Across a coaching career that has spanned three decades, including 18 years as a head coach, Rodney Southern has seen a lot change.
The game — and the money, concern and resources poured into it — has grown immensely since the Huntsville head football coach’s days as a 150-pound outside linebacker at Winnsboro High School in northeast Louisiana. Southern has evolved some as a coach as well.
But at the core, much remains the same.
The philosophy of building trust with his players by investing in them has never changed. He believes the kids — despite having a bevy of distractions at their fingertips — haven’t changed either.
“I hope I've gotten smarter in 18 years of dealing with high school kids,” Southern said. “Everybody says that kids are different today. No they're not, they just have different circumstances. ... Football is still the same. Kids love it, they want to know and they want you to discipline them.”
Consistency has been a theme throughout Southern’s head coaching career, with his offensive coordinator David Brewer being along for every step of the way since he landed his first head coaching job at Marshall in 2002. Five years later, Brewer traveled with him to his next stop in Belton.
While there, Southern brought Scott Schroeder onboard as an offensive line coach. When a defensive coordinator vacancy opened up on the staff, Schroeder told Southern, “You need to give me the job.” Following a football discussion, the head coach agreed.
Southern brought his two coordinators with him to Huntsville in 2014, and last season, the trio helped lead the Hornets’ to the state quarterfinals — the school’s deepest playoff run in 28 years.
“It's unique, because it's very seldom where you have guys that you keep for an extended period of time — especially when you move,” Southern said. “This is my third head coaching job, and I've been blessed for (Coach Brewer) to go with me to all three. It's a trust factor. We don't always agree, which is good, and I don't always agree with Coach Schroeder either. But together, we figure out what we feel is best.”
While in 2019 it may seem that Southern was destined to pace the sidelines under the Friday night lights, the answer wasn’t always certain to the coach.
Intrigued by his father’s work as a mechanical designer, Southern — who remarks that, “people probably wouldn't know it, but I’m fairly artistic” — studied architecture as a freshman at Louisiana Tech. By the end of the year, however, he was on the path to a career in coaching.
“I had a teacher in an art class, and we were in the 14th story of a building looking out the window,” Southern recalled. “The sun was shining, there were people out in the foyer and we’re in there talking about art, and I’m like, 'This is not what I want to do.'
“I changed my major that summer and went into education. … I didn't know initially, but I knew once I made the transition that I was going to be able to make a difference and still be around the game.”
Southern served as an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech for two years, before crossing the border and beginning his venture into Texas high school football.
“I was really intrigued initially, and wanted to coach in college the entire time,” Southern added. “I had an opportunity to do it for two years ... and one of the coaches said, 'Rodney, if you want to stay in coaching go to Texas.' I crossed the line and never looked back.”
While much has stayed the same since Southern started his head coaching career at Marshall, where he led the Mavericks to back-to-back state title game appearances in 2004-05, there is one thing that is notably different.
The Hornets’ historic 2018 season included an undefeated District 10-5A Division II title, as well as a handful of other memorable moments — such as the 35-34 victory over Marshall in the regional semifinals, secured by a defensive stop on a last-minute two-point attempt. With his son Matthew — who slept through half of the ‘04 title game, and is now a senior — at starting quarterback, Southern made sure to take it all in.
“I look back on our '04 year,” the coach said. “We struggled at the beginning of the year, and ended up winning nine games in a row and playing for a state championship. I looked back when it was over, and I didn't enjoy any of it.
“If you don't enjoy it, you look back and you miss something. Last year, throughout the playoffs and all the way through — practicing on Thanksgiving Day and playing in December, those are things you dream of doing when you get a head coaching job in Texas — I made sure to enjoy the time with my son.”