Hu Meena was going to coach. He knew it growing up in Clarksdale. He knew it going to college at Ole Miss.
He played all the sports as a kid and and was the quarterback for the first Charlie Conerly Shoe Store little league football team. In Clarksdale, Chunkin' Charlie's hometown, that's pressure. Meena played football and basketball in high school. Often, in classes, he would scribble football plays when, he says, “I was supposed to be doing something else.”
“I was a sports nut, I loved all of it,” he says.
His first job out of Ole Miss: coaching all sports and teaching driver's education at Pillow Academy in Greenwood, where one of his students was Cissye Gallagher, the 12-time Mississippi amateur golf champion. “I wish I could take credit for teaching her how to drive a golf ball instead of how to drive a car,” Meena says, laughing.
Last Saturday night, the same night Gallagher and five others were inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame (MSHOF), Meena received the prestigious Rube Award for his lifetime of contributions to Mississippi sports. The award is named for longtime and legendary TV broadcaster Michael Rubenstein, the first executive director of the Hall of Fame.
Meena is the eighth winner of the Rube Award, and take a look at the first seven on the list: Boo Ferriss, Ben Puckett, Archie Manning, George Bryan, Gov. William Winter, Ron Polk and Tyrone Keys.
Said Meena, “I look at those names of these previous winners and I think about all they did for Mississippi sports and I wonder why the heck my name is on the same award.”
Actually, there are any number of reasons – any number of Meena's contributions – that answer Meena's own question. His coaching career was short-lived – one year (2-9 in football) – but after a career switch Meena rose through the telecommunications industry to become CEO of C Spire. His – and his company's – contributions to Mississippi sports are literally too many to list here.
First and foremost, C Spire, then Cellular South, became the title sponsor of the Conerly Trophy, which goes annually to most outstanding football player in Mississippi. That award has morphed into multiple awards (the Bailey Howell Trophy in mens basketball, the Boo Ferriss Trophy in baseball and the (Peggie) Gillom Trophy in women's basketball. Those awards have all become prestigious honors in Mississippi sports and the awards banquets have become huge fund raisers for the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Without question, C Spire is the MSHOF's largest benefactor.
C Spire has also sponsored state basketball tournaments and state football championships in both public and private schools. The company in the past has been a major sponsor of the PGA Champions Tour golf tournament on the Gulf Coast. C Spire has lent financial and technological support to state university athletic programs as well.
As important and meaningful as anything else, Meena led efforts to work with the Mississippi Department of Education and the Mississippi High School Activities Association to provide web-based and on-site workshops and curriculum to help thousands of high school student-athletes succeed academically and attend college in order to pursue their dreams.
Why do all this? “We are a Mississippi company and Mississippians are incredibly passionate about their sports,” Meena said. “Sports are about competition and we at C Spire are about competition as well. We compete with much larger companies in our marketplace.”
Meena says lessons he learned in sports competition have been keys to his success in the telecommunications industry. He played for a tough, in-your-face night school high school football coach in Nick Clark, a Bull Sullivan disciple. He played for a cerebral basketball coach and physics teacher named Gene Barbour.
“One was full of fire and the other never raised his voice,” Meena said. “Both were highly successful. I learned so much from them, including there's more than one way to skin a cat. I use lessons I learned from them every day in business. You have to be yourself and be true to yourself. We are fortunate to have so many different managers at C Spire from different backgrounds and with different management styles. There are different ways to get the job done and I learned that early from my coaches.”
Rick Cleveland (email@example.com) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.