South Mississippians are a tough bunch. I admit there are others bigger and stronger who are better resourced—and who many would argue have better pedigrees. In many cases, they’d be right.
But not tougher. If you have been around us for any length of time you understand if we are defined by one characteristic, as Southern Miss alumnus Rodney Richardson and branding expert likes to say, it is grit.
If you’re not familiar with south Mississippi or the University that calls that region home, here’s some recent history. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit us—hard. Without complaint, and with the help of many others, we picked up the pieces and moved forward. That meant many University of Southern Mississippi faculty, staff and students got back to work within days of the storm, even as their own homes were uninhabitable or no longer existed. Today, our Gulf Park Campus is fully restored and exceeding pre-Katrina numbers in enrollment and prestige. In 2013, a tornado hit our Hattiesburg campus, and hundreds of us could not wait to get to work as our new president, Rodney Bennett, reacted as though he had been here for years when he said this:
Like many have said, character is not created in times of great difficultly, it is revealed. And when you peel back the layers of south Mississippi and USM’s personality—and when we are at our most vulnerable—what’s left is grit. It’s an ability to get the job done no matter the circumstances. Perhaps even more accurately defined, it’s an ability to get the job done especially when circumstances are challenging, or even appear impossible. It is defined by men like former basketball coach M.K. Turk, who upon his death Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari said of him, “He recruited without the advantages of the other schools in his region and never complained. He just went out and won.”
And it is also perhaps best explained by the famous words of Jackson sportswriter Mickey Spagnola who wrote after our Golden Eagles had just defeated Bear Bryant’s Alabama football team in 1982, “Always choose Southern Mississippi. Don’t fight Southern Mississippi. No matter how hard you fight, these folks will fight harder. These people know sweat. They know hard work and they know nothing ever comes easy. They are hard, I’m telling you, they are hard.”
USM grit is deep-rooted as well, going back to the early 1900s and the founding of the institution, which happened only after years of debate in the legislature, and without identification of suitable funding for operation. And it is evident today in nursing student Corey Auerswald, who by all accounts is kind, determined—and gritty. If you don’t know her story, I encourage you to read USM student Julius Kizzee’s story in the Student Printz. Corey is a wife, a mother, a nursing student and a breast cancer survivor. She has completed rigorous coursework in USM’s nurse anesthesia program while enduring chemotherapy. She is an inspiration to many.
Yes, south Mississippians are defined in many ways, but if I have to pick one word to do that I go back to grit. As we’ve learned the journey to the top is not a straight and smooth path. But if that is the case, it is also true that no one gets back up as frequently as USM and south Mississippi does—that’s the thing about grit as a defining quality. And like Corey Auerswald, you don’t quit. You don’t complain. You get back up. You press forward. And eventually, you win.