HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The 1997 Southern Miss football team is one that is talked about 20 years later.
In fact, the University will honor the '97 Golden Eagles during USM's Conference USA opener against North Texas on Saturday. The Eagles finished 9-3 in 1997, claimed their second straight Conference USA title and knocked off Pittsburgh 41-7 in the Liberty Bowl.
"We had a lot of fire power, offensively and defensively," said former Southern Miss wide receiver Sherrod Gideon, who racked up 1,008 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in 1997. "That was one of the better teams that I played for at Southern Miss. I'd put that '97 team probably the best one that we had."
USM ranked 19th in the nation when the final AP poll came out 20 years ago. Although the Eagles came up short in their three chances to upset ranked SEC opponents, they played then-No. 2 Florida, No. 21 Alabama and a Peyton Manning-led Tennessee team tough.
"1993-97 we had a winning year every year," said former USM running back Eric Booth, now the head football coach of Collins High School. "We know we were going to play Alabama, one year we played Florida, Florida State, Tennessee. We had fun though, I enjoyed playing those big games."
Southern Miss made sure they took care of business in conference, going undefeated with blowouts of Tulane, Houston and Memphis. Just a month after beating the Tigers 42-18 in the 1997 regular season finale, USM would return to Memphis to battle Pitt in the Liberty Bowl.
Southern Miss came to play that night.
Three defensive touchdowns, including an interception return from Liberty Bowl defensive MVP Adalius Thomas highlighted the win. Gideon earned MVP honors with 111 receiving yards and three touchdowns as the Eagles defeated Pitt 41-7, securing their first bowl win since 1988.
Jeff Bower would be named C-USA coach of the year in 1997, eight players were named first-team All-conference and 12 would eventually be drafted in the NFL.
Patrick Surtain's six interceptions that season helped him earn was second-team All-American and C-USA defensive player of the year honors. Harold Shaw rushed for 1,045 yards and 16 touchdowns, the third-most in a single season at USM. Current Golden Eagle assistant coach Lytrel Pollard led USM with 114 tackles in 1997.
Needless to say, it's hard to forget about the 1997 Southern Miss football team.
"We were just together," Gideon said. "We were a very talented team and I think everyone was together. Defense was together. Offense, we had a solid group, we were together. It was a lot of cohesiveness. I think all of us are trying to make our way back for the ceremony they're having this year. It'll be fun times getting back and seeing those guys and bringing back the memories that we had. That was probably one of the better teams in Southern Miss history that year."