Cohen Shares Excitement For Bowl, Pride In Academic Success

Stay in school, kids. It pays to have good grades.

Or, at the very least, it can get you a trip to south Florida in late December, which is also good.

unnamedThat’s why Mississippi State’s football team, despite its 5-7 record in 2016, is playing in the St. Petersbug Bowl in sunny St. Pete, Florida on December 26. Those following MSU are likely aware by this point not just of the bowl destination itself, but the fact that MSU has the opportunity to go because it had one of the top APR scores in the country, second-highest among five-win teams and third behind 6-6 Army selected under the same criteria.

APR, which stands for Academic Progress Rate, is basically how the NCAA measures graduation rates for its schools and student-athletes. Basically, the more players schools sign that end up graduating and staying in school with a healthy GPA, the better the APR score.

In this endeavor, MSU’s football program has succeeded greatly in the last eight years under head coach Dan Mullen, as not only have the overwhelming majority of his signees earned their degrees, but an impressive number have graduated early and many have even earned Masters degrees in their field of choice. In fact, over half a dozen of Mullen’s players will graduate between now and the date of bowl.

The week leading up to MSU’s Egg Bowl win, when the Bulldogs still sat at four wins, Mullen knew the team would be in good position if they could pull off the rivalry win, thanks to years of dedication to academics as a priority.

“I think it’s a tremendous credit to Coach Mullen,” MSU Athletic Director John Cohen said Sunday after the selection was announced. “Obviously, all of our folks in academic support do a great job, and our compliance people do a great job. All of that has to work in concert, and the most important thing is you’ve got to get the right kids who believe in progressing toward a degree and who want to get a college degree. All that has to happen. Coach Mullen has recruited the right kids and they have the right support staff.”

Cohen, recently named to his new position as Athletic Director, has shown a similar dedication to the academic side of being a student-athlete. As head coach of MSU’s baseball team, his program set and then broke many records for team GPA under his watch. A former student-athlete himself (who earned both undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, to boot), Cohen entered the coaching world and now enters the administrative world as someone with both an appreciation and understanding for the demands put on student-athletes and the fact that most of them will, as they say, go pro in something other than sports.

“We want all of our kids to have opportunities in their sports, and we want them to have tremendous opportunities outside their sport,” Cohen said. “You’re not going to have tremendous opportunities unless you work in the classroom. Our kids have a lot heaped on their shoulders, but the fact that they’re supported so well by so many groups of people, to me, makes all the difference in the world.”

As for MSU’s football program itself, this invitation marks the seventh-straight year for the Bulldogs to go bowling, extending the current program record. State is also one of only five SEC schools to go to a bowl game every year this decade, one of those being Texas A&M who started the decade in the Big XII.

Mullen has talked often in the past about the importance of bowl games in the matters of perception, preparation and development, and he believes the stretch of appearances now shows the consistency they’ve developed.

“There’s no doubt that Coach Mullen is a winner,” Cohen said, “and that he has put a process in place to allow us to be exceptional in every phase of our program. He’s created a culture at Mississippi State that’s really been fun to watch.”

For ticket information, visit www.hailstate.com/tickets

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Future Bulldog Pros Prepare For Windfalls Of Cash

Somewhere near 98 percent of NCAA student-athletes will go pro in something other than sports, or so we’re told. But what about the small percentage of college students who do end up making hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in the NFL, NBA or MLB within a few years of finishing school?

On the one hand, heck yeah – money, fame, success at the highest level. On the other hand, an alarming percentage of professional athletes are broke within a few years of the end of their careers, and the majority of their careers last no more than a few years anyway. The average NFL career, for example, is 3.5 years, and that’s if you make an active roster.

unnamedGoing from a broke or at the very least not-particularly-wealthy college student to a professional athlete with access to large sums of money over the course of a few weeks is exciting, but also exceedingly dangerous. Money goes quickly when lifestyles change so dramatically, and the number of people asking for that money – agents, runners, lawyers and investment seekers, to say nothing of friends and family – adds up in a hurry.

Being prepared for the relative insanity of becoming a professional athlete is an important thing for that small percentage of college students to do, but it’s not one they’ll often think about or even know what to do about. This week, Mississippi State had its draft-eligible players from the baseball and football teams (the basketball team had a game that night) meet with a man named Eric Smith to prepare for exactly those situations.

Smith is what’s called a financial literacy coach working with The EKS Group, an LLC helping college student-athletes and NFL and NBA and MLB rookies who are making or about to make that transition. A 28-year former banker, Smith has met with over 20,000 student-athletes in his present line of work and is well-versed in the potential pitfalls as well as the financial possibilities of such a change in lifestyle and income.

