Faith, Perseverance Pay Off For Oft-Forgotten Dez Harris

Four hundred and fourteen. Leonard Fournette had gone 414 consecutive carries without fumbling the ball once. The living legend currently terrorizing opponents out of LSU’s backfield, the gigantic intimidator of a Tiger running back, the man with hands as strong as a vise grip and legs as thick and tough as tree trunks, hadn’t fumbled a football in almost two years.

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-12-46-47-pmOn Saturday, Fournette had the ball ripped away twice – both times by the same Mississippi State linebacker.

If Fournette had never heard of the man who twice stripped him of his most prized possession, it’s no surprise. Seemingly few people have. And the majority of those who do know his name appear to have written him off anyway, either back in high school when he tore his ACL as a senior and the recruiting calls stopped, or again early in college when he tore another ACL just as he was starting to become a contributor as a redshirt freshman. If not then, it was when he had a seemingly devastating third torn ACL last year.

Most didn’t believe Dez Harris would be on the field at this point, let alone that he’d be one of the primary reasons his Bulldogs almost made a 20-point comeback in the fourth quarter to beat LSU at Tiger Stadium on Saturday. Yet, here he is.

“It means a lot,” he said. “I always grew up thinking and believing that God gives his hardest tasks to his strongest warriors. I listened to my mom preach that to me. Seeing it play out, it was great.”

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-12-47-27-pmNot only did Harris force two fumbles Saturday – and recovered one – he also recovered the onsides kick that led to a quick touchdown, pulling MSU within three points with a few minutes left in the game. The reasons State got back in the game are numerous. Junior quarterback Damian Williams stepped in admirably when starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald’s helmet popped off, for one. Fred Ross, Donald Gray and Brandon Holloway made some great catches. The defense as a whole was dominant for almost the entirety of the second half. Westin Graves hit some big kicks, including the onsides kickoff (“It was a really good kick,” Harris said).

But none of it happens without Harris, to the surprise of everyone but himself. Well, not quite everyone. When so many of his offers disappeared after the first knee injury in high school, MSU stuck with him. When his second and third injuries came, Harris’s teammates stood beside him through surgery and rehab.

Through it all, his biggest supporter has been his mom, the woman who raised him to believe in himself and to fight through any adversity that comes his way. She could have no way of knowing how lucky her son would be to have the athletic gifts he does, to have the opportunity to earn a free a college degree and to play college football at the highest level. Nor could she have ever known what a toll those blessings would take on her son’s body. Luckily, she knew his mind and spirit would be strong, even when the body was weak. That’s how she raised him.

Delaina Wilson talks to her son every day, but Saturday night may have been one of the happiest – and most emotional – calls she’s placed.

“She was crying,” Harris said. “She was so happy … I was emotional because we lost, but at the same time, I was emotional because I had a good game and she reacted the way she did.”

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-12-47-47-pmFew people knew better what Harris had been through than his mom, though if any have followed as closely, it’s his 13-year-old sister, and it was she who Harris often thought about after his most recent ACL tear.

Lesser men would have given up. Equal or even better men have before. And to be certain, the thought crossed his mind. How could it not? He’d already been through it all twice, and the prospect of doing it a third time was daunting.

But by then, he was a role model, and he had to make sure he gave the right example.

“My little sister just started sports, so I can’t let her think it’s OK to get hurt and just quit right then,” he said. “It was time to go back to work again; time to have the surgery and get back to it. I already knew what I had to do. I just stepped up and did it.”

Throughout the rehab, Harris has quietly changed his body and morphed his game. He’s always had great speed, he acknowledges, and that paired with his length is what had MSU’s coaches so excited about him as far back as his freshman year. But in the time spent in the weight room, Harris’s frame has filled out considerably, muscles growing and body thickening as he’s transformed into quite the intimidating presence – now up to 6’ 4”, 236 pounds – on a football field full of people trained to be intimidating themselves.

Few saw Harris coming coming, and particularly not Fournette, but perhaps they should have. Even now, however, Harris is reluctant to talk, hesitant to respond to those who wrote him off. He just wants to keep improving, and he wants to do whatever he can to help his team win.

