By Billy Watkins
Bobby Hall won 310 games as a head football coach, most of them at Mississippi high schools. He didn’t have time to get nervous.
“When you’re coaching, it’s almost like you’re playing,” Hall says. “You’re in it. You’re rocking and rolling.”
Watching his son Will, 42, now in his second season as head coach at Southern Mississippi, is another story.
“I’m sweating and stressing every play,” Hall says. “Will has a suite at the games. I sit in there sometime. It’s mostly all family. Other times, I go down to the sideline, which is the worst seat in the stadium. But the one thing I do not do is sit in the stands.”
It’s best if the fiery dad doesn’t hear any negative comments about his son.
And times have been challenging in Hattiesburg lately. Jay Hopson resigned as head coach one game into the 2020 season, saying publicly the program needed new leadership. That was the COVID year, and the Golden Eagles finished 3-7.
Will’s first team at USM was crippled by injuries and a depleted roster. The top three quarterbacks were sidelined at one point. And the Golden Eagles started the season with only 62 scholarship players— well below the 85 limit. It finished 3-9, winning the final two games against Louisiana Tech and Florida International.
USM’s recruiting class last spring included six junior college players and 10 transfers from SEC schools, a majority from Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
Now a member of the Sun Belt Conference, USM stands 1-2 with a 64-10 win last weekend over Northwestern (La.) State, preceded by a heart-ripping, four-overtime loss to Liberty, 29-27, and a 30-7 defeat at Miami.
USM travels to Tulane on Saturday for a 6 p.m. game. The Golden Eagles are a 12-point underdog.
“This would be a huge win for us,” Bobby Hall says.
And one that would have special meaning for Will. He was Tulane’s offensive coordinator for two seasons before moving to Hattiesburg. His offenses rewrote the school record book. The 2019 unit ranked 22nd nationally in total offense and 11th in rushing; the 2020 group finished 17th in rushing and 22nd in scoring.
Hall sounds matter-of-fact when he speaks of his son developing USM into a consistent winner.
“Will has been around football since he was five years old,” Hall says. “He was with me every day after school, watching my teams practice, watching how we did things.
“He actually went to college to become an engineer. But he called me one day and said, ‘Dad, I really think I want to be a coach.’ The only thing I said was, ‘Well, it’s been mighty good to me.’
“I just think this is what he was meant to do.”
I remember watching Will play for his dad at Amory High School and winning a state championship in 1998. He ran the option with surgical precision, and he was like a coach on the field, his knowledge of the game far beyond his years.
“You could see his determination as a player, and he’s carried that over to coaching,” Hall says. “He’s highly intelligent. You put those two things together, plus a love for the game, and you’ve got the makings of something special.”
Bobby Hall often gets the question: Are you going to join Will’s staff at USM? He is quick to answer. “No, I am not.”
He explains: “I don’t miss coaching. I love to refer to the circle of life. I learned that from The Lion King, the greatest cartoon movie of all time. It’s Will’s time. Not mine.
“But if God would make me 25 years old again, I’d go right back to Raleigh High School again and start all over.”
His first football experience was listening to Ole Miss games on the radio with his dad in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. He grew up in Guntown, which didn’t have a high school football program. So he transferred to Saltillo.
“I loved the game,” he says. “I thought it was a real man’s game — and I still believe that. It teaches so many life lessons.
“I really started studying it, the X’s and O’s. I’d visit with coaches and ask questions. I watched a lot of film. My only football hero was (former Green Bay Packers coach) Vince Lombardi. When he went to Green Bay, they were about to sell the franchise. But he started winning championships, and his No. 1 mojo was ‘Do a few simple things well.’ I took that and ran with it.”
His first coaching job was at Itawamba Agricultural High School as an assistant for two years. Raleigh hired him as head coach in 1980, and his teams went 26-16 in four years. His coaching stops included Amory, Louisville, Wayne County, Madison Central, Biloxi and Northeast Community College. He even coached two seasons of indoor professional football in Tupelo — the Fire Ants.
Hall won four state championships, finished runner-up twice and reached the semifinals 12 times.
He finished 310-106 and was inducted into the Mississippi Association of High School Coaches’ Hall of Fame in 2017.
Hall coached with a flair. He was a sports writer’s dream, a quote machine. My personal favorite that occurred after a loss: “I should be arrested for impersonating a football coach.”
And for many years he chose to wear a tie on the sideline. Oh yes, there is a story behind that.
“When I went to Louisville, I went 7-4 my first season and people wanted to run me off,” he recalls. “I followed Mike Justice, and he was extremely popular there. Had won a state title in Louisville. The next year we lost to Tupelo and Pearl to start the season, and I really thought if we didn’t beat West Point that third week that I might be out of a job.
“For some reason, I decided to wear a shirt and tie that week. We won 10-7, won the next 12 in a row and won the state title. So I just kept on wearing it.”
Since retiring, he has taken up golf and often plays 18 holes twice a day at the Country Club of Canton. He shoots in the low to mid-80s and got his first hole-in-one a few months ago.
He also lifts weights — that accounts for his Popeye forearms. He’s a self-proclaimed “college football junkie.” He also watches nearly every St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. Of course, he attends USM home games and some on the road.
In early February, Hall underwent open heart surgery to replace an aortic valve that his doctors had been monitoring for five years. “It took a little time coming back from that, but I’m feeling really good again,” he says.
On some days at the golf course, he has a female companion playing along with him. A man passed their cart the other day and commended Hall “for spending time with your daughter like you do.”
“I hear you, brother,” Hall responded with a smile.
That “daughter” was his wife, Michele.
“She’s 57 and looks 37,” he says, “and I’m 67 and look 87.”
They met when he was at Madison Central and Michele was head of the booster club. Both eventually divorced.
Michele says the thing she loves most about him is “he’s passionate about everything he does.”
“He’s not going to half do anything,” she says. “He doesn’t dabble, he goes into something 100 percent. And there is a lot to be said about that.”
Will, a husband and father of two, is the same way.
“People say, ‘I know you must be really proud of Will,’ And that’s true, I am,” Hall says. “But I’ve been proud of Will for a long time. Now, I’m proud for Will.
“He’s lived and coached in places like Clinton, S.C., Arkadelphia, Ark., Bolivar, Mo, Livingston, Ala., and Carrollton, Ga.to get to this point.
“If there is anyone who has gone down the dirt road and worked his way up the interstate it’s Will Hall.”