Last Friday night, in the first round of the Mississippi high school football playoffs, Pascagoula beat Hattiesburg 7-6 in a tight, exciting defensive struggle in a chilly drizzle up in Forrest County. Afterward, while talking or exchanging texts, several of my friends and I had the same reaction: basically, “Wow, that was like a game in the old Big Eight back in the 60s.”
For the uninitiated, the Big Eight Conference was the league of the largest Mississippi high schools from the 1930s until about the 1980s. There were 23 members across the state, split into the South Big Eight and the North Big Eight. The South included Pascagoula, Moss Point, Gulfport, Biloxi, Laurel, Hattiesburg, Picayune, Columbia, Brookhaven, McComb, Natchez, and Provine.
The football produced by the Big Eight was played at a very high level. One prominent national magazine proclaimed that “Big Eight football in Mississippi is some of the very best in the entire nation.” The hallmark of the Big Eight’s excellence, as was the norm for football in general back then, was tough, no-holds-barred defense.
One of the best football games I have ever seen was Pascagoula versus Biloxi in 1962. Biloxi won the Big Eight championship that year with a 10-0-1 record, defeating North champ Vicksburg in the title game. Pascagoula was 6-2-2, with a superior defense and spotty offense. The final score for that Panthers-Indians clash: 0-0 (no overtime back then). That’s right, a scoreless tie, with numerous goal-line stands, big plays, and bone-crushing hits. Neither team would give in.
Another classic from the Dark Ages (couldn’t resist that) took place during my senior year at PHS in the fall of 1965. Gulfport came to Pascagoula in late September ranked No. 1 in the state, while the Panthers were at No. 5. Over 8,000 folks packed War Memorial Stadium to witness an action-filled game that ended in a 7-7 tie. Pascagoula made three goal-line stands inside the 10-yard line, and Gulfport played stellar defense as well. It was a great game, and only 14 points were scored.
That Pascagoula team had a nice mix of players: SEC signees (Stanley Crawford/Alabama, Dick Ingwersen/Auburn, Jimmy Hults/LSU); a future junior college and 1-AA All-American (Sonny Fletcher/MGCCC and Southeastern Louisiana); a solid quarterback (Russ Walker, our favorite veterinarian); plus a bunch of tough-guy overachievers (Jimmy Bishop, Claude Brown, David Kihyet, Mike Heidelberg, Wiley Gregory, and others). The Panthers gave up a total of 67 points in a 7-2-1 season, shutting out four opponents.
Now, fast forward to 2023. In the game before last week’s PHS-HHS throwback, Pascagoula and George County had a barn burner to close the regular season. The Rebels, led by Notre Dame commit Deuce Knight, scored with 40 seconds left to pull out a 43-40 victory. The two teams combined for 741 yards of total offense, and it was a blast to watch. A stat sheet like this, by the way, is somewhat the norm nowadays in local high school football.
So, what has changed over the last half-century in Mississippi high school football? I turned to Pascagoula Head Coach Lewis Sims, who was a star player at Moss Point in the late 80s and since has had a decorated 30-year coaching career, for some perspective.
“The advent of the RPO (run-pass option) has stretched the field vertically and horizontally,” said Coach Sims. “It is very hard to defend — the best players are put in conflict. Rare is the team that is just so run-heavy and depends so much on physicality.
“As a player in the 80s, we pretty much had to whip the guy in front of you, and whoever survived the blood bath usually won the game. Now the game is faster, with tempo, RPO, and quarterback reads. Every team has a version of the triple option.
“The way we record and watch practices and coach off of film has helped us make practices more meaningful and up-tempo. This translates into the games. Focus and effort are paramount. Recognition, alignment, and having your eyes right are keys to success.
“Now, we had a lot of these elements back in the day as well, and there were great players and teams back then. It’s just a different deal nowadays with the speed of the game and certain preparation techniques.”
That commentary is quite spot on, I believe, and comes from a person in Coach Sims who is very much an authority on the subject. Note that Lewis said “different,” not necessarily “better” when comparing then and now.
There are other factors that have changed high school football in Mississippi over the years. For instance, of those 12 schools I listed from the South Big Eight, only two — Gulfport and Biloxi — are in the state’s largest classification (7A) in 2023. Populations and demographics shift, consolidations take place, and school enrollments change.
Some schools’ programs and fortunes change as well. Once upon a time, for instance, Picayune was everybody’s homecoming game. In 1965-66, Pascagoula beat Picayune by a combined score of 110-19. In the past 30 years or so, however, the Maroon Tide has become a consistent winner and somewhat of a state power. In fact, Picayune has won two straight state championships as we speak and will face Pascagoula this Friday to see who goes to this year’s South Mississippi championship game.
On the other hand, former powers like Biloxi and Natchez have fallen on mostly hard times. Newer schools such as Oak Grove, Madison Central, and South Panola have ascended to excellence. I’m proud to say that Pascagoula and Moss Point have stayed on a pretty consistently strong track over the years.
Like everything in life, high school football evolves. That 1965 Pascagoula team I referenced outscored the opposition 199-67. This year’s Panthers are sitting at 321-256. It’s just different.
For me, I enjoyed high school football very much in 1965, I enjoy it very much in 2023, and I have enjoyed it every year in between. Tough, gritty defensive games are good, and so are high-powered offensive shootouts. The kids and coaches have always put a fun product out on the field, and that should thankfully continue on. Plus, we can still get the occasional mud-and-blood nail biter like Pascagoula and Hattiesburg gave us last week.