Ladner’s basketball career came full-circle when hired as Southern Miss coach

By CAMAL PETRO,

Southern Miss basketball coach Jay Ladner admits his path to his new office inside Reed Green Coliseum isn’t common for other coaches.

“How did you do it? How can I do it?”

Those are the questions Ladner is asked by high school and junior college coaches on a routine basis. The Oak Grove High School alum didn’t take the normal route to get to be the Southern Miss head coach. Even his path to becoming a coach, in general, wasn’t a smooth one.

“I literally get emails and phone calls from high school and junior college coaches; at one time I was getting five or six a week,” Ladner said. “‘Coach, what did you do?’ My only plan was to do the best I could at every job. If the opportunity arose for maybe a different challenge, I’d always consider it and might not take it.”

Ladner always knew he wanted to be a coach in some way. After coaching St. Stanislaus through two decades of excellence, Ladner coached at Oak Grove for a season before rising up the college coaching ranks quickly. Just seven years removed from coaching Oak Grove, Ladner spent two seasons at Jones County Junior College and five more at Southeastern Louisiana before taking over his hometown team, Southern Miss.

Instead of working his way up by serving as a college assistant, starting with St. Stanislaus, each of Ladner’s stops prepared him for the next. Now he’s laid out a clear path for other high school coaches, and he hears of them a lot.

“I never even thought about that kind of stuff,” Ladner said. “High school coaches who have never gotten the opportunity to coach in junior college or college, they look and go, ‘Hey, he’s now given us a chance.’”

While Ladner now proudly displays his new black and gold gear with a Golden Eagles logo on his chest, he’s still a high school coach at heart. He knows what a high school coach goes through, and he knows some have college coaching aspirations.

His father, Larry Ladner, had other aspirations for his son. Jay studied pre-medicine, zoology and chemistry while playing four years of basketball and two, of baseball at Southern Miss.

In respect to his father’s wishes of working in the medical field, Ladner entered the pharmaceutical business after college and he was assigned to work the Mississippi Gulf Coast to the Covington, Louisiana, area. While giving the medical field its fair shot, he still deep down wanted to be a coach. If he was working in Pascagoula one day, he’d stop at Pascagoula High School and watch the Panthers practice. If he was in Biloxi, he’d watch the Jackie Laird-coached Indians practice, too. Eventually, Ladner started helping his cousin, Chuck Genin, at St. Stanislaus.

“I obviously had an in at St. Stanislaus and I lived close to it, so I was probably there a little bit more, as far as watching them play and practice, then the others,” Ladner said.

Genin battled diabetes, so Ladner helped even more one summer. In 1992 while in Houston working for his pharmaceutical company, he arrived back to his hotel with a message from Brother Paul Montero, S.C. at St. Stanislaus.

“He said, ‘I just wanted to let you know if you didn’t already know, your cousin, Chuck, had to resign. We’d like to talk to you about the job,’” Ladner recalled. “Being young, naïve and stupid, I said, ‘what does that job pay?’”

It didn’t matter if the head coach of St. Stanislaus made one-third less than what Ladner was bringing in working in the pharmaceutical industry, because he wanted to be a coach, no matter what. He did, however, keep the stock the pharmaceutical company gave him when he was employed there 30 years ago.

“It’s grown a lot since then, so I’m glad I kept it,” Ladner said jokingly.

The biggest hurdle wasn’t the difference in salary, though. It was telling his father about his career choice. He knew the conversation wouldn’t be easy, but he built up the courage and made the trip from the coast to Hattiesburg to bite the bullet.

Ladner’s father thought it was such a big mistake that Richard Williams, the Mississippi State men’s coach from 1986-1998, called Ladner to attempt to talk him out of it.

“I was not deterred,” Ladner said.  when I practiced with the team for the first time, I was having some second thoughts.”

From there, Ladner and St. Stanislaus began to have success. He took the program to new heights and consistently made the state tournament in Jackson. He also captured a state championship in 2011.