“I believe that actions speak louder than words, so I don’t really have much to say to people that doubted me,” he said. “ [I’ll] just continue to get better and continue to perfect my craft. Go hard and fill my role for this team.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dan Mullen Press Conference Live Thread: UMass Week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen meets with local reporters for his weekly press conference. MSU plays UMass in Boston this weekend.

Live updates to follow.


And he’s here, let’s get rolling.

One of the first things Mullen points out is that UMass has already played one SEC and one ACC team this season, so they’ll be ready for the moment. Says they have a fast defense and an “explosive” running back.

Mullen says they don’t spread defenses out much, but are able to pass well. “We’ve got to be able to get pressure on the quarterback,” he says. “We didn’t do a good job of that last week.”

Haven’t double-checked the weather, but Mullen said the forecast has the temperatures 30 degrees cooler in Boston this weekend than any day here in Starkville. Said players will have to adjust to that, but shouldn’t be too bad.

Part of the importance of the game this weekend is that it’s a return to New England where Mullen is from. He says he has several groups of friends and family who are coming to the game, as many as 80 people coming along. His wife Megan is helping coordinate things for everyone.

“It was a great place to grow up,” he said of New Hampshire. “Lot of great memories growing up there … It’s fun for me to get towards home and play a game.”

MSU’s team plane lands in Rhode Island before playing in Massachusetts. Mullen adds, “I imagine that’ll be the first time for most of our players in either of those states.”

On the performance against LSU, Mullen says, “I thought there were plays to be made and we just weren’t making them. Run and pass, offense and defense … I thought in the second half we made those plays, we were just in too big of a hole to dig ourselves out of.”

On the injury front, Mullen says DE/LB Will Coleman will definitely be back for the Auburn game, but has a chance to play this weekend. Same for cornerback Cedric Jiles, though his return is less likely this weekend.

Talking Bulldogs in the NFL, Mullen is saying how cool it was to see a picture of Dak Prescott and Preston Smith after they played each other yesterday in Washington. He said his wife was joking about how excited Smith was to be allowed to tackle Prescott for the first time.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mullen And Starkville Both Return To Roots In Contest Vs. UMass

Dan Mullen was always bound to end up in Starkville. It was practically fated as small coincidences throughout his life lined up and continually pointed him to the town in Mississippi the Bulldogs call home.

WPMAMXXNWEPIADE.20151230195608Mississippi State’s head coach has often shared the story of how he ended up at MSU almost eight years ago. Then the offensive coordinator at Florida, Mullen was offered the job, but he was told that he had to take it sight unseen. There was no time for a visit. He loved the opportunity, of course, but he had never been to Starkville before, and when he called his wife Megan, he told her he was uncomfortable moving their family somewhere they’d never even seen.

No, Megan told him, he hadn’t been to Starkville before, but she had. In her work for The Golf Channel, she’d covered an event at nearby Old Waverly Golf Course and she got a tour of Starkville while in town, stopping for dinner at long-time Starkville restaurant staple Harveys. The side trip to Starkville was just a small happening in her everyday life, but she loved the town.

“Take it,” Megan told her husband. “It’ll be great. We’ll eat at Harveys.”

But if Mullen had been paying attention – if he had known to pay attention – he would’ve realized he’d had a connection to Starkville since the day he was born, long before he was at Florida, long before he met Megan and long before he even knew what football was.

Photo by Craig Michaud

Photo by Craig Michaud

See, Mullen, like another well-known name in Starkville, grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire. In fact, that other name is the name of Starkville: General John Stark, the Revolutionary War hero for whom Starkville was named. Just miles from Mullen’s childhood home is Stark Park, home of the original Stark family burial plot, upon which now stands a large statue of General Stark himself.

When Mullen was hired as the head coach at Mississippi State in 2009, it wasn’t just an achievement in his professional life, but an unseen nod to his roots in the Northeast, the area he returns to this week when MSU plays UMass, the school’s first game in the northeast since 1986.

In 2009, Mullen took over a program that was in need of a boost, in need of help, in need of more men and in need of someone to lead the way to victory. Mullen has since brought MSU back to national prominence, producing All-Americans and NFL stars, taking the Bulldogs to six-straight bowl games and, with the help of quarterback Dak Prescott, directing MSU to No. 1 in the country.

