August 29, 2018 10:24:57 PM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
These days, the question is expected.
Each year, someone asks about the East Mississippi Community College football program in general and coach Buddy Stephens in particular.
Early in his 11-year tenure at EMCC, Stephens called himself "a junior college lifer."
A lot has happened since then. EMCC has four National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championships.
It also was involved in a season-ending brawl to finish the 2015 season and a two-year documentary -- "Last Chance U" -- that showed the program at its best and worst.
Anytime a coach reaches 10 years, the speculation starts to ramp up. Dan Mullen left Mississippi State for Florida after nine seasons. For even highly successful coaches, a decade-long run is quite an accomplishment.
In the last three years, EMCC has named a new athletic director. In the last two years, the coordinators for the football team changed. This past summer, the president changed. However, that change involved one of the football program's biggest supporters (Dr. Rick Young) returning, albeit on an interim basis.
It is no secret there is a fight going on between athletics and academics at the 14 Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) schools. Many professors feel underappreciated and many don't feel comfortable with the praise and admiration heaped upon -- and resources given -- to the football programs at their schools.
In the Southeastern Conference, a hefty revenue check makes it all worthwhile. The money football generates helps allow academics and athletics to work together.
Stephens' 11th season at EMCC begins Thursday night when No. 1 EMCC faces No. 13 Hinds C.C. at Sullivan-Windham Field in Scooba.
It is the fifth time in Stephens' tenure 11 seasons EMCC has started the season No. 1. Three of the four previous preseason No. 1 teams won the national championship.
After tumultuous 2015 and 2016 seasons, EMCC football is back to normal. In 2017, the team had its usual mix of local talent, out-of-state phenoms, and brilliant coaching. It caught a break to get back to No. 1 after losing in the regular season to Northwest Mississippi C.C.
That being said it all worked out in the end and EMCC again became the team the other 13 MACJC schools love to hate.
The question remains how much does Stephens have left in the tank?
Last season, EMCC became the first MACJC member to win four national championships with a 31-28 victory against Arizona Western College in the Mississippi Bowl in Perkinston.
The next goal is the national record for national championships. Only Butler C.C. (Kansas) and Northeastern Oklahoma A&M have won more national championships (six). This fact was in the school's latest football press release, so EMCC knows where it stands historically.
This isn't recent history, either. Butler last won the title in 2008 (when it won in back-to-back years) and Northeastern Oklahoma A&M last won the title in 1991.
This means the door is wide open for EMCC to become the nation's best junior college football program. Stephens hasn't been asked about that historical accomplishment. However, no football coach will look ahead. He will claim the focus is on Hinds and that each week the team has the goal of being 1-0.
But Stephens wants this milestone badly. After working hard to restore his personal and the program's image after 2015, the most recent national championship was a huge sigh of relief for Stephens.
Some of Stephens' biggest detractors also have lost some of their talking points. After seeing Golden Triangle Area representation drop down to a handful of players earlier this decade, those numbers are back trending in the right direction.
EMCC will continue to win at a record pace, with a football friendly president, new coordinators, a heavy Golden Triangle presence, and without Netflix cameras prying into every corner.
In business terms, the EMCC stock price is high again.
It always has been personal for Stephens. However, his motivation only will intensify as the school chases a milestone that may never be undone.
It would be foolish to bet against him.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.