November 29, 2012 10:00:35 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Jamie Mitchell heard from people he trusted why he shouldn't take the job as head football coach at Starkville High School.
He was told the athletes weren't there anymore. People said the school's facilities never would allow a coach to get the program back to where it was in the 1980s and 1990s. He heard the expectations of the fans and the school board were unrealistically high, and that those people were living in the past.
Mitchell knew all those things weren't true, and in less than three years he has completed one of the most successful transformations in the state of Mississippi.
"I knew in my heart the athletes were still here in bunches, Starkville was a great place to live, and it was time for me to get back to the challenge that was Class 6A football, which was where Starkville was at the time," Mitchell said. "Everything eventually added up to the perfect place and time for me to start this."
Mitchell took over a program that was fractured after the return of Bill Lee. Now in his third season, Mitchell has helped Starkville make back-to-back trips to the state championship game in Jackson for just the third time in school history. Starkville made it to the state finals in 1983-84 and 1994-95.
Starkville (11-3) will make its return to Veterans Memorial Stadium at 7 p.m. Saturday when it takes on Pascagoula High in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A State title game.
"It would make for a nice end to our run in Class 5A football, and I know this senior class really wants to leave a legacy for itself by accomplishing a state championship," said Mitchell, who also is looking for his first state title.
To get the program back to the championship level, Starkville High Director of Athletics Stan Miller knew he faced an important decision. Starkville hadn't won a region championship in nearly a decade, the roster numbers had slipped below 70 players, and college coaches weren't showing up in bunches to recruit Yellow Jackets. It was Miller's job to find someone who could change those realities and help Starkville return to prominence.
"The difference in what I and the committee saw in Jamie Mitchell was he's a people person and player's coach," Miller said. "He does so many things for his players, whether it is have them over at his house and other special things. It's why 117 kids signed up last spring to try out for this varsity team."
In January 2010, Starkville hired Mitchell away from Itawamba Agriculture High. Mitchell went 41-10 in four seasons at IAHS after working for four seasons as head coach at Olive Branch High (2002-2005) and as a defensive line coach at Tupelo High for four seasons (1993-1996). He knew from his time at those schools that Starkville could be what it had been.
"I learned one thing very quickly that sold me on this being the right move when I interviewed for the job," Mitchell said. "I knew if I got the job I'd have the best boss anybody could ever have. Dr. Miller is supposed to be part time, and I'll tell you there's not a bone in his body that works part time."
Mitchell's hire sent shockwaves through the area because people knew what kind of leader Miller had hired.
"The job at Starkville High School has the potential to be one of the best in the state, period," SHS radio play-by-play voice Jay Perry said. "I believe it is a destination job, and that's what kind of candidates Stan Miller and the school board got."
Perry, an attorney in Starkville, graduated from Starkville High and has been part of the community that has seen Starkville play in all nine of its state championship game appearances.
"I don't think there was any question Jamie was more than qualified after having a great setup for himself at Itawamba," Perry said. "However, anytime you make a hire at any level still doesn't get you any wins at all. What Jamie's hire did was remind people what kind of sleeping giant Starkville football still was."
Mitchell has rebuilt Starkville by taking control of the junior high program. The juniors and seniors on this season's team were eighth- and ninth-graders when Mitchell took over. Mitchell knew those kids would be a key ingredient to the program's long-term success.
"It was the most critical element to our success here at Starkville to get kids to understand how we wanted them to play starting at a young age," Mitchell said. "You have to take a big picture look at what you're doing when you're building a program and going to be at a place for a long time. I remember talking with Dr. Miller about the junior high programs more than the varsity in our interview."
Starkville also needed to hire someone who could work with Miller to convince the Starkville school board to address the needs of the Yellow Jackets' athletic programs. Mitchell spent his first season without adequate locker room near the football field. Now a brand new field house is next to Yellow Jackets Stadium. The field house includes a larger film room, a new weight room, a newer and larger locker room area, updated and modernized coaches offices, and an equipment room.
"I've seen a lot of X and O coaches in my day in athletics, but Jamie Mitchell goes the extra level beyond that and understands what a leader of a program really means," Miller said. "He's concerned about the look of the stadium, the crowd size, the grades of his players, and all of that is why I respect him so much."
The highlight to Starkville's 5-6 finish in Mitchell's first season at the school was a 21-20 victory at rival West Point High. The victory symbolized the rebuilding project was going in the right direction.
"We were down 20-0 going into the half and our kids hadn't figured out how to win yet," Mitchell said. "What we did that night against a really good program in a game this community cares deeply about made a difference to me."
Even though five of Starkville's six losses that season were by seven points or less, it showed it was capable of competing at a level many hadn't seen in nearly a decade.
The MHSAA's reclassification based on school enrollment figured moved Starkville from Class 6A to Class 5A. The move allowed Starkville to become a favorite to contend for a playoff berth and a North Half State championship for the first time since 2001, which is when Mitchell saw Starkville at its peak.
"I think Jamie and anybody at SHS would tell you that their division in Class 5A wasn't as strong as others, and there's just no arguing that, but what resonates about Starkville's program is when you see a Madison Central program under Bobby Hall come into Starkville in Jamie's second year and lose," Perry said. "When you're winning your region but also beating the West Points and Madison Centrals and Louisville(s), you can say you're beating the big boys, too."
Last season, Starkville received a lift from an undefeated ninth-grade
team. Those players were part of a group of nearly 100 that signed up in the summer to try out for the team. Mitchell and his staff realized they eventually would have to cut kids from the varsity roster before the season started, something that didn't happen when Lee was coach.
The progression of Gabe Myles also helped elevate the program. Last season, Myles was a first All-State selection by nearly every publication. His verbal commitment to Mississippi State University makes him the first legitimate Southeastern Conference prospect in nearly a decade.
Players like Myles are common now in the program, which is why Mitchell and his coaches are confident they will be able to transition back to Class 6A next fall as part of the MHSAA's latest reclassification.
"When (talk of moving back to Class 6A comes up), we'll tell them the expectations don't change," Mitchell said. "We want to win region titles and go to Jackson in Class 6A, and think we have the depth and talent coming through to do just that."