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.
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.
love Golden Eagle athletics. Football, baseball, basketball, whatever,"
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.
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."
of life often forced football to take a backseat, too.
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.
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."
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.
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."
has seen the school grow exponentially; nevertheless, he shares
a vision of an even brighter, golden future ahead of the Eagles.
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.
I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have USM athletics," he
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.