“You better be ready when the money gets here,” he told the room on Monday night. “We’re here to talk about the reality of the next step, not to give you a glossed-over picture … People have this incredible opportunity, and when it’s over, they don’t have anything to show for it.”

Smith had the potential millionaires in the room go through a number of exercises, including asking them to makes lists of the first things they want to buy, their financial goals and what they see as potential threats to their financial success. He shared 10 tips for how the wealthy become wealthy, and 10 more for how the wealthy become poor.

He offered advice on selecting agents, financial advisers, insurance plans, banks and the like. He advised on how best to prevent identify threat, low credit scores and being taken advantage of.

Without giving away his entire presentation, Smith had MSU’s future pros prepared for long-term financial success in a little under an hour-and-a-half.

Mississippi State has been in the business of putting a great many players into the pros lately. With programs like this, MSU is also making sure their young men are prepared for success beyond just their fields of play. As Smith’s presentation so eloquently puts it, “broke ain’t sexy.”

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Dominant Egg Bowl Win Establishes New Faces And Stars Of MSU’s Present and Future

I don’t know his name. I don’t know how old he is. I don’t know what he does, how long he’s been married or how he became a fan.

In fact, I don’t even know what he looks like. I never saw him myself. I just know he was there.

I know he was sitting in section S of the stadium. I know he was wearing a maroon pullover. I know that when it got cold in the second half, his wife helped drape a Mississippi State blanket over him, tucking it around his body and the wheelchair he was bound to.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-09-23-pmAnd I don’t know why, but I know Saturday night’s Egg Bowl was the first Mississippi State game that lifelong Bulldog fan had ever seen in person, the first State game he’d ever attended. I know he was overjoyed to watch his team win back the Golden Egg. I know his biggest smile came when sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald sprinted 61 yards straight down the middle of the field in the third quarter for the touchdown that sealed the victory. That one made him particularly happy.

I don’t know all of the people who made up the largest crowd in the 113-year history of the rivalry, but I know one to whom MSU’s win was among the most meaningful and joyful in the annual Battle for the Golden Egg.


“Nothing’s impossible. Improbable, maybe, but never impossible.”

Megan Mullen was drowning in hugs and smiles before the game even ended. Standing near the endzone while she waited on her husband to complete the victory a little further down the sidelines, she was getting swept up with the realizations the day had provided. After such a hard year, after two rough losses in this game the previous two seasons, after a news cycle full of harsh words, cutting criticism and often hurtful questions, redemption was coming for the Mullens, for Mississippi State, for a program desperately in need of something to finally go their way this year.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-15-29-pmShe felt all of that. But she also knew she had witnessed something special beyond just single-game domination of a rival.

“You know what’s incredible?” she asked.

“What’s that?”

“That young man was asked to come in here and replace Dak Prescott and have to try and play in his shadow,” she said with an eye toward Nick Fitzgerald. “And look at him now.”

It wasn’t impossible, but it was certainly improbable. A converted wide receiver and option quarterback whose next biggest offer out of high school was Middle Tennessee State was given the unenviable task of following the greatest act MSU football had ever seen.

“Dak Prescott really was Mississippi State football for a long time,” Fitzgerald said after the win. “To be the guy who came in after him, obviously you knew everything you did was going to be compared to him. Every mistake and every triumph was gonna be compared to what he did.”

On Saturday night, The Guy Replacing Dak Prescott officially became Nick Fitzgerald.

“I think, all year, too many people worried about who he’s not instead of who he is,” Dan Mullen said. “He’s a pretty darn good quarterback.”

Nick is not Dak. In fact, you can see that very clearly when you look in a game program and see his name listed above his predecessor’s in a few spots of the records section. Most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game: Nick Fitzgerald, set September 10 then broken again November 26. First quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season: Nick Fitzgerald, 2016. The most rushing yards by any player of any position in any one game in school history: Nick Fitzgerald, 258 yards, Saturday afternoon.

“He’s fast,” Mullen said with a laugh. “I think everybody saw that.”

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-14-13-pmAnd he can pass, too, totaling 2,287 yards and 21 touchdowns in what amounts to 11 games of action in his sophomore season. Since being named the full-time starter in week two, Fitzgerald has had at least one touchdown pass of 30-plus yards in 10 of those 11 games, many of them with more than one.

Saturday’s 55-20 Egg Bowl win wasn’t just the return of the Golden Egg to Starkville, it was the christening of MSU’s new star, of the new face of the program. It was the death of The Replacement and the birth of Nick Fitzgerald, QB1, Big Man on Campus, The Guy.

In Oxford, as MSU took back it’s prized trophy, it also took back the spotlight. It wasn’t just Fitzgerald having to play in the shadow of a Maroon and White giant. The whole team had to do it. For a few of the seniors, they were effectively playing in their own shadow. This was a roster haunted by its recent success, unable to go a day without hearing about 2014 or Dak Prescott or the Orange Bowl or Preston Smith or De’Runnya Wilson or Benardrick McKinney or the No. 1 team in the country.