General Stark, who late in life penned the famous phrase “Live Free or Die” which now serves as New Hampshire’s state motto, rose to prominence in similar fashion. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, it was during the Siege of Boston at Bunker Hill that Stark proved his worth as a leader when he led a militia of New Hampshire men to the aide of a Colonel by the name of William Prescott.

Under Stark’s guidance and following his directions and tactics, Stark and Prescott foiled attack-after-attack by the British, saving many American lives as they out-maneuvered the enemy and caused the Brits to suffer heavy casualties. Thanks to Stark, the Americans escaped safely after what looked like sure loss for them all.

There’s something about those Prescotts and Starks, apparently.

unspecifiedBut those ties are what make MSU’s game in Boston even more meaningful. They are why Adidas created uniforms in the traditional New England fashion for the game. Saturday isn’t just a return to Mullen’s roots as a child, they’re a return to Starkville’s roots, to the place its name comes from. As head coach, Mullen is MSU’s general. Stark is Mississippi’s. Both have their origins in the northeast, and both have made an impact in the deep south.

Just like Manchester, which was originally named Derryfield before the war, many towns and cities in Mississippi were re-named for heroes of the Revolutionary War. How perfect that Boardtown, whose first town mayor was himself a New Hampshire native, should be re-christened in the name of General Stark.

Stark’s legacy is complete, his mark made across the country. Mullen’s, however, has only just begun. The rest is still unwritten.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Like Prescott, Jefferson Shines As Example Of Mullen’s Long-Term Program

You’ll likely know the answers as we go, but let’s play a game with quotes from Mississippi State football coaches.

Round one: is the following quote,

A) Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon talking about senior defensive end A.J. Jefferson in 2016

B) Quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson talking about senior quarterback Dak Prescott in 2015

“He’s done a very nice job of executing the techniques and then playing with the flexibility of making some decisions in the pass game where you let a more veteran guy have a little more flexibility in what he sees. It’s an imagination, sometimes, of giving guys parameters. ‘If you see this, this is what you can do,’ having options and letting them go out and make plays.”

Perhaps you guessed the answer easily based on the date this story is published, but you see what I’m getting at, yes? Let’s try another one.

Round two: is the following quote,

A) Dan Mullen talking about Prescott in early 2015

B) Dan Mullen talking about Jefferson in early 2016

“He’s night and day, not even close to where he was when he got here. He redshirted, played minimally as a redshirt freshman, then got onto the field as a sophomore, then played a lot as a junior … You see the development within the program. Not just his physical development, but his technical development.

“He’s grown, having gone through all that, to be a leader. To get to where you are, you don’t just show up and you’re a great player. You have to work at it. He’s worked for going into five years to become a great player.”

Following me with the parallels here?

Round three: is the following quote,

A) Athletic Director Scott Stricklin talking about Prescott in 2015

B) Sirmon talking about Jefferson in 2016

“He’s going to walk away and really be someone that’s remembered here for a long time.”

Got a little more tricky, right? Maybe I snuck in an old quote after all. OK, one more, then we’ll get to the point.

Round four: is the following quote,

A) Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald talking about Jefferson in 2016

B) Fitzgerald talking about Prescott in 2015

“He busts his butt day in and day out. That’s something that, since he’s been here, people have always talked about his work ethic at practice.”

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-10-53-36-amRight, so, you’ve likely seen through my ruse the entire time, but yeah – every single one of those quotes is about Jefferson, all of them said this week in the wake of the senior captain winning the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week award.

Some guys – Chris Jones, Benardrick McKinney and Fletcher Cox come to mind – blossom early. They’ve got natural gifts, display them quickly and head to the next level in a hurry. But what Mullen always preaches is development over the course of a career for guys who aren’t necessarily “one of the freakier athletes” in the SEC, and Jefferson, like Prescott, is another perfect example of what MSU does.

Mullen spoke frequently last year about Prescott getting to the graduate-level of quarterbacking. Fitting, as Prescott was in real, actual graduate school as a fifth-year senior, but it was certainly in a more metaphorical sense that he was taking the final and most advanced step of mastering his position in football.

