HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - When Jay Ladner’s cell phone started ringing Wednesday evening, he nearly couldn’t bring himself to answer it.
At the other end, University of Southern Mississippi Jeremy McClain awaited with the answer to Ladner’s greatest hope, being named men’s basketball coach of the Golden Eagles, or worst fear, being told someone else had been offered and accepted the job.
“I knew who it was, and I knew that it was going to be yes or no,” Ladner said late Thursday morning. “So, I stared at it for a couple rings, but I knew I had to answer it at some point. So, it was, literally, with bated breath that I answered, and it was Jeremy on the other end, and asked me if I wanted to be our basketball coach.”
“I’m not sure what I even get paid,” Ladner said, drawing a large laugh from media gathered at the Trent Lott Center. “I really don’t. I may be working for free here because I was so excited about the opportunity that I immediately said, ‘Yes.’”
And less than 18 hours later, Ladner was introduced as USM’s 22nd men’s head basketball coach, leaving Southeastern Louisiana University after five seasons to take the helm at his alma mater.
“This is my dream job,” Ladner said. “This is a destination job for Jay Ladner.”
Ladner was not the only person not asking about his compensation. No terms of his agreement were announced Thursday, though it was confirmed that Ladner would be offered a maximum-term, four-year contract.
Sadler had three years left on a contract that was paying him $350,000 a season.
Ladner, 53, was one of six candidates interviewed for the job, said McClain, who a week earlier had sat next to outgoing USM basketball coach Doc Sadler at his farewell news conference. Sadler stepped away from head coaching to become director of basketball operations at the University of Nebraska.
McClain, who had been introduced as USM’s next athletic director just three days before Sadler’s resignation, said he and then-interim AD Jeffrey Mitchell would move as quickly as possible to find Sadler’s successor.
Seven days later, Ladner took to the dais, introduced just a stone’s throw from his once-upon-a-time campus home near later-renamed M.M. Roberts Stadium.
His father, J. Larry Ladner, a Mississippi Coaches Hall of Fame 1994 inductee, had left his coaching position after 11 seasons at Picayune High School to become an assistant professor/basketball specialist in USM’s Department of Coaching/Sports Administration.
His father spent 20 years at the university and Ladner spent the next two decades falling in love with the times and the places and the people.
“We moved here from Picayune when I was 5,” Ladner said. “I went to kindergarten at USM, went to Oak Grove all the way through school. This has been home.”
There was little question where Ladner would attend college, and he wound up lettering three seasons for USM’s all-time winningest coach, M.K. Turk, including the 1986-87 “Fab Four” team that won the National Invitation Tournament.
And cheered on Thursday morning by former teammates, fans, friends and family, Ladner promised to make Golden Eagles’ fans proud and bring back the masses back to Reed Green Coliseum.
“This is a gold mine, a black-and-gold mine,” Ladner said. “We’re primed.”
Ladner introduced one of the members of his coaching staff, Pine Belt native Kyle Roane, who had been with Ladner for four of his five years in Hammond, La.
It will mark Roane’s third stint at USM, including stops with Sadler and James Green, and the Forrest County Agricultural High School graduate also has coaching ties to his alma mater and Petal High School as well as Jones College and Pearl River Community College.
Ladner did not rule out Sadler’s assistants as possible interviews, though he had not gotten that far in his thought process Thursday morning. Ladner said that another one of his assistants, David Keifer, would not be coming to Hattiesburg after accepting an offer to fill the SLU head coaching vacancy.
Robert McInnis, a long-time assistant on Turk’s staff along with Mike Jones and Ralph Moore, said it was good to see someone with ties to the university.
“It’s taken 19 years, but I think we gotten it right,” McInnis said. “We love Jay, the whole family. We’ve known them, followed them,
“We’re hoping that he can do all the things that he said on the stage, and we hope he can be successful. That’s what USM folks want.”
Ladner, who never has coached farther than a few hours’ drive from his family home, said he realized what responsibilities he has taken on, thanks in large part to his immersion in USM and deep familiarity within the region.
“Look, I know if we’re not doing well, I’m going to have to look y’all in the face,” Ladner said. “I want to prove each and every day that y’all made the right decision in giving me this opportunity.”
Casey Fisher said he has no doubt that his former teammate is prepared the roads ahead.
“Through in and out, Jay Ladner was a good guy, a good teammate, and having watched his coaching career, he knows basketball,” Fisher said. “For me to get up and get out of my bed and race to Hattiesburg, we need somebody whose heart is in Golden Eagle basketball.
“To me, there’s no doubt, Jay Ladner is the man for the job.”