By MARILYN TINNIN
Jay Hopson—His Story of Faith, Family, and Football
Jay Hopson has been head football coach at the University of Southern Mississippi less than a year. His invitation to take over came just four days before national signing day on February 3 of this year.
The Hopsons were about four weeks shy of moving into a new home—the dream home they had planned, built, and were in the process of decorating in a way that made it uniquely theirs.
Pick up, move, uproot the family, and hit the ground running—that’s the life of a college coach. They are a special breed. Their families are special, too. Jay Hopson will tell you that in a heartbeat that his family is just the best. They hold all things loosely as they cheer for his career opportunity and move on with a sense of adventure over what God has planned for them next.
The Hopson family motto is “Bloom where God plants you.”
Jay considers himself blessed in every way. His wife is a trooper and his daughters are too. “It’s been a wild ride,” he says of the journey that has taken him to eleven schools over the past 25 years.
You get the feeling in talking to Jay that there is a certain grace God has given him to care deeply, develop lasting relationships at every stop along the way, and to be willing to start over again and again wherever God calls him to go.
When he accepted the position of head football coach at Alcorn State University in 2012, every sports media outlet in the country wanted to weigh in on the moment. A white coach hired to run the football program in a premier university with a proud tradition in the Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HCBU) organization—and in Mississippi—sounded like a sensational story, except that it wasn’t.
The obvious first interview question every reporter posed was, “What’s it like to be the first non-minority head football coach on an HBCU campus?”
The boyish looking Vicksburg native shrugged and drawled in his low-key Southern accent, “It’s coaching football. Coaching is coaching. That’s just the reality. I’ve been in football for twenty years. Every black coach I’ve ever known loved his white players and every white coach I‘ve ever known loved his black players. There really is no color line in football. That’s part of the beauty of this game.”
It didn’t take the ESPN observers who came to do a story for their “Outside the Lines” segment long to realize that Jay Hopson’s presence with his team was really the most natural thing in the world. Nothing extraordinary to see here.
He had said when he was hired that it was like coming home for him, and he meant it. As quarterback at Vicksburg’s Warren Central during his high school years, he had played with some outstanding teammates who went on to play college ball at Alcorn.
Vicksburg is only 40d miles from the Alcorn campus, and he had followed the rivalry in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) for as long as he could remember. He knew the names of the best players, had watched their careers blossom in the NFL, and cheered for them because they were fellow Mississippians. He did not see color.
When the question was posed, “What’s it like? Why did you accept this job?” Jay replied, “I just decided I was supposed to do this.” That “supposed” word covers a behind-the-scenes process of asking for God’s guidance in making decisions that affect his family as well as his career.
However, Jay’s initial reception at Alcorn was mixed. Some were enthusiastic. Some were not. In the minds of some naysayers and alumni, a white coach would never capture the loyalty of staff and players at a traditionally black school. Jay Hopson proved otherwise.
The 9+ wins in his second, third, and fourth seasons and two SWAC championships during his tenure convinced everyone that Jay Hopson was an outstanding coach who understood young men and what it takes to motivate them to excellence. Like he said from the start, “There is no color line in football. Coaching football is coaching football.’
Fred McNair, his quarterbacks coach and the man who succeeded him at Alcorn as head coach said, “Nobody will out-work Jay. I don’t just mean coaching and recruiting. I mean everything.” It was not unusual to find Jay lining the practice field or pouring sand into holes left by wild boars who had rooted all over the practice field. There was no job too menial for this guy.
That notable work ethic is also indicative of another Jay Hopson character trait that his wife Michelle sees as the one she most respects—humility. Some of it is innate, but a lot of it came through the God-ordained school of hard knocks.
Jay is the youngest of Pat and Dr. Briggs Hopson’s four children. He really does not remember a time when he did not want to be a football coach. An outstanding high school athlete, he earned a bevy of accolades as Warren Central’s quarterback in the mid-1980s.
He played defensive back at Ole Miss from 1988 to 1991, and was one of many teammates whose life was touched forever by friendship with the late Chucky Mullins, the defensive back whose promising career ended with a spinal injury during the 1989 homecoming game against Vanderbilt.
His childhood really could not have been more idyllic. Family, school, community, and the Crawford Street United Methodist Church were all the nurturing institutions that taught him to love the Lord and to value and respect his fellow man. As he says, “My parents were wonderful. They taught me all the right things, but I think sometimes a person doesn’t really put it all together until they go through some adversity.”
And adversity does have a way of finding us, as Jay can attest.
In 1995, at the very young age of 24 and even before he and Michelle were married, Jay was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He was a graduate assistant at the University of Florida under Steve Spurrier.
Geri Spurrier, Steve’s wife, always scheduled checkups for the coaching staff. She just told them when to show up for their appointments. Jay obediently complied, and the doctor found something suspicious.
Jay credits Geri Spurrier with saving his life. He had surgery and radiation and put that behind him—or so he thought. “I was so young and so driven by football then,” Jay admits.
When the cancer reappeared in 2007, he was at a whole different place in life. He was a husband and a father, and he desperately wanted to be there for his wife and two daughters for many years to come. “The reality hit me a lot harder that time.” Even though he courageously seemed to power through surgery and treatment, there was a deep “crystallization” of all the life lessons of his previous 39 years. His relationship with the Lord became more personal than it had ever been, and his mission as a football coach extended beyond the X’s and O’s and success on the field.