The case is the same with Jefferson, who already has six tackles for loss (three-times as many as anyone else on the team) and three sacks (again, three-times as many as the next closest player) through just two games. He’s even got two quarterback hurries to his name, once more, twice as many as anyone else wearing maroon and white.

Even in the down moment of losing the season opener, Jefferson was a bright spot, displaying his dominance in his first game as a senior. Like Prescott, that dominance came not from being physically superior, but from being tactically advanced.

It’s incredibly boring to hear players talk about technique and film study, and even more boring to read me writing about it (shoutout to you if you made it this far), but real graduate school is kind of the same way. It’s detailed. It’s slogging through formulas and advanced statistics and deep dives into theory and approach.

Being boring takes a lot of time and effort. Five years, to be exact, for guys like Jefferson and Prescott, among many others past, present and likely future in MSU’s program. As Mullen often tells his players, you’re physical development slows down as you go. You can only get so much bigger, faster and/or stronger. It’s the mental side where things progress later in your career.

“Coach Mullen has talked about it since I was a freshman,” Jefferson confirmed. “As you get older, your development kind of slows down. You really have to become an expert in the film room, watching tape and learning what guys do.”

Jefferson watches tape at the football facility with his coaches. He watches tape at home on his iPad. He and fellow senior lineman Nelson Adams get together on their own with the young players of the unit, and can you guess what they do together? Yeah, they watch tape. They study it. They critique themselves and they break down the opponents.

“Seeing what they can’t do, what moves can you use against them, if they have wide hands,” Jefferson offered as an example.

A.J. has a beard. I bet you didn't know that.

A.J. has a beard. I bet you didn’t know that.

Asked after Saturday’s win over South Carolina what has led to his fast start, Jefferson offered that simple approach as the answer: he studied the linemen he knew he would face, and when the ball was snapped, he knew how to beat them. Knowledge is power, often more than brawn and speed.

Fitzgerald, the previously-mentioned redshirt sophomore quarterback, has spent practice-after-practice since he arrived in December of 2013 being chased down by Jefferson. Last spring, Jefferson even laid a frowned-upon hit on Fitzgerald in the spring game, despite the rule prohibiting such things. Sometimes he just can’t help it. Over the last 36 months, Fitzgerald has watched as his friendly nemesis has grown stronger and stronger.

“His technique has obviously gotten better since he got here,” Fitzgerald said. “They said he started out with one move when he got here, and now he’s got an arsenal that he uses.”

I asked a lot of people, and no one would tell me that Jefferson got stronger, or that he got faster, or even bigger, though clearly he made improvements in all of those areas early in his time at State. What everyone told me was how much his technique has improved, how much he’s developed from a technical standpoint.

Yeah, it’s kind of boring, and the way I started this story was definitely a little hokey. But I’m going to end it with one of those quotes I already used up top, A) because I generally try to end articles with a quote, and B) because it shows what hard work and development at MSU can often mean.

“If he can continue on playing at the level which he’s at,” Sirmon said, “he’s going to walk away and really be someone that’s remembered here for a long time.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dan Mullen Press Conference Live Thread – LSU Week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen meets with local reporters for his weekly press conference. Mississippi State beat South Carolina in the SEC opener at home last weekend and travels to LSU to play Saturday night.

Live updates follow.


screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-1-03-49-pmAnd he’s here. Let’s get rolling.

“Looking back, I’m pleased with how last Saturday went, especially the first half,” Mullen says. “I thought we played Mississippi State football.”

His definition of that was 11 people running to the football on defense and the offense being able to run well.

He said the second half wasn’t as good as he would like, but knows the lightning delay played a factor. Said he was proud that they did make the plays they had to make.

On LSU, Mullen is praising their wide receivers and “they’ve got probably the best running back in America” in Leonard Fournette. Says he sees a team that doesn’t have a lot of holes and has great personnel on both sides of the ball.

On the injury front, Mullen says it will be “close” on senior LB/DE Will Coleman returning from injury this week. Says he’s “explosive” when healthy.