They were the replacements. They were chicken salad for lunch the day after the best dinner of your life. They practically had no hope. The “Mississippi State” written across the chest of their jerseys was a name others had built and they were now expected to maintain.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-11-11-pmIt took three months and 12 games, but these Bulldogs finally made the name their own. Aeris Williams and Leo Lewis aren’t the next Josh Robinson and McKinney. They’re the first Aeris Williams, the first Leo Lewis. The transformation is apparent throughout the young roster, one that started the year immensely inexperienced and finished it battle-tested and commercially approved.

“The kids stuck together,” Mullen said, emotions overflowing in his post-win press conference euphoria. “It shows someone’s character. This team never gave in throughout the course of the year.”

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-13-16-pmIt took a great many hard moments to get there, but the 113th Battle for the Golden Egg was the coming out party for the new Bulldogs and their young stars. Emblematic of his team – and it is his team now – Nick Fitzgerald became Nick Fitzgerald at the end of his obstacle-strewn first season as Mississippi State’s quarterback.

“To end it on something as high as this, an Egg Bowl win, is phenomenal,” he said, later turning an eye to what lies ahead. “The future’s bright.”

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MSU Video Department Makes History With SEC Network Broadcast

In technical terms, Mississippi State’s video department had its landmark first linear broadcast on Wednesday.

 Photo by Kelly Price


Photo by Kelly Price

In every-man speak, MSU’s video department made history through the magic of fiber and expensive equipment on Wednesday night when the MSU-Ole Miss volleyball game was broadcast nationwide on the SEC Network using only the resources on campus already.

To break that down a bit further, ESPN showed up with nothing but the on-air play-by-play announcers for the game and some of their own personnel to supervise this first national broadcast coming straight out of Starkville. There was no TV truck – previously the only way such a broadcast could be done – no extra equipment, no anything. And any cable or satellite subscriber across America could turn on their television and see a thrilling come-from-behind win for MSU’s volleyball team over its in-state rival.

Broadcasts like this were one of the long-term dreams when the SEC Network was conceived a few years ago, though the realistic expectation was that few schools would have the resources necessary to accomplish these goals. The advantages for ESPN are obvious – they save money by not having to send a truck, not having to send teams of cameramen, producers and the like. Their talent can just show up while MSU takes care of the rest

The boost for MSU – beyond the national exposure for its various programs – is the opportunity to make money as ESPN pays the school for some of the savings they get in the deal. Additionally, it gives students the opportunity to work on big-time broadcasts and get incredible experience without leaving their campus.

Plus, it’s really cool.

 Photo by Kelly Price


Photo by Kelly Price

Nights like Wednesday were possible for MSU because of the deep investment the athletic department made in its video and broadcast capabilities when planning for the SEC Network. This eventuality was one that those in charge, like Senior Associate A.D. Scott Wetherbee, knew was a possibility early on. In the preliminary stages, MSU’s staff decided to make it a goal.

When that decision was made, MSU’s control room for such broadcasts was still a slightly upgraded version of the room they built to run the Sony Jumbotron at the football stadium when it was installed decades ago. When that initial control room was built, it wasn’t even HD, though it of course got the HD upgrade when the new video boards were built at Davis Wade Stadium.

Now, in the bowels of the expanded north endzone of the stadium, MSU has fleshed out an immensely impressive broadcast hub complete with control room, engineering room and even a replay room, with a second control room on the way soon.

 Photo by Kelly Price


Photo by Kelly Price

Bennie Ashford is the Assistant A.D. for Video Operations, and this new facility is very much his baby. An expensive, high definition and technologically advanced baby, sure, but a baby nonetheless. His smile Wednesday night was evidence of not only the work put in, but the quality of the product going through fiber from MSU’s volleyball court to Davis Wade Stadium to SEC Network headquarters in Charlotte and then out into the world, with not even a second of visible delay.

“I’m a Mississippi State guy, and I know that we don’t always have the financial resources that some do,” Ashford said. “But this is on par with the absolute best.”

Excitement for the night in the control room, while much quieter than the crowd for the game they were broadcasting, was still palpable. MSU staff and ESPN staff shared in the anticipation, running myriad machines and screens and cameras as the countdown began. ESPN sent one of their best producers down to run the show as a means of marking the occasion. With seconds left on the clock before the show began, she happily offered encouragement to the entire team of students and professionals about to make quiet history in a dark room in MSU’s football stadium.

“Have a good show everybody – have fun!”

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Looking Back Through A Career Of Highs and Emotions For MSU’s 19 Seniors

Belief is an immensely powerful thing. Specifically, the acts of being believed in and of believing in someone else can be the most influential of catalysts for change, for good, for redemption and for success.