The impact of the “C Word” cannot be denied. It is both an enemy and a strange teacher.
His desire to coach was still a passion. He had not lost his competitive drive or desire to win games, but adversity brings a clarity of purpose that transcends the here and now. Jay was particularly thankful for the faith instilled in him in his childhood. He now applied it differently.
He leaned a lot harder on the Lord and surrendered the illusion that he, Jay Hopson, could control everything about his life. It also became a part of his mission to impart that lesson to the young men he coached from that point on.
Michelle Russell Hopson was 15 years old when Jay, the handsome 11th-grade quarterback spoke to her in the halls of Warren Central High School. Theirs was the unusual high school romance that has survived the test of time. Whatever attraction they had for each other as teenagers simply deepened with the years.
As they grew older and determined their goals and purposes—what counted in life and what didn’t—they were more and more in sync. Jay calls her his rock, and it is clear that they are soulmates for sure.
Michelle, a former kindergarten teacher, says that all she ever wanted to do is to marry Jay Hopson and have his children.
They are both the “babies” of their families, and as such are both easy-going personalities. The competitive assertive and aggressive qualities that make for a successful football contender simply don’t show themselves at home with Michelle, Hannah, and Hyde.
Michelle confesses that she is more a “black and white” kind of mom in doling out discipline or understanding issues. She praises her husband as a “great girl dad who sees things I sometimes miss.”
He is also incredibly tuned in to their daughters’ completely different personalities and can identify their individual needs with the precision and intuition one would not expect to find in a man who makes his living coaching college football! He also diplomatically and without finger pointing can say to his wife when a situation arises with one of their daughters, “Have you thought about it this way?”
Although the demands of his job mean that he spends lots of time away from home and his hours, especially during football season, are anything but regular, Michelle manages just fine coordinating a peaceful and steady routine on the home front. She has become adept and skilled as a sort of CEO of home, intentionally allowing Jay to put his energy and attention into his coaching duties during the months when it matters most. In their first days as a married couple, it really did not look like she was going to have the chutzpah to endure this life!
Even though they had dated for twelve years, and even though she had waited and waited and waited for him to have what he called “a real job” before they made wedding plans, she found the job of coach’s wife, in the beginning, to be a lot more difficult than she had ever dreamed!
They had been married about a week when they left their honeymoon suite in Florida and began driving north toward Huntington, West Virginia, where Jay had what he calls his first “real” job as the defensive backs coach at Marshall University.
Jay says, “I always laugh when we talk about coach’s wives. When we were first married and I brought her to West Virginia, we had a little trailer where we lived right there on the side of the Ohio River. I kind of dropped her off and three or four days later, I came back because football camps were a lot more intense at that time. You had to go stay in the dorm with the players in the summertime. She got a tough introduction into being a coach’s wife.”
It was indeed so tough that Michelle found her way to a pay phone and called her mother to say, “I’m ready to come home.” Jay praises his mother-in-law for her wisdom. She said to her homesick daughter, “Baby, you are home.”
Michelle has come a long way since that “baptism by fire!” as a new bride and a coach’s wife. Home is not necessarily Vicksburg anymore. It is wherever Jay is called and wherever they and their two daughters experience life’s ups and downs together.
When the call came from USM that Jay was the man they wanted, Michelle looked around at their almost completed dream home, the perks of being surrounded by the extended family and friends they loved, and then, she celebrated her husband’s next assignment. She was all in.
When Jay was introduced to a crowded room of media representatives, USM staff, and faithful fans, the welcome was warm and the praise was plentiful. In many ways, this was another homecoming. He had served as a secondary coach and a defensive coordinator there in the early 2000s when USM was a powerhouse in the Conference USA. It was especially meaningful to see his mentor and former head coach, Jeff Bower, sitting in the second row.
Jay, with his trademark humility, told the audience that the standing ovation they had just given to him really belonged to Coach Bower—whose influence had shaped Jay’s course both on the field and off.
He laid out his vision for the football program, but his message clearly came from the heart of a man who has a “big picture” approach to the kind of success that transcends Saturday games on the gridiron.
This is a man who is clearly all about relationships and the passion and motivation that originate with a strong leader. As eager as Jay is to post those wins in the W column, he is also eager to see his players develop the kind of faith and character that will define their lives long after their football careers end.
He leans hard on his friend, Fellowship of Christian Athletes Area Director and USM Campus Director, Mitch Williams, who is just as committed as Jay is to giving their athletes the spiritual tools to succeed in life.
Mitch speaks highly of Jay’s willingness to give him such open and free access to building friendships with his team. “Jay could so easily tell me he doesn’t want me in the weight room or anywhere else. He could set the boundaries because he is in charge. It is a true gift from God that he gives me the opportunities he gives me. Jay Hopson is such a spiritual creature who is simply transformed to be a football coach in this life.”
Jay is low-key. He told one reporter at the Sun-Herald not so long ago, “I am a player’s coach. I believe a coach’s job goes above and beyond a win or a loss. At the end of the day, when those guys are 45 years old, I want them to stop by while I’m fishing in Bovina. I want them to say, ‘I want to stop by and see coach Hop and see what he’s up to today.’ The bottom line is if they’re successful when they’re 40, I’ve done my job.”
Jay Hopson has indeed bloomed everywhere God has planted him.