A year ago, college sports became severely limited with the first challenges of COVID-19. Now, Southern Miss and other colleges across the country hold onto their optimism that sports will return to normalcy, despite the rapid spread of the COVID Delta variant.
As the football home-opener against Grambling State approaches on Sep. 11, Director of Athletics Jeremy McClain said that the school will stick to its goal of returning to full attendance while still ensuring safety by continuing some protocols from last year, including social distancing in lines and hand sanitizing stations.
“We’re going to continue to try to do those things, but we’re not in a situation this year, at least now, where we’re going to limit capacity or put a mask mandate for an outdoor event,” McClain said in an interview on the 4th Street Sports Show Aug.19.
At the beginning of the last football season, the typical gameday experience was fundamentally altered. With a state order that limited attendance to 25%, Southern Miss operated last season around a maximum of 9,000 fans per game in M.M. Roberts Stadium. This meant traditions like the Eagle Walk, the Pride’s halftime shows and on-campus tailgating remained absent throughout the year.
“Last year when we didn’t get to do some things, you were able to take a step back and realize I won’t take that for granted again. […] I hope our folks see this as a chance to get back and do some of the things we all love and that’s getting our students and people back in The Rock and winning football games,” McClain said.
McClain hopes to build on the momentum from the excitement built around first-year Southern Miss Football Head Coach Will Hall’s team.
“Anyone who’s ever played sports will understand that momentum is real and it’s valuable,” McClain said. “So when you gain momentum as we have over the summer […] you want to make sure you can maintain that and it comes in different forms.”
With plans to return to a more traditional gameday experience, Southern Miss aims to utilize the newly built Southern Station in Spirit Park for the first time. Former Southern Miss baseball player and now singer Adam Doleac will begin the Spirit Park Live concert series before Southern Miss’s home-opener against Grambling State.
“This is also part of a grand re-opening of our Southern Miss football gameday experience as we transition back to normal,” Southern Miss Senior Associate Director of Athletics for External Relations Brad Smith said in a press release. “The fan experience plays a critical part in creating one of the best gameday atmospheres in the country and we’re looking forward to Sept. 11.”
The return to in-person events and gameday traditions will be a first for many students and student-athletes who did not experience them last season.
“This is like my first year in college really,” COVID-freshman running back Frank Gore Jr. said. “I get to see everything like the Eagle Walk[,] so I’m very excited for this season.”
As for the game itself, players have expressed their excitement at the idea of having a full stadium of fans again for the first time in nearly two years.
“They [the fans] bring the energy,” redshirt sophomore tight end Cole Cavallo said. “This is the best atmosphere you can ever be in. I’ve been to Alabama, but nothing compares to the Rock when it’s at full capacity.”
As Mississippi has become one of the nation’s COVID hotspots with the second-highest ranking of cases per capita, McClain and the athletic staff have encouraged people to get vaccinated to help ensure a safer return. The efforts have resulted in almost 90% of the football team and staff being fully vaccinated.
“I hope that what it says to the sports fans in Hattiesburg is, although we have to be very conscious of what’s happening around us, we’re moving in a direction where we can begin to do some things that feel normal,” McClain said.