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Today the 17-year coaching veteran will walk off the same field following the Golden Eagles’ battle with Cincinnati in the PapaJohns.com Bowl. He’ll turn the Southern Miss football program over to Larry Fedora, after being forced to resign Nov. 26.
“It’s going to be emotional,’’ Bower said. “It will probably will be tearful. I would like to go out with a win. Ending this with a win is important to me, but more important for the program and the players.’’
Instead of attacking Southern Miss Athletic Director Richard Gianinni over the forced resignation, Bower would like his on-the-field accomplishments to be the judge of his tenure.
Bower and his staff, knowing they had no jobs secured for next season, opted to coach the bowl game for the sake of the players. That is the same touch of class Bower has shown since his first coaching game at Southern Miss — the 1991 All-American Bowl at Legion Field against N.C. State, with a gun-slinging quarterback named Brett Favre.
“I’m not going to say anything negative because it will not do any good,’’ Bower said. “It happened and we will go forward just like they will. I will continue to follow these kids because I am the one responsible for them being here. Will I watch a game next year? I can’t answer that. I do know one thing: I would not take anything back.
“I wanted to coach these guys one more time. I think I deserve the opportunity to coach one last game.’’
Bower put Southern Miss on the college football map with 14 consecutive winning seasons, 11 bowl games in 12 seasons and four Conference USA championships.
Toss in a graduation rate of nearly 90 percent and no major recruiting violations, and Bower is Southern Miss.
By comparison, Southern Miss is Jeff Bower, too.
“I am proud of what we have done,’’ Bower said. “You can’t call yourself a good player or good program until you win consistently — and we did that.
“I had high expectations when I came here. I can’t say I expected to last 17 years. But I have great memories and it’s been a lot of fun. The program is on a solid foundation. There are some things that are a lot better now than when I came here.’’
The Jeff Bower era, begun Dec. 2, 1990, saw three losing seasons before back-to-back 6-5 seasons in 1994-95 began a remarkable run.
The Golden Eagles won their first C-USA crown in 1996 and repeated in 1997 when the Black and Gold played in the Liberty Bowl against Pittsburgh to cap a 9-3 season.
The 1997 season saw tragedy for Bower; his daughter, Kristen, died in am automobile accident after the Illinois game, a 24-7 Southern Miss win. Bower — with players, coaches and fans rallying around him — returned to the field after an open week and beat Nevada 35-19 at The Rock.
That season ended with a three-game winning streak against Houston, Memphis and Pittsburgh by a combined score of 116-25.
“The ’97 Liberty Bowl game was special to me,’’ he said. “That was the year that I lost my daughter. That was a tough year . . . but a good year. The kids and staff really rallied behind my family and we had a heck of a good football team. It was a great feeling walking off the field at the Liberty Bowl with the win.’’
With the sudden success, Bower’s name circulated for several years for other coaching jobs across the nation. At one point he turned down the job at Baylor and he was a candidate at Georgia before Mark Richt. Bower also was mentioned as a candidate at SMU this December but he said that was false. He plans to take a year off.
“I am loyal to this university and will always be,’’ Bower said. “If I wasn’t, I would have been gone along time ago. It’s never been about the money, it’s about deep loyalty. I enjoyed coaching here and this is the job that fired me up.’’