If hope is a dangerous thing to lose, then it is an incredible thing to gain. Four and five years ago, Mississippi State had begun to build some hope, had started to convince others that they were worthy of being believed in. But it had been a struggle, and at the time, some who believed were starting to lose faith.

unnamedThe majority of the 19 seniors who will play their last football game on Scott Field Saturday signed on to play for MSU during that time, before the team had ever been ranked No. 1 in the country, before the stadium had been expanded, before anyone outside of Starkville, Mississippi and Haughton, Louisiana knew who Dak Prescott was. For most of those young men, the recruiting pitch from Dan Mullen and his staff boiled down to that one powerful but completely intangible thing: just believe in us.

And they did. That was their only choice, really. The best tangible selling point back in 2011 and 2012 was a decades-old locker room in a building shared with a half-dozen other sports.

“That wasn’t too much of a pitch,” senior defensive end A. J. Jefferson joked this week. “’Come here, we’ve got a Gatorade machine!’”

But he, like many others, chose to believe in what MSU was doing and where it was going.

“On my official visit, it felt like a family here,” Jefferson continued. “Coach Mullen did tell us, you come here, you’re going to work hard and help build a championship team. I think that’s exactly what he’s done. I’m thankful for my development. Thinking back on it, I don’t think I would have developed as much, especially as a man, a football player and just as a person the way I did here.”

The emotions, memories and experiences are similar for Torrey Dale, one of Jefferson’s fellow senior defensive linemen. Dale moved from New Orleans to Starkville at 18 years old, unsure of himself and likely a little unsure of what he was doing, how he would figure out where classes were, how he would fit in.

Now, Dale is 23, he’s got a college education and he’s got friendships that will last as long as he’s alive.

“It means a lot,” Dale said of his time at MSU. “It’s one of the schools that gave me a chance to better myself in life, on the football field and in the classroom. It showed me that a lot of people believed in me, seeing something that maybe others didn’t see in me. It really pushed me to bring that out. I’m forever grateful to this place.”

unnamed-2That trust was mirrored on all sides. Those young men believed in MSU, and MSU believed in them. Likewise, MSU’s fans showed belief in all. When the first game was played in the expanded Davis Wade Stadium, MSU was completely unranked and was coming off a season in which it only made a bowl game and avoided a losing record by winning its last three games

And the game was a complete sellout. Just like it had been time and again for years leading up to that moment. Those who believed then, when the best was yet to come, were rewarded not just with a win that day, but with victories all season and with the fastest rise to No. 1 in the country that college football has ever seen.

People who believed in MSU were in the stands, on the field and along the sideline that day to watch unranked MSU play unranked Southern Miss. And because of the work put in by all, new heights were reached. It’s journeys like that one that seniors this week are looking back on.

Fred Ross was just starting his second year of college that day, and now, this week, the school’s all-time leading receiver is less than a month away from receiving his diploma, an achievement he says he is far more proud of than any of the many records he’s set.

“Mississippi State taught me how to be a man,” he said. “It went by so fast. I remember just getting on campus as a freshman and not knowing what I had going, not knowing where my classes were, when workout times were. I’ve been blessed just to make it here.”

Ross, like many of his senior cohorts, knows that when his name is called on Saturday night and he runs onto the field for the last time it will be a whirlwind of emotions, helmet in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other.

“I’m gonna be crying like a baby, I ain’t gonna lie,” he admitted. “I know I’ll see my mom out there and she’ll be crying and that’ll probably make me cry.”

These seniors have compiled quite the list of memories as they’ve felled both records and giants, often in the same game. They’ve played in front of the biggest crowd in the history of Mississippi State football at Davis Wade Stadium. They once leapt into the stands after beating Auburn, doing so with the knowledge that they had just become the best team in the country.

“Davis Wade was rockin’ that day,” Jefferson recalled.

unnamed-1They’ve won in blowouts and overtimes, while also losing heartbreakers along the way. They’ve become captains and leaders. They’ve gained weight and grown beards. Some have already graduated and one of them has even gotten married. As important as anything, they’ve helped usher in the new era of Mississippi State football, helping put the Bulldogs squarely in the national conversation time and again.

“Memories like that are things I’ll tell my kids about one day,” senior linebacker Richie Brown said.

They have a lifetime left in front of them to reminisce. But now, they’re down to just one more chance to make those memories on their home field.

Jefferson remembered this week the words of teary-eyed Preston Smith two years ago after he was honored on Senior Night.

“It’s gonna be the longest jog of your life running to your mama,” Smith told him then, tears in his eyes.

Two years later, Jefferson expects those words will ring true as he asks himself one final question.

“Where did the time go?”