Asked about maintaining the intensity and high level of play, Mullen says “I guarantee I’ll bring the intensity every day in practice. As the leader, I’ve got to set that standard … It’s up to me to maintain that.”

Now talking quarterbacks, Mullen said there was no pressure or looking over their shoulders for the guys in the preseason, but after game one, the staff wanted to let Nick Fitzgerald know early that he was the guy so that he wouldn’t be worried and could just go out there and play. Mullen mentioned Saturday that he considers Fitzgerald the starter going forward.

Moving toward LSU, Mullen said the goal is for Fitz to correct whatever mistakes he made, while knowing that he probably will still have more mistakes going forward and “that’s fine. Let’s move on and not make the same mistake again.”

Mullen liked the way Fitzgerald made reads on his runs Saturday as he set the single-game record for yards rushing by an MSU quarterback. Mullen said they weren’t particularly dynamic runs or situations where he made a bunch of guys miss. They were just good decisions where there was a chance to get some yards on the ground.

“Nick’s a different style runner than Dak was, so it’s going to be a little different,” Mullen says. Thinks Fitz is faster, more explosive, but not as physical.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

MSU Fans Share Nerves And Excitement For Prescott’s NFL Debut

Once again, his name and stat lines are back in the news as Dak Prescott completed 23 of 43 passes for 213 yards today. More importantly, Prescott played – and started – in his first game in the NFL, fulfilling his childhood dream of being the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.

unnamed-1In Starkville, where Prescott spent the last five years and where his most recent regular season game was played, you might have thought it was the second Mississippi State gameday of the weekend. Typically, Mississippi is New Orleans Saints country, with a little bit of Tennessee Titans and a smidge of Green Bay Packers mixed in.

On Sunday, Starkville turned blue for the afternoon to watch their record-breaking hero make his debut as a rookie at the next level.

“I’ve been so nervous for him,” one person said as she watched him lead a drive down the field in the second quarter.

A similar sentiment spread across the small world of MSU football, whether on Twitter, Facebook or in homes and restaurants around the state and country. People who aren’t typically Cowboys supporters, or who don’t even watch the NFL, found themselves glued to the TV.

“I’m not a Cowboys fan,” one gentleman remarked after realizing he had accidentally said ‘we’ in reference to the Dallas team. “I’m a Dak fan. I need to make that abundantly clear when I cheer for the Cowboys.”

He later added, “This makes me so proud to watch Dak do this.”

To see how MSU fans were reacting to Prescott playing for someone other than MSU for the first time since high school, I checked in at a half-dozen Starkville establishments during the game and asked each person one simple question: why are you watching Dak today? I had them write down their answers on a piece of paper, telling them to use a few words or a couple sentences, whatever properly answered the question.

Some stuck to just a quick thought or sentence. Most kept it fairly short. But one person, Becky Dodd, couldn’t help filling up two sides of a piece of paper with her answer. Already in town Saturday for MSU’s win against South Carolina, Dodd and her husband stayed an extra day just so they could watch Prescott in Starkville with fellow MSU fans, doing so on Starkville’s Main Street at Hobie’s on Main, where the signature dish of the day was a hot dog named for Dak Prescott.

unnamedDodd was the first person I talked to in the restaurant, but she was the last to finish her message. By the time she was done, she knew she’d written more than I’d asked, and was worried I couldn’t read it. With a few words scratched out as she searched for the perfect way to describe her emotions in the moment, the paper she handed back to me was filled with what spilled from her heart.

The rest of the answers will follow below, and we’ll start with the note Dodd wrote as she and others answered the question: why are you watching Dak Prescott play?

——————

“I stayed in Starkville to watch Dak because I wanted to be with family for his start at QB with Dallas. I’ve watched him grow as a Bulldog over the years and am so very proud of the leader and man he’s become. He commands the field with poise and talent. His mother is not here to watch his amazing accomplishments. I feel as a mother – so very proud and nervous as he steps into the NFL arena. I can’t wait to see what he will do next.” – Becky Dodd

“I’m watching Dak because I’m a fan of his humble attitude. He’s a great player and deserves every chance in the pros. The 4th-rounder deserved to be a 1st-rounder without a doubt.” – Evan

“I love Dak.

I love Cowboys.