In 20 years at St. Stanislaus, Ladner made a huge impact in Mississippi high school basketball. He was looked at as a prized coach when Oak Grove’s Harry Breland made the call to Ladner to see if he was interested in a coaching job at his alma mater. Ladner was probably the most stable head basketball coach in the state, but Breland and made the job so attractive, he couldn’t say no.

That was the start of expedited coaching stops at three differently leveled schools before taking over Southern Miss. Ladner spent one year at Oak Grove before getting the attention of then-named Jones County Junior College. Then, after winning a national championship, Southeastern Louisiana University offered him his first Division I gig.

Ladner was a prized high school coach, then after his successes at Jones and Southeastern, he became a name-to-watch at the college level, too. When it was time to replace Doc Sadler at Southern Miss, Ladner was a top candidate.

“I was in high school for 21 years and I was 40-something years old,” Ladner said about his thought process when considering the Jones job. “If I want to give the college thing a try, then hey, I’m going to go give it a try.”

Ladner defied the traditional way of moving up in the coaching ranks like he defied his father’s wishes of working in the medical field.

“Growing up the son of a coach, the last thing a high school teacher and coach wants you to become is a teacher and a coach,” Ladner said. “It’s a hard life and they just don’t want you to do that. But I grew up in gyms, locker rooms and baseball diamonds. All of the people I looked up to were coaches.”

On the day of Ladner’s introduction as Southern Miss’ new coach, though, Larry Ladner was as proud as he could be of his son. That day in April was also Larry’s 82nd birthday.

“It’ll be the most memorable birthday present I’ve ever received,” Larry said that day. “I would have never dreamed of this a week ago. We love the university. Of course, Jay loves the university, and being a basketball person, he loves basketball. He has great vision for the potential of Southern Miss basketball, and I think it’ll be a great fit for him, his staff and the university.”

This past spring wasn’t the first time Ladner interviewed for the Southern Miss job, though. Admittedly, Ladner believes this 2012 interview was a courtesy interview because he was a former player, and Southern Miss opted for Donnie Tyndall. He was brought back in 2014 for another interview with the Golden Eagles, but Sadler was hired instead.

Current Southern Miss athletics director Jeremy McClain was the deputy athletics director for Bill McGillis then, so when McClain was named the AD at Southern Miss in April and his first big coaching search was for a basketball coach, he knew who to call. The two had a familiarity of each other because McClain was in those interviews in 2014, but Ladner made it clear it wasn’t going to be a courtesy interview this time around.

“I was upfront with him,” Ladner said. “I said, ‘If I’m here because I’m from Hattiesburg or I’m a Southern Miss guy, whatever it might be, if that’s the reason that we’re talking today, I’d rather not go through this. This is close to my heart and I don’t want to have to go through this interview process.’ I just didn’t need that anymore. I was past that.”

McClain made it clear to Ladner he was on the top of his list. He was impressed with Ladner in 2014 and he was impressed once again in 2019. Less than an hour after Ladner left his final interview with McClain, deputy AD Jeff Mitchell and Southern Miss President Rodney Bennett, he got the phone call from McClain and Bennett.

“I knew I was fixing to get a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ right then,” Ladner said. “I let it ring a couple of times and I answered the phone. It was Jeremy and I couldn’t read anything from his voice.”

McClain quickly put Bennett on the phone to officially offer Ladner the job.

“All those years of coaching in high school prepared me to coach in junior college, and coaching junior college prepared me to go into lower level Division I,” Ladner said. “That job prepared me for this job. Each one of those I felt like I went at the right time. I give the Lord all of the credit because there’s no way I can look back at it now, the way the dominos fell at different times. It’s uncanny to think it was something else besides Divine Intervention.”

Whether Ladner was ready or not in 2012 or 2014, the program probably would have looked differently if he’d received the job either of those times. But by his own logic, he needed to learn the ropes at Jones and Southeastern Louisiana before getting the keys to Southern Miss’ program.

He has those keys now.