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South Region Champs, MSU Cross Country Looks Ahead To NCAA Championships

Maybe I’m just stupid. In fact, that’s almost definitely the case. I’ve just never been sure how to write about cross country as a sport. Forget writing a story for a minute, I haven’t even been sure what to ask in an interview.

“So, y’all try to run fast?”

“Yep.”

“Um, for a long time?”

“That’s the idea.”

I mean, I guess I could ask about the difficulty of drinking water while running at the same time. That’s a thing, right? Seems hard. I know some people who can barely walk and chew at the same time.

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-11-44-14-amMy ignorance aside, obviously there is more to being an effective distance runner than strong calves and the ability to multi-task. I’m not so dumb as to think that anybody could wake up and do the things those runners do just by hopping on a treadmill.

Luckily, Mississippi State sort of forced me into learning the details, thanks to their women’s team winning the NCAA South Region for the first time in program history. Actually, it was the first time any school from Mississippi won it. Led by South Region Coach of the Year Houston Franks and National Champion Rhianwedd Price, MSU’s cross country program has been exceedingly successful over recent years.

The group is off to the NCAA Championships this weekend, and before they went, they held a press conference on Tuesday to discuss their victory. I had a few variations of, “So, y’all are good, huh?” tucked away and ready to go, but fortunately, Franks opened up a new world of information as he answered one of the other reporters’ questions.

“We take a very scientific approach to training,” he said. “We focus a lot on the physiological aspect.”

At the risk of getting an answer that went completely over my head, I asked him for more information on that scientific and physiological approach. In the upset of the day, I actually understood his response. Big picture, Franks coaches his runners in two main areas: the mental and the physical.

The focus, in this instance, is the physical, which again breaks down into two areas. First, there’s the aerobic side, which is exercise that requires oxygen and relates to endurance. Second, there’s the anaerobic side, which is exercise that does not require oxygen and relates to speed. There is far more nuance than that, but that’s the gist of things. To be at their best, MSU’s runners need to excel and be properly trained in both areas. That’s where Franks comes in, helping to get them there in each.

The difference is that aerobic exercise takes, according to most research, as many as six months of training to reach its upper limit. Anaerobic, on the other hand, takes 2-3 months. The challenge for Franks and his team is finding a way to have both of those areas hit their sweet spot at the same time, and to have that time be when it is needed the most.

“You’re always trying to get those two things to peak at the right times to where you’re at your best in those two physiological peaks you’re looking for,” he said. “We’re hitting on all cylinders at the right time of the year. In every sport, no matter what you play, you want to be at your best in championship season.”

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-11-43-52-amIn fact, while MSU has run well all year, Franks said the South Region Championship was the first “great” run his team had this season. Just two weeks prior, his team was disappointed in a fourth place finish at the SEC Championships. The fact that such a mark was disappointing shows just how far this program has come in a few short years.

Under Franks, the team has been on an upward trend for a while, but in the last couple years, they’ve taken things to a new level with their team and individual accomplishments. When asked what led to the unprecedented success, Price actually turned and opened her arms high and low to present her head coach the way Vanna White might present a brand new car to a potential Wheel of Fortune winner.

The development, she believes, can be credited largely to Franks.

“First coming in here, I had no idea what I was doing,” she said as she espoused the virtues of the man who had been named Coach of the Year just moments before arrival to the press conference. “He massively deserves it.”

The margins of victory and defeat are incredibly thin in cross country, a sport measured by tenths of seconds where the difference between first place and 30th place is just a notch above negligible. But through patience and a proven approach, Mississippi State’s cross country program has made those moves.

“The years we were going in the right direction, we maybe weren’t even getting the results, but we knew it was coming, and now we’re getting to reap the benefits of it,” Franks said. “But quite honestly, we haven’t reached the end game. We’re not where we want to be yet. We want to keep climbing and we want to be perennially a national contender.

“We’ve proven we can do it. Now we’ve got to prove we can do it over and over and over again.”

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Schaefer Embraces Greatest Challenge With Veteran-Laden Bulldogs

Vic Schaefer is in a unique situation as the basketball season begins today – unique for his time as Mississippi State’s head coach, anyway. He’s got, by most any measure, the best and most experienced team of his tenure with the Bulldogs, featuring four seniors and four juniors and a handful of players who have earned various All-SEC honors.

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-11-25-15-amAnd that luxury creates his greatest challenge. The same young women who led MSU to the Sweet Sixteen last year, the ones who were behind the best season in school history, are the same ones Schaefer is depending on to out-perform themselves. When he arrived in Starkville, there was nowhere to go but up as year-by-year he added talent in droves and depended on young players to compete beyond their years.

Now, with MSU picked No. 2 in the SEC and considered one of the top programs in the country, Schaefer and his players alike know how easy it would be to slip and how equally difficult it will be to climb the last rung of that ladder.

