Rick Cleveland

Southern Miss coach can see the light, ‘but, God, I just hope it’s not a freight train.’

Southern Miss head coach Doc Sadler during the game at South Alabama, Mobile, Ala., Nov. 29, 2017. Sadler has his Southern Miss squad at 11-10 in what has been a much improved season.
Southern Miss head coach Doc Sadler during the game at South Alabama, Mobile, Ala., Nov. 29, 2017. Sadler has his Southern Miss squad at 11-10 in what has been a much improved season. Special to The Sun Herald

Doc Sadler’s Southern Miss basketball team has won all 10 of its home games, has an 11-10 record overall and has split eight Conference USA games.

While nobody is ready to break out champagne, this counts as serious progress for a program ripped apart in recent years by NCAA sanctions and scholarship limitations. Recently, Sadler, who calls everybody “Dude,” was asked if he can see light at the end of the tunnel.

“Yeah, I can see a little light, but I’m like Lou Holtz,” the folksy Sadler answered. “Dude, I see light, but, God, I just hope it’s not a freight train.”

This dude can hardly blame Sadler for being rather cautious in his optimism. Few, if any, have ever inherited a coaching situation as dire as Sadler found in Hattiesburg.

It seems a lifetime ago in Southern Miss basketball years, Donnie Tyndall’s last Golden Eagles team won 25 games in the 2011-12 season. Then, Tyndall left for Tennessee and left USM in a lurch. The NCAA found academic fraud termed “audacious and breathtaking.” USM received three years probation, lost five scholarships and couldn’t even play in its league tournament for two seasons. Try recruiting decent players with that hanging over your head.

“Dude, nobody, least of all a player who has choices, wants to hear from you,” Sadler said.

Rough patch

Sadler has slogged through it. This is his fourth season. His first two Southern Miss teams won 11 games and lost 41. Last year, the Eagles were 9-22. In CUSA, USM won three games, then five, then six.

This has been pretty hard to swallow for Sadler, a coach well-respected by his peers, who once won 48 games over two seasons at UTEP and who averaged 17 wins a season at Nebraska.

The low point?

“That’s a tough one,” Sadler said. “Plenty to choose from. Having to tell the players, not once but twice that they couldn’t even play in the league tournament. That’s one. Finishing a game with just four players. Dude, that’s gotta be in there.”

Facing tough odds

Oh yeah, that happened on Feb. 12, 2015. Because of injuries, scholarship limitations and player defections, USM dressed seven players for a home game against FIU. Three fouled out. USM lost in overtime, missing a shot to win at the buzzer, playing four on five.

That game was a microcosm of Sadler’s tenure at USM: facing tough odds, playing hard to the end, and then heartbreak.

“Dude, our guys have played really hard,” Sadler said. “I can’t tell you how many opposing coaches have told me that.”

Tim Floyd, the Hattiesburg native who took four different schools to NCAA tournaments, is one.

“Yeah, Doc’s teams always play hard,” Floyd said. “Doc knows what he’s doing. I thought a couple of those years, he probably should have been the CUSA Coach of the Year. He got the absolute most he could out of his guys.”

This season, Sadler might win that honor out-right. The Golden Eagles, still playing four short of the normal scholarship limit of 13, have won 11 games and played really well in several others. They led Michigan at Ann Arbor into the closing minutes. They lost by six to Mississippi State at Christmas time, after losing by 44 to the Bulldogs a year earlier.

The Golden Eagles are well-coached. They play hard and unselfishly. They take care of the basketball. This they do, despite giving up several inches, per player, in height.

Back in the mid-1960s at Kentucky, the legendary Adolph Rupp coached a team that didn’t have a player over 6 feet, 5 inches tall. Nevertheless, those Wildcats won all but one game they played until they were defeated by Texas Western (now UTEP) in the NCAA championship game. The team was called Rupp’s Runts.

More than half a century later, when basketball players are much taller, Southern Miss often plays with a lineup with the tallest player being 6 feet, 4 inches short. This team needs a nickname. Might I suggest: Doc’s Dudes.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.