Under threat of tornado and with limited time before his weekly radio show, Rick Ray got in the car and drove to fraternity row Monday night.
After only 37 students turned out for his most recent home game (out of the 20,000+ at the school), Mississippi State’s head basketball coach decided something needed to be done for the final two games of the season at Humphrey Coliseum. The answer: go directly to the students.
His plan was pretty straightforward: actually be straightforward. Be honest. Be frank.
Monday night, with the rain beating down, Ray’s first stop was the Sigma Phi Epsilon house. Upon entering the front door, someone asked if, while he was there, he could sign a basketball.
“It’s for the Boys and Girls Club,” the guy said.
“Yeah, no problem,” Ray responded.
Cheers met him in the chapter room.
“It’s a little hot in here, boys.
“I appreciate y’all letting me come and talk to y’all for a few minutes. You may not know this, but I was an applied mathematics major. With that, I see things for what they are.
“I know we’re struggling,” Ray said. “I know it’s been a bad season.”
There’s the honesty. No reason to lie or sugarcoat things, he thought.
At the Sigma Chi house, Ray’s story continues.
“We had four guys blow out their knees, then before the season even started, I had to kick two guys off the team.
“Even my coaches are going down. I had one tear his meniscus, another has a high ankle sprain and I even have a coach now with a bulging disc in his back.”
He tells the Kappa Sigma house, “I don’t know if they’re old or just out of shape. But I can promise, no one has been through what we’ve gone through, not to this degree.”
At the Pi Kappa Phi house, Ray goes on.
“I promise you we don’t have football pads on going out there killing each other at practice.”
This fraternity is a new one on campus.
“I understand you guys are a first-year chapter? Well I’m a first-year coach, so we’ve got something in common here.”
Of course, first-year coach or not, Ray is known.
That much became clear when he walked through the Sigma Alpha Epsilon doors and was greeted energetically by the house mom.
“Oh, wow! Are you not the coach?” she asks. “I’m just so proud of you,” she continues, already knowing the answer. “I should write you a letter every day to tell you how proud I am. Y’all play as a team and I love that.”
At the Phi Delta Theta house, Ray explained why he needs the students.
“If you come watch us play, you’ll see that we play really hard, that we’re a tough-nosed team, and really, we just need more guys.
“If you see that, I hope y’all can come Saturday, because when we have recruits in town, the only way they’re gonna feel excited for Mississippi State is if they look up into the stands and see people supporting us and cheering for us.
“That’s why I need you,” Ray told a room of Sig Eps. “To help us get more guys.”
Just earlier that day, one of Ray’s freshmen, forward Gavin Ware, had told the media a story about going to The Hump when he was in high school as the Bulldogs hosted Kentucky.
“It was electric,” he said. “I was just thinking, ‘Man, I have to play here.’”
At the Delta Gamma house on Thursday for lunch, Ray continued.
“If nothing else, it’s Ole Miss on Saturday. If you’ve got some hate in your heart, if you’re mad at your boyfriend and you can’t say anything to him, come say it to Ole Miss.”
“Let the hate out,” he told the Phi Mu’s. “Get it off your chest.”
The message, across both fraternity and sorority rows, seemed well-received.
At the very least, there’s a free t-shirt involved for the first 1,500 students to the game.
The response from those Ray spoke to was generally the same. They appreciated his honesty, his jokes and his willingness to take time to talk to them, to let them know they’re important to him.
Ray had plenty of fun with it, too.
“This is my first time in a sorority house,” he told the Chi Omegas. “I don’t know if that speaks well for my social skills.”
“It smells good,” he told the Delta Gammas before even mentioning basketball, as he eyed the full plates of food on the tables surrounding him.
Unfortunately, he had to leave without getting lunch.
His doing so was much to the dismay of one girl who walked in the door as he walked out.
“I missed it!” she yelled as soon she saw him. “I’m never going to class again.”
A similar refrain came from the Kappa Delta house.
“I’m so bummed! I ran across the Drill Field trying to make it in time,” one late girl exclaimed.
A straggler at Zeta Tau Alpha made the best of the situation, stopping Ray on his way out the door for a quick picture.
“Thank you so much!” she squeaked.
At one stop, he was greeted with “I’m Mama Jones, Chi Omega all the way. I enjoyed the game last night. Well, the second half, anyway.”
As Ray left each house, he did so to cheering, clapping, cries of “Hail State!” and even the occasional saying of a refrain often heard in Starkville at the end of the National Anthem.
Will the grassroots effort work? Well, Ray will find out Saturday, but he sure hopes so.