The timing is right for East Mississippi Community College.
At 2 p.m. Saturday, the No. 7 EMCC football team will take on two-time defending state champion and No. 3 Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. for the Mississippi Association of Community & Junior Colleges (MACJC) state championship at EMCC”s Sullivan-Windham Field.
If EMCC President Dr. Rick Young”s dream comes true, the Lions would be able to play host to playoff games and future state title games at a new multi-sport stadium on campus.
Young, EMCC Athletic Director Mickey Stokes, and EMCC football coach Buddy Stephens were involved late last week in a meeting to discuss plans to build a new football-soccer stadium on the Scooba campus.
Young said the move is necessary to upgrade the facilities at Sullivan-Windham Field and to help the athletic department take the next step.
“We want to start on it today,” Young said Wednesday. “We want to play on it next fall.”
Young said it doesn”t make sense for the school to invest the nearly $1 million needed to upgrade the spacing, lighting, field drainage, and other issues that need to be addressed at Sullivan-Windham Field.
He said it makes much more sense to invest $3.5 million into an artificial turf field that also would be used for the school”s soccer programs. The construction plan also would call for a track to be installed around the field, which would give EMCC the ability to play host to high school and youth track and field events.
“In the long run it is the way to go,” Young said.
EMCC is able to discuss plans for a new multi-sport facility in part because of the success of the football program. In his second season, head coach Buddy Stephens is 17-3 and 12-0 in the MACJC North Division.
The Lions, who will shoot for their first state title Saturday, have won 15 consecutive games against teams from the North Division dating back to 2007.
Stephens credits Young for allowing him to hire a qualified staff of assistant coaches and for giving him and his staff the resources needed to recruit the top players in the school”s six-county area, the rest of the state, and the region.
“It starts from the top and works its way down,” Stephens said. “It is important to our president to win, and it is important to our administration to win. In turn, that has trickled down.”
Stephens said the same trickle-down effect has enabled him and his assistant coaches to convince many of the area”s top athletes to play for the Lions.
The Lions” roster has 24 players from the Greater Golden Triangle area, which includes EMCC”s district of Lauderdale, Kemper, Noxubee, Oktibbeha, Clay, and Lowndes counties.
Stephens said there isn”t any secret to his formula. He said hard work, organization, and a commitment to well-rounded student-athletes are the cornerstones to what he and his assistant coaches are building in Scooba.
“Ultimately you have to be yourself and the kids will learn how to relate to you and be able to relate to you,” Stephens said. “I hope the person our kids see is a genuine person who speaks his mind about things. Even though I sometimes may say things that they don”t like, I do care about them and I am genuine.”
Stephens spent seven seasons as an assistant coach at Pearl River C.C. in Poplarville. He helped lead the Wildcats to a seven-year record of 60-12 (.833), including an NJCAA championship in 2004 and four consecutive MACJC state titles.
The Wildcats also earned four straight top-five national finishes from 2003-06. After serving his initial campaign (2001) at PRCC under former head coach Scott Maxfield, Stephens spent the next six seasons at his alma mater as head coach Tim Hatten”s co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.
His tenure at EMCC has helped reverse the fortunes of a program that had its last winning season in 1998 (6-4) and was last nationally ranked in 1996.
“He came in with a plan in hand and was very convincing presenting that plan,” Young said of Stephens. “He emphasized the total package for the student-athletes and emphasized that he and his assistant coaches were going to bring students in and put them into a structured program of study not only to be able to play football, but also to have an academic basis to go to the next level and continue on to get their degrees.”
Young credits Stephens for organizing a talented group of assistant coaches that works just as hard and is just as committed as their leader.
“Their chemistry is the best I have ever seen from a group of men working together in anything,” Young said. “He brought in a new sense of discipline and a new sense of energy. They are the hardest working people I have met.”
Stokes, who has been athletic director for the past two and a half years, has been at the school for 25 years. He said the football team has created excitement in the past, but the program never has reached the level it has hit in the past two seasons. He said Stephens and the assistant coaches deserve a lot of credit for getting the whole area involved with the program.
“He is a fantastic leader,” Stokes said. “He is very organized and demands a lot from his coaches and a lot from the players. I think the players respect that and I think the coaching staff respects him. I know when he first came here he mentioned he would have to make sure everyone buys into what we have to do. I think that is what he has been able to do.”
Stephens admits he can be “a little abrasive” at times. But he said he always has remained true to what he believes in, especially hard work. He doesn”t believe in the status quo and that the key is knowing when to change. He believes that time is now for the EMCC athletic department, which is why he welcomes plans for a new multi-sport facility on campus.
“There is a constant evolution that goes on in a program, and you have to be careful to take care of it and to monitor that evolution,” Stephens said. “Dr. Young is very progressive in his thinking. He is very efficient and is a very good custodian of our monies and our expenditures. He knows we can”t flamboyant with our spending, but he knows how to be progressive with our spending.”
Stephens said the new athletic facility would be a positive for EMCC and the rest of the area. He said there are numerous athletic and extracurricular activities that the facility would be able to accommodate, which is another reason why the area should get behind the efforts to make it a reality.
“I think that is the next step for us,” Stephens said. “I would have to say our athletic facilities with this move would rate with the best in the entire state. This is not a waste of money. It is something our community needs. It will be a definite recruiting tool that we can use every month.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.