COLUMN: A successful football program on the field doesn’t just rely on its talent to garner attention. For East Mississippi Community College coach Buddy Stephens, the key to his team’s success the past five years on the field revolves around what his players do off the field, in the classroom.
“It starts with the academic plan that we have. I’ve got a plan that’s been set in place since I got here five years ago. (EMCC President) Dr. Rick Young has allowed us to harness and helped us to get everything we need academically for all of our athletes at East Mississippi to succeed,” Stephens said. “With football it’s been a big success in the fact that we’ve put not only a lot of guys in the SEC, but the most players in the SEC, more than any other community college in the country. I think that speaks volumes about our academic plan.
“Brittany Wagner-White is our athletic-academic advisor and she does a phenomenal job of making sure that our young men have not only a plan for them to get their degree but put them in a position to be successful at that next level with good study habits, with getting ready for tests. She monitors all of that and she does an outstanding job of that.”
The Lions, who won the NJCAA national title two seasons ago, have former players lined across the country at in-state schools such as Ole Miss and Mississippi State but also at Texas and Florida. A total of 13 players were able to enroll in the spring semester as mid-year signees. Four of those signed with Southeastern Conference schools, while another prospect, defensive tackle Jarran Reed, is a verbal pledge of the Rebels. Another current player who wasn’t able to sign mid-year but is headed to a national power, Ohio State, is wide receiver Corey Smith.
A big reason why these Lions are being courted by so many top programs is because they graduate in time to help teams in the spring at positions of need but also graduate once they get to that four-year school, which helps that programs APR rate.
“I can’t think of any kid off the top of my head that hasn’t gone on to a four-year school and graduated. We have a couple of guys that are still working towards graduation but the thing that we’re trying to do is help those kids put the top on the cake and then when they get to that four-year school, they’re putting the icing on it with that degree,” Stephens said. “Over the five years that we’ve been here, we’ve graduated 22 of 24 guys who have gone on to four year schools. Our graduation rate was 98 percent last year.”
The success, both on and off the field, is making an impact on the recruiting trail with local kids as well as those players across the state that aren’t tied to any particular school now that a district protection list doesn’t exist any longer.
“Normally we used to be our district and what we’re doing now is we’re still concentrating on our district as far as recruiting. We have a phenomenal district in that we got from Meridian to West Point, Starkville and everywhere in between like Noxubee County. We have a tremendously rich district and we’re going to start in our district but once we get out of our district and start looking around from around the state that are recruiting us,” Stephens said. “We’ve had young men that are calling us. They’re actually recruiting us with a plan and that’s been fun to see, to watch our coaches get in these houses and schools because we’re being received very well across the state. If we were just winning and not graduating people, we wouldn’t be received as well but we’re doing everything that we say. We’re being received very well across the state because of what we’ve done academically by administrators across the state.”
Unlike some programs who only seem to get non-qualifiers out of high school, EMCC is able to attract talented players who are qualifiers out of high school or even prep school, have them play a semester because of the success and then head back out to more desirable destination due to high level of competition and coaching they get with Stephens.
“Our average is three semesters. That’s what we shoot for everyone of our non qualifiers. The thing we’re having success with is having qualifiers come here and staying here and playing one season and then being gone,” Stephens said. “This year we had Maurice Bennett who came here and played one semester and then left for Western Kentucky. (Quarterback) Quez Johnson was the Player of the Year in our league here and he only played one year here. We’re having a lot of success of guys playing one year and then leaving. That’s been a big success for us and a great recruiting tool for qualifiers who don’t sign where they want to. We’re a tremendous option for them.” (January 30, 2013, Page 6)