When the call came in from Southern Miss athletic director Jeremy McClain Wednesday evening, Jay Ladner hesitated.
“I didn’t want to answer the call,” Ladner said Thursday. “I knew who it was and I knew that it was going to be yes or no. I stared at it for a couple of rings. I said, ‘Ya know, I’m going to have to answer it.’ I waited literally with bated breath until Jeremy asked me if would I be (USM’s) basketball coach.
“I’m not sure what I even get paid, Jeremy. I really don’t. I may be working for free because I was so excited about the opportunity that I immediately said, ‘Yes.’”
As he rolled through his introductory speech as the new USM men’s basketball coach Thursday morning, Ladner’s excitement came through. The Hattiesburg native, USM graduate and former Golden Eagle basketball player is entering a role that he described Thursday as “a dream come true.”
He thanked a long list of people throughout his address, including former Oak Grove High School baseball coach Harry Breland, the family of legendary USM head coach M.K. Turk and his father, former USM basketball staff member J. Larry Ladner, who also happened to be celebrating a birthday on Thursday.
As he shared stories of his time at USM and his climb through the coaching ranks, Ladner constantly came back to his appreciation for being given the opportunity to return to Hattiesburg as the Southern Miss head coach.
“It’s an absolute honor to be your basketball coach,” he said.
Ladner, 53, spent the last five seasons as the head coach at Southeastern Louisiana, turning the Lions into contenders in the Southland Conference over the last two years after dealing with scholarship reductions due to NCAA sanctions in his first two seasons. Ladner had a record of 76-88 at SELA, leading the Lions to a 22-12 mark that included a conference championship and a trip to the NIT during the 2017-18 campaign.
Ladner was also the head coach at St. Stanislaus in Bay St. Louis for 20 seasons, compiling a record of 511-189 and winning the 2010 Class 4A state championship.
A 2014 junior college national title as the head coach at Jones County Junior College allowed Ladner to make the leap to Div. I basketball.
He said Thursday that he plans to make USM his home for quite some time.
“This is a destination job for Jay Ladner, whereas other people may not see it that way,” he said.
McClain said that Ladner’s performance throughout the six-day search allowed him to earn the job offer.
“We visited on the phone and we visited face-to-face and we again visited face-to-face as we narrowed that group down,” McClain said. “What I can tell you is that Jay Ladner, every step of the way, absolutely won every interview process. He was a guy who continued to rise to the top among a group of really, really good coaches.”
McClain sees in Ladner someone who can energize the fan base. Doc Sadler led USM to a 20-win season in his fifth and final year on the job, but attendance continues to be stagnant.
Ladner said Thursday that he plans to change that and lead a USM basketball program that only has three NCAA Tournament bids in its history to a new level of success.
“We’re in this to win it,” he said. “We’re not in it to have winning seasons. We’re in it to win conference championships. We’re in it to go to the NCAA Tournament. We’re in it to win the NCAA Tournament. That’s what we’re in it for.”
The hard part
Ladner has his work cut out for him in the coming weeks.
Wednesday marked the start of the signing period, putting the new USM staff behind much of the nation when it comes to landing new prospects. He plans to watch film and determine what roles need to be filled on his squad before he moves forward and signs new players.
Kyle Roane, a former USM staff member under James Green who has been at SELA with Ladner, will again join the staff at USM.
The status of Clarence Weatherspoon, who has been on the USM staff since 2016 and also interviewed for the head coaching job, appears uncertain as Ladner begins the process of hiring assistants.
“Certainly Clarence Weatherspoon is one of our all-time greats and he’s a friend of mine,” Ladner said. “He and I have not had a chance to visit yet. Is there an interest in speaking with him? Absolutely.”
Ladner’s top assistant at SELA, David Kiefer, has accepted the role of head men’s basketball coach at Southeastern Louisiana, according to Ladner.
Ladner met with his new team Wednesday night and plans to begin practice once the Easter break has come to a close.