The Jay Hopson-Alcorn State story almost didn’t happen

JHOP
Jay Hopson believes his amazing run at Alcorn State was meant to be.
Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland

When Alcorn State first offered its head football coaching job to Jay Hopson in April of 2012, he turned it down. What has happened since should be a book and then a movie.

Problem is, even Hollywood might consider the story a bit inconceivable.

The Alcorn football program was moribund. The previous year’s team had won just one conference game. Seven or eight of the top returning players had decided not to return. Fan support? Fewer than 500 fans had shown up for Alcorn’s final home game in 2011.

Hopson, a two-time cancer survivor who had grown up in nearby Vicksburg, wanted to be a head coach, but this wasn’t, he first thought, the right fit. The facilities were poor. The recruiting budget was worse. The salary pool for assistant coaches was worse still. And then there was this: If he took the job, Hopson would be the first white coach in history of the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Hopson, only a year removed from the defensive coordinator’s job at Michigan, turned the job down and began to contemplate a life outside football. Weeks later, Alcorn called him back. The negotiations resumed. Alcorn gave some. Hopson gave some. This will make a really long story, short: He took the job on May 31, 2012. Says Hopson, “I just decided that I was supposed to do this.”

Hopson had to hire a staff. He had to meet all the players who remained and try to remember their names. Recruiting? Too late for that. He had to install an offense and a defense. He had to get ready for a first game against the defending SWAC champion, Grambling, and its famous coach, Doug Williams.

Hopson hired Fred McNair and Willie Simmons as his first two coaches and went to work. Boy, did he go to work.

Says McNair, who remains as Hopson’s assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach, “Nobody will out-work Jay. I don’t just mean coaching and recruiting. I mean everything. How many college head coaches line the practice field? Jay does that all the time.”

McNair showed up for work early one day and saw Hopson on the practice field pouring sand.

Sand? “Wild boars had rooted all over the practice field,” McNair says. “Jay was out there filling in the holes.”

Safe to say, that never happened at Michigan.

Hopson held his first practice at Alcorn on August 5, 2012, with a new staff and new players, installing a new offense and new defense.

What I saw were a bunch of kids with eager faces who were willing to work and wanted to be part of a winning program,” Hopson says.

What he didn’t see was black and white, even if there were some Alcorn fans who would have preferred the school hire an African American coach.

At Alcorn, we’re all purple and gold,” Hopson said. Besides, he didn’t have time to to deal with race. He was racing to create a program basically from scratch.

Three weeks later, Alcorn beat Grambling 22-21.

Still the greatest moment that I’ve experienced as a head coach,” says Hopson, who has won two league championships since.

His first Alcorn team won four games, all league games. He has experienced lots of “great” since. The 2013 Braves won nine games and finished second in the SWAC. The 2014 and 2015 teams have won a total of 18 games and two SWAC titles. Remember, this year’s senior class is the one Hopson didn’t get to recruit in 2012.

You can make a case that, all things considered, nobody in college football has done a better coaching job over four seasons than Jay Hopson and his Alcorn staff. Hopson still commutes 40 minutes to and from work from his Vicksburg home. In season, that means leaving at dawn, returning home late at night. Those rides give him plenty of time to think, and above all else, he has come to this conclusion:

This was meant to be,” says Hopson. “It’s been a blessing.”

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13 thoughts on “The Jay Hopson-Alcorn State story almost didn’t happen”

  1. I know the feeling coach. Congratulations. i graduated from Alcorn in 1972. I built a band program in Canton, Mississippi from scratch. We were very successful with the program for thirty-one years. God put us in the right place at the right time to help the children be successful. I can’t count the college scholarships and helping kids to fine their way to success. It was meant to be. God Bless.

  2. Jay is a high character guy. I well remember the day that Jeff Bower and his entire staff, including Jay, were called off the road from recruiting and fired. The Jackson Touchdown Club honored the Most Outstanding Senior from each of Mississippi’s colleges and universities that night. Jay Hopson, having been fired earlier in the day, nevertheless came with his player to the ceremony. That’s high character.

  3. It’s nice to hear a real great story; when all you hear about in these days is horrible stories. God Bless you all

  4. Congrats to Coach Hopson his staff and the Alcorn Braves players. I hope they have continued success except against Grambling….lol

  5. I am a 2001 graduate played under Cardell Jones. Color never should mean much as long as you got love. I take my hat off to you. Good job Coach Hopson!

  6. Rick, great article! This is the stuff that makes a great sermon and bring people together. Coach Hopson and the Alcorn State Braves, your story is bigger then winning conference titles, your story is giving people hope.

  7. Very good article Rick, you are one of the few that helps to get the good news out about Alcorn State University.
    Jay and staff,are a great group of men, training young
    men on and off the playing field, and that is why alums are so very pleased and proud. Thanks for what you do for our beloved Alcorn.
    Alcorn’s Mama Brave ’66

  8. Patricia Cadney Fields says
    January 12, 2015 at
    Excellent article, Coach Jay keep up the good work. Thanks for being a positive influence for our young men, on and off the field. Class of ’72

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