In true public relations fashion, Jim Coll chooses his words carefully as he speaks. But when he does convey his thoughts, he’s passionate about his subjects – whether his family, his job, his co-workers, his university or the other subjects that are near and dear.
As chief communications officer at The University of Southern Miss, Coll and his staff are always giving people the opportunity to tell their Southern Miss stories through the written word, videos, social media channels and the like.
But Coll has his own collection of stories – Southern Miss and otherwise.
CROSSING STATE LINES
Even though he grew up in New Orleans, graduating in 1991 from Brother Martin High School, it was that Southern hospitality of Mississippi and Southern Miss that brought Coll north across the state line.
“The warmth and hospitality got me here,” Coll said, sitting in his second-floor office of Jones Hall, the south endzone of M.M. Roberts Stadium shadowing the street out front. “It was unusual, not that New Orleans isn’t those things. When I came to visit Hattiesburg, everyone waves at you or opens doors for you, whether they know you or not. That was unusual for me and something I wanted to explore more.”
Coll has being doing just that for the last 28 years – whether as an undergrad studying for a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a graduate student working on a master’s in mass communications or now heading up communications for the university while working on a dissertation toward his doctorate.
As a student, his biggest area of student involvement was his fraternity, Kappa Sigma, where he served as president.
With an undergraduate degree in psychology, Coll feels that course of study helps him tremendously in what he does today. He admits it’s not the path he would have taken if he’d known his job in communications was going to be his career choice.
“My personality is such that I do better when I’m around energetic, positive, optimistic people, and while the (psychology) career field is rewarding, amazing and you get to be part of life change for people, I don’t think it was the right fit for me,” Coll said. “I enjoy encouraging other people and sharing their stories and in doing so encouraging others who see that and aspire to do those same things. I think that’s where I’m best.”
As a student, he never had an inkling that one day he might like to be back on campus in an employment capacity.
“While I love it here, I don’t know that I’ve ever been one that wants to do this job or that job,” he said. “I’ve sort of started in jobs, developed skills and it’s led me to the next thing, even today. I don’t know that 8.5 years ago (that’s how long I’ve been in this job) I would say I would be doing this still, but that’s the way it’s worked out. I don’t know if that’s the best model, but it works and it’s always fresh and exciting.”
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
Along the path, Coll met his wife, Deedre, through his insurance company.
Currently the assistant principal at Oak Grove Lower Elementary, her previous job was in insurance. In fact, she worked for the company where Coll had his car insurance.
“I’d gotten a new vehicle and she called to tell me I needed to come in and update my information, so I went into the office and that’s where I met her,” he said.
It was after that initial conversation that Coll decided he really liked her, but didn’t have the courage to ask her out on the spot.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate, but soon after I got up the courage,” he said.
The couple dated and was married in May 2004.
Deedre is a Millsaps graduate with a Master’s from William Carey.
“She, along with my daughters, is the biggest part of everything,” Coll said.
That’s why he does what he does in all things to try and encourage them. “I feel really really fortunate,” he said. “I know people say that. I don’t know how she decided to marry me. I truly feel that every day I want to make sure she’s confident in that decision, that that was a good call. I know how I feel about her and my children, so I always want my actions to reflect that. She’s wonderful in many of the ways in which I am not. I admire her for that.”
He truly struggles to put into words the love he has for his family.
BLACK, WHITE, READ ALL OVER
Upon graduation, Coll entered the newspaper business for about six years, where he did a little bit of everything – sports and news writing, a columnist and all things required of a weekly newspaper employee.
When he left, it was back to the university and the alumni association under the tutelage of executive director Bob Pierce. Coll put in a five or six-year stint before being hired to his current position by then-President Dr. Martha Saunders.
Coll believes his time in the newspaper business certainly helps with the media relations aspect of his job, because he’s been on the other end trying to get information from an organization.
“I think that helps those relationships because I think you’re more respectful, you understand there are deadlines and why they are there and how difficult that can be,” he said. “It just helps that relationship to be able to see it from that perspective.”
While there are a lot of people who have had an influence on Coll’s life, the two faculty members who stand out for him are Gene Wiggins and Art Coll.
