Monken era brings USM back to relevancy
Todd Monken inherited a program with a prestigious past and uncertain future on Dec. 20, 2012. Following the 0-12 season — the first winless season in the school’s history Monken entered a project that from the outside looking in would take more than one contract.
Monken’s first task was to change the culture and get started immediately.
“The only bad part is that they have to go home,” Monken said at his introductory presser. “I wish we could just go ahead and get to work now.”
Monken went about things differently than coaches did in the past. He made roster spots more competitive with a new “show and prove” approach when it came to earning an athletic scholarship. What players had done in the past up to that point meant very little to him.
Monken’s inaugural season was a struggle to watch, as it opened with a disappointing 22-15 loss to Texas State. What followed next was a 56- 13 drubbing to Nebraska and two more double-digit losses to Arkansas and Boise State.
The Golden Eagles seemed to have turned the corner against Florida International, but fell short 24-23 due to a late field goal. The Golden Eagles lost their next six games by double digits.
In the midst of an 18-game losing streak, Monken decided to take a drastic approach and go against reproach, and named freshman Nick Mullens the starter.
Frustration and anger grew throughout the season until the season finale versus the University of Alabama- Birmingham. Mullens and the offense erupted for 62 points in the 62-27 victory for the Golden Eagles’ first win in two seasons. The win was the first of the Monken era and a stepping stone for the next season.
Monken rode the momentum from that win and was able to convince recruits and transfers that Southern Miss was ascending back into football relevancy.
Following a 1-11 season, Monken was able to go out and recruit players like sophomore running back Ito Smith and defensive backs Cornell Armstrong and Picasso Nelson. He was able to influence them to buy into the rebuilding process, which took a great deal of skill. Monken also found junior college gems in wide receiver Michael Thomas and offensive lineman Norman Price, two players who stepped in and filled key positions right away.
Monken’s second season started with a 49-0 embarrassment in Starkville against in-state rival Mississippi State. The next week, Alcorn State came to visit the Rock, and the Golden Eagles pulled off a 26-20 win that was too close for comfort. That was the first win of the season, but USM knew it had little time to turn around and get ready for Alabama in the next week.
After a loss to Alabama 52-12, the Golden Eagles bounced back to beat Appalachian State 21-20 on Sept. 20. At 2-2, the program sat at its best start since 2011. Unfortunately, the Golden Eagles would fall to 2-4 before defeating North Texas for their third win of the season.
The Golden Eagles would lose their last five games, ending their 2014 season, 3-9 and 1-7 in C-USA.
With a 4-20 record in his first two seasons, Monken was focusing on teaching his Southern Miss players how to win. The head coach embraced the rebuilding process of the program.
“You have to embrace that part of it,” Monken said at the conclusion of the 2014 season. “You have to find guys that want to be a part of [the rebuilding].”
The 2015 season would be the season where coach Monken put it all together.
The Golden Eagles opened the season at home against Mississippi State in the biggest game in Hattiesburg in recent memory. It was apparent early on in the contest that this was a different Southern Miss team, as on the opening Bulldog drive that reached the red-zone, the ball carrier attempted to run in for the easy score at the goal line when D’Nerius Antoine forced a fumble that was recovered in the end zone by the Golden Eagles.
A common phrase heard over Monken’s tenure was “compete.” That is exactly what Southern Miss did, competing for three quarters before the Bulldogs’ depth and Heisman hopeful Dak Prescott took over in the final quarter. The Golden Eagles would go on to lose in the season opener 34-16.
After a 52-6 win over Austin Peay, Monken urged fans to come out and fill the Rock to watch a once-again competitive Southern Miss team.
The Golden Eagles would find themselves in a shootout against Texas State the next week on the road, but were able to pull out the 56-50 win in San Marcos, Texas. The team then traveled to Nebraska and fell behind early before gaining their footing in the second half, making the game competitive. Antoine led a defense that kept the Cornhuskers out of the end zone on five scoring drives in the contest, but fell in a close effort 36-28.
The Golden Eagles split their next two games with a win over North Texas and a loss to Marshall. Southern Miss got back on track versus UTSA with a 31-10 victory. Over the next six games to end the season, the Golden Eagles outscored opponents, 289-98.
Monken led the Golden Eagles to a 9-5 record, a Conference USA West Division title and the school’s first bowl game since the 2011 Hawaii Bowl.
Monken brought the program back to life and was rewarded with an opportunity to take his talents to the next level as offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“It has been a privilege to lead this program over the last three years,” Monken said. “We accomplished a lot, rebuilding the Southern Miss football program, and we did it together.”
Coach Monken leaves the program in better shape than he found it as athletic director Bill McGillis echoed in a press conference for the departure of Monken.
“Coach did an incredible job here the last three years rebuilding our program and he is a special coach and a special leader.” McGillis said. “I thought he was rebuilding our program to stand the test of time and I believe that will prove to be the case moving forward.”
Monken led the Golden Eagle program for three seasons to a 13-25 record. While it does not look good on paper, Monken showed that a plan he put in place in 2012 was on its way to being a successful product.
The Golden Eagles are in good shape with a proven quarterback in Mullens and a tenacious defense all returning in 2016. Youth has been a concern in past seasons, but now that players have been in big games and experienced adversity, experience could be a reason the program can be successful again.