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Released August 25, 2003

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG - Some of the biggest fans of the Golden Eagle football team aren't even at The University of Southern Mississippi's M.M. Roberts Stadium on Saturdays. Instead, they are in the woods, lakes and streams throughout south Mississippi in the fall.

These fans aren't hunters, mind you. They are the hunted. And Saturdays at The Rock offer these critters at least one day of respite from a man whose love of hunting and fishing is rivaled only by his love for Southern Miss football.

Meet Ben Willoughby, a local radio personality and renowned outdoorsman known affectionately as the "King of the Wild Frontier." For almost half a century, Willoughby has been an integral part of Golden Eagle athletics, from his playing days on the 1962 Small College National Championship team to his 15 years served as the director of the Eagle Club.

His ties to Southern Miss go even deeper. "My whole family had something to do with USM. My brother, Will, played here, my mom and dad established an endowment here, I met my wife here and both of my daughters graduated from here," Willoughby said. "I'd say about 95 percent of my friends are USM people too."

When he's not in the woods, stalking a buck or talking turkey, he's on a lake, wetting a hook and angling for those proverbial big ones that never seem to get away from Willoughby.

But as soon as the first Golden Eagle lands on the playing field, the guns go back on the rack and the hooks back in the tackle box.

"I just love Golden Eagle athletics. Football, baseball, basketball, whatever," he said.

A high school quarterback from Liberty, Willoughby came to USM on scholarship in 1958. After redshirting his first year, the transplanted cornerback-halfback saw ample playing time from 1960 through 1962 and was part of the national championship team his senior season.

He said a lot about Southern Miss has changed since his days playing for legendary coach Thad "Pie" Vann.

"When I came here, there were about 2,500 students and about 100 cars on campus," Willoughby said. "It's just unbelievable how much it's grown. Baseball games back then were played on the football practice field, and they were free. Now every seat is filled."

The realities of life often forced football to take a backseat, too.

"Several of my teammates had fought in the Korean War, and after people have been shooting at you, football is a piece of cake," he said. "For me, it was 'go to school on a football scholarship or go into the Army,' so I chose Southern Miss."

After a successful career in business, Willoughby went to work for his alma mater in 1979 when former USM Athletic Director Roland Dale hired him to run the Big Gold Club, the fund-raising arm of the football team.

"Ben was one of the great athletes at Southern Miss," Dale said. "He had always shown such great interest in USM that I hired him to take over (the Big Gold Club). He took over when there was nothing to take over. He started from scratch."

Dale said Willoughby did a "great job of breaking new ground, taking the Big Gold Club where it had never been before."

Over time, the Big Gold Club morphed into the Eagle Club, which Willoughby oversaw until he retired in 1993. Since then he has stayed active in USM athletics, helping to start the Dugout Club for the baseball team. He's also featured each day on a local radio station, WXRR FM 104.5, as the "King of the Wild Frontier," where he dispenses hunting and fishing tips - and drops in the occasional plug for Southern Miss.

"He has dedicated himself to this university," Dale said. "Sometimes so many scholarship athletes never try to return the favor for what their school did for them, but he's given back as much as he can. His appreciation for this university is great."

Willoughby has seen the school grow exponentially; nevertheless, he shares a vision of an even brighter, golden future ahead of the Eagles.

"We have a president, Dr. Shelby Thames, who is a real visionary. He understands how important athletics are to an institution, and how its academic growth goes hand-in-hand. If he doesn't work himself to death, he's going to do great things for this university."

Soon, the football, hunting and fishing seasons will all crank up, and Willoughby will once again have his hands full this fall.

But while Willoughby will admit the lure of the sea and the woods is great, even tempting him to skip the occasional Eagle event, it's no match for the thrill of the game at Southern Miss.

"Honestly, I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have USM athletics," he said.

A lot of fish and fowl do, however, and on behalf of the wildlife population of South Mississippi, they're glad he's a rabid fan.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM