high school where his dream school was, he would have told you only one school.
"My first love was always Ole Miss," Pope told GoldenEaglePride.com.
"I knew about Southern Miss because we had a few guys who came out to play there. It came down to Ole Miss and Southern Miss for me. The difference was made when I went to the Mississippi/ Alabama all-star game. I got together with some guys in the state like DeAndre Brown and we all made a decision we were going to go to Southern Miss and build that program.
"I knew that if I stayed and went to Ole Miss, I'd be around my family and that's all good, but I felt like the best thing for me was to go away from home and become my own man. That's what I tell kids now, it is good to get away and out of your comfort zone sometimes. When you are 15 minutes from home you can still depend on your family for everything."
He didn't take long in that journey to becoming his own man. In fact, after walking across that stage and getting his diploma from South Panola High School in the spring of 2008, there was no holding him back. He enrolled at Southern Miss and had no idea just how fast he'd have to grow up.
"I graduated from South Panola, and three days later I was at Southern Miss," he said.
"For one day, I was the only freshman there. I remember one work-out, we went out to the stretching line during summer work outs, and I went to the front of the line. The seniors yelled at me, 'what are you doing, freshman?' I said, 'Make sure you say freshman all-conference.' I spoke it and then I worked for it. I was determined to get there. But those experienced offensive linemen like Ryan Hebert and Calvin Wilson pushed me every day and made me so much better. When I got into games, it was like a practice because we worked so hard during the year."
Terrance Pope certainly had a very rare experience. For a defensive lineman to play as a true freshman is unique, and Pope even saw action in all 13 games that year. He even made his first start against Boise State. And, prophetically enough, he was named first team freshman all-conference USA after his first year.
"For me the speed of the game was a huge adjustment," he said.
"At South Panola we played some great players, but I couldn't believe how much faster everything was in college. I had to change my game and learn how to watch film. That became a huge part of what I had to do to stay ahead. I played with Rakeem Nunez and Khyri Thornton, and those guys attacked the film room. They showed me how it was done."
In 2008 the Larry Fedora era kicked off at Southern Miss, and Terrance Pope was one of the prized freshman that he had brought in. On the first snap he played at the Division One level, he had a moment he'll never forget.
"I remember my first game in my freshman year against Louisiana- Lafayette, and it was my first play as a college player," he remembered.
"I got in there and made a tackle for a loss. It caught me off guard and I wasn't ready for it and I didn't know what to do. I got up and walked back to the huddle and Gerald McGrath said, 'big man, get excited!' That was my favorite story."
During his career, he was a constant on the defensive line. He played with some great ones, but it was always Pope who encouraged and led well, even from the very beginning as a freshman. Perhaps it was his outstanding character, or his history of playing for a winning program in high school. Perhaps, it was that he consistently surrounded himself with good people. No matter what, Terrance Pope made a name for himself. His 2011 team made a name for themselves, too.
"Of course, my fondest moment of playing football was the Houston Championship game because we knew something no one else did," he said. "We knew how that game was going to turn out. We knew they were good but Coach Fedora told us they had never been punched in the mouth. We knew we were going to do that and win that game.
"There were a lot of guys that played in the NFL on that line. We had Cordarro Law, Jamie Collins, Thornton and Nunez. We were so deep. They all mess with me because in the game we lost, UAB, I was hurt with my knee and couldn't play. They still joke with me and tell me I let the team down and if I was there we would have won that game. It still hurts me, that game. But we did go into that next week and got things together, focused ourselves to win the conference and that's exactly what we did.
"When Coach Fedora came in, I fell in love with his coaching staff. Barney Farrar did a great job getting me in and I just loved the entire staff. I came in with Fedora and we left together."
As his career was starting to come to a close at Southern Miss, as quickly as he had come to Hattiesburg, there was an opportunity that awaited him that would prove to be his dream job. As soon as he graduated, he knew he had to jump on it.
"My last season at Southern Miss I had a knee injury and I realized that probably playing professionally was not going to be my best route," he said.
"I had some options to try Arena football or the CFL but I really decided it was time for me to go ahead and get into coaching which is what I've always wanted to do. So, I came home and my head Coach Lance Pogue, who was my Head Coach my senior year gave me a shot. I graduated in May, and then got started coaching at South Panola that fall. I've been on the staff since then."
Terrance Pope was back at home and doing what he had always wanted to do.
"It meant a lot because when I first came and knew I wanted to get into coaching, I actually started doing Pee Wee football," he said.
"It was something I loved and I didn't have that growing up. I still coach it today too. Sometimes after my practice for my high school we'll have Pee Wee practice on our game field right after. It is a great experience and I love going to the barber shop and the store and love talking to everyone about our season.
"I always tell people this is the best job for me. I love football, I love these kids, and I feel like I can get real with them because I've been in the trenches myself. It is fun to me to give these guys what I've learned and taught them, and then to see them take it and have success on the field. The best feeling in the world is hearing the kids pulling for each other and having success."
What he has to offer these kids is wisdom from someone who has been in their shoes.
"I tell them that college will be one of the biggest decisions of their life," he said.
"They will be around people that will be their best friends, probably their wives, and people that they will be in each others' weddings. It is not just football when you are making that decision. I did what was best for me, and that is what I tell these kids. You have to make the best decision, and not just who is in the biggest conference or the biggest school. What is the best decision and place for you? That is what I always tell them. Of course I want them to go to Southern Miss, but I let them make their own decisions.
"I'm happy if they do choose Southern Miss because it is a great place."
Sure, he's a great coach, but he relishes his most important role and one that stands above the rest.
"I have a daughter and it is the best thing in the world," he said.
"She was born right after I graduated from Southern Miss and it is the best thing for me. I see her running down and hugging me after the game and she doesn't care if we won or lost. For a minute, I can forget about football and know that it is second to being a father and making her happy."
As so many former Southern Miss football players do, Terrance Pope stays very involved with the current team. You can always see him very active on social media about his college.
"I love this team," he said.
"I talk to a lot of those guys. I have gotten to know Dylan Bradley really well and I'm always trying to encourage him. I don't expect anything less than winning the conference, they should win it. When they beat Kentucky I told people around me that is what Southern Miss does. They'll use this bye week and get it together and will make a strong run at the conference title."
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