“We can go down or we can go up,” senior guard Dominique Dillingham said. “It’s like Coach Schaefer says – we only have one spot to go up, but we have a lot of room to go down. We have a lot of people coming back, so it’s up to us if we’re going to do better than last year. In order for us to do better than last year, we’re going to have to do more than what we did.”

It was one of the hardest moments of Schaefer’s career, but MSU’s loss to UCONN in the Sweet Sixteen has proved to at least have a silver lining in the strong motivation it offers. Both because of the sting of that loss and because of the knowledge that individual and team development is the only way they can improve, MSU’s players spent their full offseason doing everything they could to get better.

They broke down their own film, pinpointed any weaknesses or struggles and dedicated the summer to fixing them. Dillingham put up hundreds of shots every day in an effort to better her field goal percentage. Players worked on help defense, blocking out, ball handling, the works. Whatever was needed, they dedicated the time to fixing it.

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-11-26-15-amSenior forward Breanna Richardson had the question of improvement posed to her shortly before the season began. How does a team full of the same people get better than it was a year ago?

“Just get in the gym,” she said. “I know it’s simple, but just get in the gym, work on your weaknesses and they become strengths before you know it.”

For Schaefer, however, the ability of his team to improve is contingent on more than just skills development. His biggest concern and his greatest hope are the same – team development.

“Talent doesn’t win alone,” he explained. “The chemistry piece, the leadership piece is where our next step needs to be. We’re certainly a very talented basketball team, but that’s not enough to win.”

That’s where players like Dillingham and Richardson and the other veterans become important, particularly junior point guard Morgan William. Finally back to full health, William has quickly found herself as one of the most experienced players on the team, and with her position, she’s one of the first to be looked to for leadership and guidance.

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-11-25-48-amVocal leadership isn’t necessarily a natural trait for William, but it’s something the point guard has worked on in the offseason. She’s started to talk more, taken on the role of being a leader. Specifically, she’s taken on the responsibility of calling plays while bringing the ball up the floor, making an effort to call out the sets earlier and earlier in the play clock as she gains the experience.

“I’ve gotta be a coach on the floor,” she said.

2016-17 will be the most talented and experienced team Schaefer has had at MSU. They aren’t where he wants them to be just yet, and Schaefer knows surpassing their previous highs will be a great challenge, but there remains an emphasis on the great part of things.

After all, this exactly where Schaefer wanted to be.

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Weatherspoon Brothers Pair Talents, Competitions At MSU

Like a joke-loving dad who would never embarrass his kids on purpose but relishes holding the possibility over their heads, Mississippi State coach Ben Howland confessed the contents of his phone to reporters on Wednesday. Somewhere deep in that camera roll, Howland has that most embarrassing of artifacts – baby pictures. Specifically, he’s got pictures of one of his veteran players, Quinndary Weatherspoon, with one of his newest players in signee Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary’s little brother.

quinndary_vandyIt was a big deal when the first Weatherspoon signed with MSU as a four-star guard and debuted last year, Howland’s first at MSU. It was an equally grand moment when the second Weatherspoon in as many years signed with MSU, this one also a four-star guard, the top-rated player in Mississippi, one of the best 35 players in the country and the No. 5 point guard in America in this class.

Nick is just a tad higher rated than Quinndary was out of high school, but to hear big brother tell the story, Q has always been a little ahead on the court. Asked when Nick got old enough to compete against or possibly beat his brother in basketball, Quinndary was clear that such a moment has yet to occur.

“He still hasn’t caught up to me, I don’t believe,” Quinndary joked.

Kidding from both Quinndary and Howland aside, each is thrilled to add a second Weatherspoon to the roster next year.

“I’m excited that I get to play with him again,” Quinndary told reporters. “I really enjoyed us playing together in high school. We had a lot of fun growing up playing together.”

They started playing together late in elementary school when the two brothers would go out in the backyard to shoot around, play one-on-one or delve into whatever competition they could muster with just the two of them. By the time they were both in middle school, Quinndary and Nick had taken their game to local gyms, not only playing against older boys, but typically beating them, too.

It may have been disappointing at the time for those high schoolers to lose to a pair of middle school brothers, but they’ll likely feel better in a few years when there’s a strong chance of both Weatherspoons being professional basketball players. Who knows, maybe they’ll even play on the same pro team together.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see either brother in the NBA, particularly as Howland and Quinndary both compared Nick to one of the greatest basketball players in the world. And it just so happens that the player in question, Russell Westbrook, also played for Howland in college.

