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New Alcorn State University football coach Jay Hopson has been on the job for just more than a month, but he must quickly finish constructing a staff and begin to build relationships with potential recruits, all before the start of fall camp Aug. 15. (Ben Hillyer \ The Natchez Democrat)

Hopson races against the clock

Published 12:01am Sunday, July 1, 2012

LORMAN — Everything is in fast-forward mode for new Alcorn State head football coach Jay Hopson.

Whether it’s rounding out his staff of assistant coaches, building relationships in recruiting or even helping maintain the football field, the Vicksburg native said things have been non-stop since his arrival in Lorman.

With Alcorn’s opening game against Grambling State exactly two months away, Hopson will be trying to fit an entire offseason’s worth of work into a very small amount of time. But he said he’s not discouraged by such a tall task.

“We’re certainly on uncharted turf,” Hopson said. “I couldn’t be happier with the staff. I think we’ve got some great coaches that are also great men. The Lord has really blessed me.”

Hopson still has one position to fill on his staff — a defensive assistant, he said — and after that, they’ll be eagerly awaiting the start of fall camp Aug. 15.

Recruiting

In addition to hiring a staff, recruiting is also a focal point for Hopson. Since he only arrived in late May, Hopson said he’s already behind in that arena, and collecting a list of prospects is high on the agenda.

“You just have to go to work, call coaches you know and trust and get to talking to high school and junior college coaches by phone,” Hopson said.

Hopson also said he and his staff have to be very particular about the kind of player they recruit to Lorman.

“I think the biggest art (to recruiting) is that you have to find that special athlete that fits your university and loves Alcorn State, wants to play and wants to get a degree,” Hopson said.

“You can never have a great recruit without them loving Alcorn State, and we have a lot of selling points.”

Those selling points include being surrounded by first-class coaches, faculty and people, Hopson said.

“All you have to do is ride around campus,” Hopson said. “I’ve been coaching all around the U.S. and hadn’t been here in 25 years, but when I first drove around on campus, I immediately was impressed with how much it’s grown. It’s a great tailgating environment, and we were recently awarded the HBCU of the year.”

Also a selling point to recruits is the school’s rich football tradition, Hopson said, which includes former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, former NFL fullback Jack Spinks, current Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver, former Braves head coach Marino Casem and former Chicago Bear cornerback Leslie Frazier. Frazier is currently the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.

“We have a tradition of putting players in the NFL, and one of the things we’re here for is to bring that tradition back,” Hopson said.

Jay Hopson the man

As a coach, Hopson said he understands that he has a major role in helping shape the future of his athletes.

“When you cut me open, my biggest concern is the kids. You want players to know what’s important in life and where you values should get set,” Hopson said. “People get caught up in wins and losses, but the core value system is what’s important.”

Hopson said his core value system includes putting God first, family second and developing his athletes through education first, then athletics.

“You have these kids for four to five years, and nothing is more rewarding than when you see them being successful at age 35 to 40,” Hopson said.

“When they can say that you made some kind of impact in their life that made a difference, that’s special. Wins and losses are what allows you to keep your job, but we have a greater calling than that.”

Romans 5:3-4 are Hopson’s favorite Bible verses. These verses talk about perseverance: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

“That’s so true in this game,” Hopson said. “Many times you’re struggling and going through the process, and you have to persevere. It defines you character and who you are.”

As a former defensive coordinator at Southern Mississippi under head coach Jeff Bower, Hopson said he’s gotten plenty of advice from Bower since becoming head coach at Alcorn.

“Jeff was not a good coach, he was a great coach,” Hopson said. “He was masterful in organizing his assistant coaches and his practices, and he was thorough in every detail. He also really cared about the student-athletes. He cared where they would be 15 to 20 years down the road, not just about their immediate playing ability.”

Education

Hopson said the most important thing a student-athlete can do is get a degree.

“You have to give them all the opportunities you can to be successful,” Hopson said. “You have to discipline them if they’re not doing the things they need to do, and you have to let them know the importance of a degree.”

Although most college football players have NFL aspirations, Hopson said they need to realize the chances of even reaching that level are small.

“Only 1 percent of them make it to the NFL, and out of that 1 percent, maybe 0.05 percent really make a life out of playing football,” Hopson said. “You have to take your education seriously.

“I’ve seen it time and time again. These athletes get in the league, then they buy a big house and a car, and 10 years down the road, you never would have known they played in the NFL. It’s a physical game, and there’s not much longevity there.”

Getting ready for the fall

The football players are running and lifting under the supervision of strength coaches Reggie Harrelson and Reggie Prince, Hopson said. Since his time to interact with his athletes is limited until fall camp starts due to NCAA rules, full evaluations are on hold for now.

“Aug. 15 is when I’ll know more about our team,” Hopson said. “Our vision is, we want to go out, work hard and win. That’s how it’ll happen.”

While some might consider 2012 a mulligan season since Hopson is arriving so late on campus, he said he’s not going to tell his seniors just to forget about this year.

“The bottom line is, we win when we deserve to win,” Hopson said. “That’s as real as you can put it to anyone. Everyone in this game better understand that deal.”

With a small amount of time to install his system, Hopson said he realizes the challenges ahead.

“But that’s the beauty of life,” Hopson said. “It goes back to that Bible quote about perseverance. You have to embrace life’s challenges and go out and work.”

And Hopson said there’s no substitute for hard work when it comes to winning football games.

“The players, the coaches, everyone has to give 100 percent for Alcorn,” Hopson said. “When we win, it won’t be a ‘me’ thing, it’ll be a ‘we’ thing. It’s going to take a united effort.”

Overcoming challenges

Last season, Hopson resigned as defensive coordinator of Memphis after the Tigers gave up a Football Bowl Subdivision-worst 628 average yards on defense through their first two games. Despite the rough end to his tenure at Memphis, Hopson said there was more to the team’s problems than what was seen on the surface.

“There were a lot of issues at Memphis,” Hopson said. “It’s so complex. The program was left in a pretty bad situation.”

Alcorn President M. Christopher Brown recently said that he was not satisfied with the level of salary that the school was able to offer Hopson and his assistants.

“I’m a thousand percent sure it’s not (a) fair (salary),” Brown said. “What we’re able to pay is less than, one, what the market bears, and two, it’s less than what he was making at Memphis.”

Hopson said Brown was just being honest, but he wouldn’t allow the school’s limited resources to limit his efforts.

“He’s telling it like it is,” Hopson said. “We do have limited resources at times. Our agenda is to do the best we can with what we have. We do have a lot of wonderful, positive selling points here. We see some positive changes happening in the next few years.”

The SWAC’s first white coach

While Alcorn made history hiring Hopson as the first white coach in SWAC history, Hopson said it’s not something that’s on his mind at all.

“I’ll be honest, I don’t think about it,” Hopson said. “We have a building plan, and that’s what we’ll be focused on. Our campus is diverse, and that’s a beautiful thing. I’m blessed and honored to be here.”