HERMOSA BEACH, California — Shawn Taylor and the Southern Mississippi beach volleyball team weren’t entirely sure what to expect on their recent trip to Southern California, only that winning a whole lot wasn’t one of those expectations.

It’s a relatively new program, Southern Miss. Still in what Taylor and his pseudo volunteer assistant coach label the “infant stages.” Exposure to the best beach volleyball in the country, against the most dominant programs in the still-young sport’s history, would provide vital lessons, even if it meant dinging the record a bit along the way. The pseudo volunteer assistant — Southern Miss does have a real one — knows a thing or two about that.

“It’s beach volleyball but it could be football, it could be baseball — in order to get better, you have to play better talent, you have to experience things, you can’t just stay in the status quo that you’re always in,” Brett Favre, who is not the actual volunteer assistant but is involved with the program, said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “You get your butt whipped, and you either retreat or you get better. But you gotta expose yourself — these programs out here, this is it. This is where it’s from. This is where it’s born. You have to go get some of that magic.”

Yes, you read the name correct. It is that Brett Favre, the Gunslinger, the man who started a record 321 consecutive games for the Green Bay Packers, an 11-time Pro Bowler and a Hall of Fame selection. And yes, that Brett Favre is a beach volleyball guy now, the father of Breleigh Favre, a 6-foot-2 senior who is starting on court 1 for the Golden Eagles alongside Kellie Garraway. And he knows, be it beach volleyball or football, how to take a program from the doldrums to the highest level. Heaven knows he’s done it before.

He was seventh on the depth chart when he first enrolled at Southern Mississippi in 1987 as a 17-year-old with a Howitzer of an arm but little clue as to where that arm would send the football he was tasked with throwing.

“I had nowhere to go but up,” he said. “So they said ‘Hey, Four! You go play scout team.’ I didn’t even know what scout team was. They held up these little cards, and we were going against the first string defense. I was a little intimidated, but I was 17 years old at the time and I was 10 feet tall and bulletproof, and one thing I knew I could do was that I could throw it farther and I could throw it harder than anyone. I didn’t know where or who to, don’t get me wrong, I just knew I could out-throw them.

“The coach said ‘I want you to do this.’ Well, I’d always do that. But my point is: It was an opportunity for me to get better. Even though it was unscripted, you’re competing against, in my situation, the best our defense could put out there, and I sized up. Again, you either rise up to the occasion and go: ‘You know what, you might beat me once, twice, maybe three times, or you can say I’m not cut out for this,’ and you pack your bags and go elsewhere.

“Again, talking about beach volleyball, it’s such a great experience when Shawn told us we were going to do a West Coast swing. For me, it’s two things: There’s such value in seeing where it came from, but also just the experience. There’s more to it than just playing. I hope we win this week. I’d be shocked if we did. I watched Cal Poly and LMU the last couple of weeks, and I don’t see LMU getting beat. Their ones are outstanding. Studs. My daughter’s a one seed, and I’m pulling for them, and we’ll see how we match up against them. But it’s a great experience.”

The baptism by fire worked well enough for Favre. He shot up from seventh string to the starting quarterback by the fourth game of his freshman season at Southern Miss. From there he’d put together a college career worthy of being drafted in the second round by the Atlanta Falcons in the 1991 NFL Draft.

It wasn’t easy, of course. Southern Miss still lost plenty with Favre at the helm, and the future Hall of Famer would throw 34 interceptions over the course of his college career. But would he have gone on to rewrite the NFL record books, win a Super Bowl, and thrice be named the NFL Most Valuable Player had he not stepped into a role that was perhaps a bit outsized for him at the time? Probably not.

Which is why Southern Miss, in just its fourth year — third, if you discount the COVID-shortened season — of existence, traveled to Southern California at the end of March to play all of the sport’s blue-bloods. The Golden Eagles played former powerhouse Pepperdine, at Pepperdine’s house in Malibu. They played West Coast Conference leader LMU, at LMU’s house in Santa Monica. They played Cal Poly, at Cal Poly’s house in San Luis Obispo. And they lost, yes, all seven matches they played on their West Coast swing. But winning wasn’t necessarily the objective. Would have been a nice bonus, to be sure, but not what they traveled across the country to do.

“I’ve been saying: If you want to be the best, you gotta go play the best, and we can’t be concerned about our record,” said Taylor, who was hired in December of 2019 to lead the Golden Eagles. “If we get wrapped up in the result, it’s not going to be good for us. If we want to be great, we have to go play great. Coming out here — there’s some great programs around us, don’t get me wrong, but this is a different style. Part of it is: What are we doing in the off-season? How are we getting ourselves better?

“Most of them had never been to California before. So to expose them to this and say: You don’t have to spend your life out here, but if you can come out for two or three weeks, harass Savvy [Simo]! Ask her to play. You’re interviewing every day. If you’re out there playing, it’s not just getting reps. More often than not, somebody’s trying you out.”

Shawn Taylor-Brett Favre-Southern Miss beach volleyball
Brett Favre cheers on the Southern Miss beach volleyball team/Southern Miss photo

Slowly, Taylor and Favre — and their real graduate assistant, Hannah Masoner — can see the culture shifting in Hattiesburg. Southern Miss is the owner of one of the finest beach volleyball facilities in the country. Taylor has been able to recruit talents from Poland (Aleksandra Chudzik), Cypress (Valeria Siakidou Papakyriakou), the Czech Republic (Vanessa Hurnikova and Neli Kozlerova), Spain (Carmen Sanchez Delgado), and from eight different U.S. states, including California (Kaylie Beck). It’s a long process, but one that is being expedited by trips such as last weekend’s — to play against the best, to see what the highest level looks like, and then replicate it.

“We have to pay our dues,” Favre said. “We’re obviously not there. But [Taylor has] recruited. He’s got one from Poland, another from Czech, one from Cypress, another from Spain. We’ve had a total of one who went back home, and I think that says a lot about our program.

“In Mississippi. It’s becoming cool to be on the beach volleyball team, or be playing it.”

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