“The wonderful thing about Dr. Wiggins is that everybody says the same thing about him as I do,” Coll said. “You felt like he cared for you the most, supported you and every student he ever taught. You always felt like you were his favorite student.”
Coll remembers that even after he came back to the university to work, Wiggins’ encouragement continued.
“Even on the worst days on the job, if I was walking across campus, he’d see me and say what a great job I was doing,” Coll said. “I don’t know if that was true or not, but at the time, it helped. It was a nice boost.”
Another professor Coll admired was Art Coll, who taught him ethics and who he thought to be the most fantastic lecturer.
Coll always appreciated the fact that his instructor was training students how to think, not telling them what to think. “His lectures were fantastic and the time flew by,” he said. “You always got out of there with some little piece of enlightenment.”
In addition to those instructors there were also those university presidents Coll has had the good fortune to work with.
There have been three university presidents during Coll’s tenure and he’s learned something from each of them.
“From Martha Saunders, I learned how to stand my ground when it matters,” he said. “From Aubrey Lucas, I learned to face challenges head on, but always as a gentleman and always with a smile on my face. And from Rodney Bennett, I’m constantly reminded to approach my work with incredible energy and enthusiasm and always with Southern Miss students at the heart of that work,” Coll said.
His job and that of his staff requires constant monitoring of the media 24/7, 365 days a year, as well as a plethora of other jobs and duties. So how does he separate that from his family life away from work?
Coll believes he improved at “work/life” balance once he stopped trying to divide his time into neat categories of “work” and “life,” as if work is not an important and meaningful part of life, or as if his life did not affect his work.
“Today, my ‘work’ goal is to connect my work to my life’s purpose and goals,” he said. “Part of that purpose, as I see it, is to encourage other people. I try my best to encourage my wife and children, and I also do my best to encourage co-workers.”
Through public relations, Coll gets to tell wonderful, positive stories that encourage the subjects of those stories, as well as those who read, view and hear about those stories.
“My experience is that the more I give to others – the more energy I have to give to my family, work and other pursuits,” Coll said. “It’s not the hours you spend at work that burn you out, it’s the hours you spend on meaningless tasks and in meaningless pursuits. The only way I know to make work meaningful is to connect it to life, and not try to separate work into another independent category.”
Coll realizes he couldn’t do his job without the University Communications staff. He knows it’s not just about him.
“This staff has completed amazing work in recent years, winning almost every state-wide and regional award available in our field,” Coll said, noting the staff competes with the best in the profession, including some of the region’s best-known agencies.
He rattles off a litany of big-time awards the office has received, from the Southern Public Relations Federation’s Best of Show Award to the Public Relations Association of Mississippi’s Judges’ Choice Award, and the College Public Relations Association’s Grand Awards for Electronic and Print Media, among other honors.
He explained that a “Best of Show” Award, is judged to be the best of many hundreds of entries across four states from businesses, agencies, organizations, universities and more.
“Not tied for the best, or one of the best, but the best,” he said.
He also gives a nod to the communications officer on the Gulf Coast campus, Jenny Tate, who is also second in command for university communications.
“When I started this journey almost nine years ago in my current job, I knew that to be successful, the team had to become better at their jobs than their boss is at his. No doubt that they are now, and I'm crazy proud of them. I’m their biggest fan.”
When it’s family time you’ll find the Coll family with daughters, Anna Grace, 10, and Macy, 8, enjoying a variety of activities.
One of their absolute favorite places to visit is the Hattiesburg Zoo, which they visit several times a year.
“We enjoy everything about it and there’s always something new,” said Coll.
On occasion, one of his daughters will get Coll up on the ropes course, which he says is more fun for her than it is for him, according to the man who has competed in an Ironman Triathlon.
He said during the summer months they enjoy swimming and being outdoors. “We just enjoy being out doing,” he said.
“Anna Grace is your typical first child,” he said. “She’s very polite, responsible, organized, studious, and then Macy is the ‘Let’s go do this’ child. She does wonderfully in school, as in most things she does well, but she’s more of the get-out-and-go and Anna Grace is the ‘let’s play a game.’”
The family also enjoys joining other families at Town Square Park in downtown Hattiesburg on Friday nights during the spring and fall for “Live at 5.”