“Watching him a year ago,” Howland said of Nick, “he played out in Vegas and he was just phenomenal. He made his team so much better, and I was like, ‘Wow, he’s the only player I have ever watched where he reminded me of Russell Westbrook.’ That is the ultimate compliment that I can pay a player, and it’s because of his motor. What makes Russell Westbrook special is what makes Nick special; competitive, toughness, desire to win and playing both ends of the floor. I can’t pay a young man a higher compliment.”

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-11-46-20-amQuinndary, likely unaware that Howland had made the same comparison just a few minutes before, confirmed the similarities.

“His game is very aggressive,” Quinndary explained. “I describe him as a young Russell Westbrook. He gets after each and every play and he’s going to get after it each and every game.”

Of course, Quinndary was quick to remind, just because Nick reminds him of the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer, doesn’t mean that he’s better than big brother. They haven’t played one-on-one in a few years, and the next time they share a court, they’ll likely be wearing the same maroon and white jerseys with “WEATHERSPOON” across the back. But Quinndary hasn’t lost confidence. His supposedly unblemished record has seen to that.

“I won all of them,” Quinndary said of their one-on-one battles. “I never lost.”

Perhaps little brother will get his chance at redemption – and rebuttal – next year.

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Q&A: Cannizaro Shares Approach, Philosophy As New MSU Baseball Coach

Early Friday night, barely five hours since he had been introduced as Mississippi State’s 17th athletic director, John Cohen stood in front of the baseball team that he spent so many years putting together and took a turn making an introduction of his own. This is the best man to lead this program, Cohen said as he stepped aside to make room for Andy Cannizaro, the newest head coach of Mississippi State baseball.

kap15167Cannizaro has spent a lifetime around baseball, working as the hitting coach and recruiting coordinator at LSU the last two seasons after working for five years as a scout for the New York Yankees, where he was responsible for drafting and signing former Bulldogs Jacob Lindgren and Jonathan Holder. In fact, Cannizaro played for the Yankees himself after a stellar career at Tulane where he was an All-American who still holds the Conference USA records for hits and stolen bases.

At 37 years old, he’s done more in the world of baseball than most do in twice the amount of time. And on Friday, he added head coach to his list of achievements as he was welcomed with enthusiastic applause inside MSU’s locker room.

Cannizaro stepped to the front of the group and told MSU’s players about himself, a high-energy guy (a descriptor he used more than a handful of times) with a wonderful wife and two little kids who will consider the young men on the team to be their heroes.

“They’re going to be around all the time,” Cannizaro said. “They’re going to love you and they’re going to want to run out on the field and play with you.”

The new head coach also told his team about his approach, saying he wants to highlight and emphasize the strengths of each individual, playing aggressively on offense and safely on defense. If you can hit the ball hard, he said, then he’s going to let you rake. If you can throw heat, he added, then he’s going to let you throw away. And very importantly, if you can run, he told them, then he’s going to let you make the basepath your personal race track.

By the end of his talk, Cannizaro had the entire team clapping and cheering. They seemed ready to take the field immediately, and perhaps they would have had practice for the day not ended just moments before Cannizaro met his new team. That, perhaps, was as good an indication as any why Cohen selected Cannizaro as his own replacement.

“This is the man who is going to lead you to a National Championship,” Cohen told the team as he finished his introduction, “and I’m going to be standing right here watching.”

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On Friday night, Cannizaro nicely took a few minutes out of his whirlwind schedule for a quick question-and-answer session. The following is a transcript of that conversation.

kap15176Question: You seem to have risen through the ranks of coaching quickly. What do you attribute that to?

Answer: I just think it’s been a lifelong process of playing the game for a really long time and being fortunate enough to be in the big leagues and play for guys like Joe Maddon and be around guys like Joe Torre and playing around so many great guys. I’ve taken parts and pieces from so many different great players and front office people and managers over the years. I’ve combined that with all the things I’ve learned collegiately from head coaches like Rick Jones and Jim Schlossnagle and then, obviously, the last two-and-a-half years working every day under Paul Mainieri and working for him. I owe so much of the last couple years to him, watching him run a program every day and seeing how he handles his team every single day. Every day, I went to work with my eyes and ears open and just tried to soak in as much as I could. He was the greatest person I could’ve worked for the last two-and-a-half years.

Q: Going from scouting to recruiting seems like a natural transition. What are some of the similarities there and how does the crossover work for you?

A: So much of the recruiting part of it starts with player and talent evaluation. There were so many guys in the five years I spent with the New York Yankees in their scouting department and it started at the very top. Probably my biggest mentor in terms of recruiting and learning how to talent evaluate and scout was Damon Oppenheimer, who is one of the Vice Presidents of the Yankees and the scouting director. I tried to be around him as much as possible and he was such a great leader of that staff and one of the best talent evaluators in baseball. I tried to learn as much as I could from him every day for five years. I took so many of those principles that I learned from him and applied them to the recruiting part of it.