The girls thoroughly enjoy being on campus for a variety of activities.
“We are one of those families who are here hours before kickoff,” Coll said. “We do the Eagle Walk, love to see the band and enjoy the atmosphere of game day.”
He said the girls also enjoy a number of the art department’s stage performances.
RUN JIM, RUN
For Coll, an avid runner and triathlete, it’s his time pounding the pavement where he finds time to process his day, even if it’s just for 30 minutes. “That time is valuable to me,” he said.
Coll began running in high school and then quit for a while before picking it up again about 20 years go. Since then he’s been running consistently, having completed both the Boston and New York marathons and the Ironman Louisville, among other events.
“That was something my dad did, so that was one of the things we did together,” he said. “I got my passion for running from my dad.”
Coll is a member of the Pine Belt Pacers, who host a handful of races each year but assist with many others across the Pine Belt.
In February, 10 years post triathlon, Coll was trying to identify something he could do that was different but fulfilling.
“I didn’t want to do another Ironman Triathlon. I’d had my fun with that,” he said. “I wanted to do something that was an athletic pursuit that I had not done before – something significant and challenging, but not organized.”
And he wanted to do something that would benefit a group or organization. “The Arc of Southeast Mississippi needed some help, so I put those two things together. I just wanted to help them.”
Coll knew by putting his goal out there – running 50 miles – that would encourage him to make sure he ran rather than it being just some personal pursuit. Coll set a goal to raise $2,500.
But unbeknownst to him, the Pine Belt Pacers had voted and decided to match whatever Coll raised up to $2,500.
“They didn’t tell me for a while,” he said. “That was just wonderful and then people just started getting behind it,” he said, mentioning Katie Dixon and her Birdhouse Café, who joined in. “We did a lot together. She’s passionate about Arc as well.”
Coll also mentioned Terry Clark and Jason Byrd, the guys who organize the Freedom Riders group that participates in pushing Arc clients during races, who also joined in. There is also Coll’s longtime friend, who lives in Houston and who jogged with Coll during high school, who ran the whole way with him. “We’d never done anything like this together,” he said. Then there were other people who ran different lengths with Coll along the way.
“That was nice,” he said. “You can imagine, even with your best friend, for 50 miles, it’s good to have some other interactions.”
From there the momentum grew, like usually happens with these sorts of things. In the end, Coll, Dixon and their friends raised more than $8,100 for The Arc. “I was really proud we could. That was way more than we could have hoped for or imagined. It’s a credit to the people of Hattiesburg.”
SOUTHERN MISS STORIES
Coll said while he and other campus faculty, staff and administration can sing the praises of the university, it’s more special when it comes from students and alums. That’s what Southern Miss Stories is about.
“It carries a different weight,” Coll said. “While I am 100 percent sincere and passionate about the things I say about The University of Southern Mississippi, I’m also paid by the university, so the way it’s perceived is different than if Brian Dozier, Katie Dixon, Nick Mullens, a student leader or someone else says it,” he said.
Enter Southern Miss Stories, where alums such as these tell the university’s story. “So, it’s really their stories, but collectively when you put it all together, it’s the Southern Miss story through these individuals. What you find that’s exciting to me is the themes, the warmth and hospitality I experienced when I walked onto campus the first time or it’s the faculty/staff that invests in these students like Gene Wiggins did for me.”
Coll enjoys extolling the virtues and accomplishments of his university – three Goldwater Scholarship recipients (the same as Harvard and MIT), the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education's R1 rating, the athletic and arts accomplishments and so much more.
Coll believes that for a lot of institutions in this area, one of the problems is overcoming the regionalism and expectations that come with it.
“I think sometimes the challenges for USM are to fight past that almost disbelief at some of the things you are accomplishing,” he said. “We’ so polite about it, so humble that we don’t want to stick our chest out and say, ‘Look at all these amazing things we are doing,’ because it’s the nature of being Southern – not bragging, because that’s not polite.”
But maybe it’s time to do a little bragging. “So maybe we should be sticking our chest out and being a little louder about what we do,” said Coll.
Jim Coll is more than ready to tell his USM story and the stories of many others.
To anyone and everyone who will listen.