You’ve got to be able to get the evaluation part of it right. When you’ve got 10-12,000 people that show up on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday in the SEC, they want to see a good product out on the field, and that evaluation – a good team on the field starts five or six or seven years before your fans ever see those kids play. You need to be able to identify the talent, you need to be able to identify the tools, you need to be able to profile in terms of the position and the requirements for that spot and really follow the tools, make sure you identify kids that can play the game. But you want kids that are great students. You want kids that have a great work ethic and that are going to try to maximize their talents.

Q: You’ve been around all of these great baseball people and taken bits and pieces from each. What is your philosophy, approach and style as a coach?

A: I try to coach every single day like I played. I wasn’t the biggest and strongest and fastest guy, but I tried to play as hard as I could every single day. I tried to play fast. I tried to take care of the baseball defensively, always playing what I call ‘Good Catch’ – being an accurate thrower of the baseball. Make the routine play. I want to be aggressive on offense. I want to be conservative on defense. I want to make the routine play. Get athletes on the field at the premium positions – shortstop, second base, centerfield. I just want to be able to build our team right in order to have the parts and pieces to compete for a National Championship every year.

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Resistance To Fear Tips Scales For Young Bulldogs In Upset Win

Mississippi State began its season with significant quantities of both talent and inexperience. Every week since the beginning of September, each payload has been presented, sent out onto fields of competition to see which side carried more weight.

More often than not, the scales have tipped in favor of the inexperience, all the possibilities and potential of talent sliding off their plate into a pile of youth and disappointment, opportunities just barely missed time and again.

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-12-17-32-pmIt was an inconsistency senior linebacker Richie Brown saw in practice, where the young Bulldog team would string together two great practices, only to come out lethargic and sluggish the next day of preparation. Or, perhaps, they’d have two bad days followed by one good. Actually finishing a full week, forcing the scales to tip the right direction, was an accomplishment seemingly always slipping through MSU’s fingers.

Until now.

“This was the best week of practice we’ve had all year,” head coach Dan Mullen said Saturday afternoon.

“Everybody felt good leaving the field every time,” Brown confirmed.

The result was a shift in weight on a borderline seismic level. The talent was finally fed enough in meals of experience and sharpened mentality that it was able not only to tip the scales back in the right direction but to send the plate of possibilities crashing to the ground and throw the contents of inexperience scattering in the air around Scott Field.

In their best game of the season by the widest of margins, MSU dominated the No. 4 team in the country at the line of scrimmage, stymied the No. 2 offense in the SEC, neutralized one of the best defensive fronts in college football and romped for over 500 yards as they beat Texas A&M 35-28 at Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday.

“Guys have learned to not play with fear,” Brown offered in explanation for the change. “Fear can destroy you sometimes. I think that’s what we built on this week was playing with confidence. Don’t be afraid to go make the plays. Don’t be afraid to take the shots. Having fear can crush your life, in all areas of life. It’s important for this team to learn how to not play with fear.”

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-12-18-46-pmIt’s understandable, of course, for young and inexperienced players to be afraid, nervous or timid. The SEC is college football’s biggest stage and the opponents are the best and toughest the country has to offer. In a perfect world, someone older or more seasoned would be tasked with making plays and leading charges to victory. But for a variety of reasons, very few of those veterans exist on this team, Brown being one of the notable exceptions.

That’s part of why it was so important that those players heard from stars and leaders of the recent past this week. Former Bulldog greats like Derek Sherrod, Preston Smith and Benardrick McKinney spent time with the team. On the sideline before Saturday’s game, former cornerback and team captain Taveze Calhoun gave the defensive backs a speech that Mullen could only describe as the pep talk of a lifetime.

Calhoun was once in that position as a sophomore in 2013 when he was counted on to replace Johnthan Banks, the 2012 Thorpe Award winner, despite Calhoun’s youth and lack of playing time. He’s been there before, and now, three years later, he can share what it takes to make that jump, to tip that scale.

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-12-16-56-pmWhatever Calhoun said, it worked. The Aggies were held to 117 yards and 10 points below their season average, while the A&M offense itself only mustered three scores. A position group much maligned this year, State’s secondary made a remarkable leap against one of the most explosive offenses in the country.

“Our DBs did not play with fear today,” Brown said after the game. “They were confident. They were ready to make plays. They weren’t worrying about anything else. They were just making good plays.”

More likely than not, this team will still have some struggles and hard moments over the final three weeks of the season. But finally, it’s a group that appears to have found itself, to identified its personality and jelled as a cohesive unit with the talent and confidence to make plays and win games.

It was under far different circumstances that Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed, “the only thing we have to fear – is fear itself.”

But it’s a lesson this team learned on Saturday. They don’t have to be afraid.

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