I like the wings here.” – Anonymous

“To show him the same love and support he has given us.” – Anonymous

“He made MSU football good.” – Anonymous

“Because we’re both MSU alums of the athletic department.” – Anonymous

“I’ve never followed the NFL, but when Dak was drafted, I became an instant Cowboys fan. He is Mississippi State. He’s a good kid and makes watching football FUN!” – Anonymous

“I am watching Dak because he is a Bulldog and I want to see how he performs at the NFL level.” – Anonymous

“To see how he performs at the NFL level.” – Anonymous

“He made us relevant.” – Anonymous

“It’s cool to see someone represent MSU on the biggest stage for one of the most famous franchises in NFL history.” – Anonymous

“I don’t ever watch the NFL but will watch Dak. He’s a great person, a Bulldog and has a chance to do something great. I want to see him do well.” – Anonymous

“Dak meant so much to MSU’s football program and to the university in general, and I cannot help but to watch him and pull for him to succeed in the NFL.” – Anonymous

“Because he was our savior in football, and because he’s murdering me in fantasy.” – Drew Shirley

“Because he made me have the best college experience as a football fan. Never would I have thought MSU would be that fun to watch.” – Anonymous

“He is the greatest QB out of MSU, and I am a lifelong MSU and Cowboys fan. Hail State.” – Mike Pickle Reed

“The Cowboys drafted D.D. Lewis in 1968 and he was a Bulldog and a friend of the family, so I became a Cowboys fan. I’d love to see Dak take us back to the promised land.” – Snap

“It’s good to see him represent MSU the right way.” – Anonymous

“Because it’s the biggest MSU-related NFL game in my lifetime.” – James C.

“Dak is Mississippi State. He is our own and we all just want to follow our boy. Also he is on my fantasy team, hoping to get some points.” – Jordan Hall

“We came here to watch Dak because he embodies everything it means to be a MSU Bulldog. His success reflects the success of this institution.” – Jake Weeden

“Well first of all he’s really hot. I cried at his senior day. He has been the best QB at MSU ever. We love you Dak!!” – Anonymous

“Dak kicks a- -.” – Anonymous

“Because he played at Mississippi State.” – Anonymous

“Watching Dak today means a lot because he was our Golden Child!” – Anonymous

“Dak put Mississippi State on the map. Just repaying the favor.” – Anonymous

“Dak Prescott’s legacy at State will be forever remembered. No doubt that he is the greatest player to ever play at MSU. To see him moving on to the next level of his career is absolutely amazing. With everything he did here at MSU, it would be stupid to not watch what he does at the pro level.” – J. V. Springer

“Because this is the most exciting professional debut by a Bulldog and if I can help it I’ll never miss a down he plays.” – Anonymous

“He’s an MSU player.” – Anonymous

“Because he gave us something to be proud of.” – Anonymous

“Because Dak is part of the MSU family – watching his career take off makes me proud to be an MSU alum.” – Anonymous

“I am watching Dallas (Dakota) play to support him, not as the Dallas QB but as a Mississippi State family member.” – Anonymous

“Seeing Dak mature from year to year here in Starkville and now watching him live his dream gives one pride to be a Bulldog.” – Anonymous

“As a lifelong MSU fan you always root for your own. His rise has been fun to watch. I think it will continue to be exciting for many years.” – Anonymous

“Gives me someone connected to the university to cheer for. And because he is my fantasy QB.” – Brandon Patrick

“I like what he did at State and am eager to see how he helps the Cowboys.” – Anonymous

“Represents not only America’s team but my home college. Always cool watching a QB on TV that I saw play in our stadium last year.” – A.J. Kelley

“Because Dak and the Dawgs go together! #HailState.” – Anonymous

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bulldogs Bounce Back In ‘Electric’ Fashion Against USC

Coaches and players said all the right things in press conferences in the days following last weekend’s game, but Mississippi State needed a lot more than a few interviews that sound good in the newspaper after losing in the season opener in particularly deflating fashion. Dan Mullen didn’t need goodwill from reporters. He needed results from his team.

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-1-04-22-pmAll 100-plus members of the team saw first-hand just how badly he wanted those results when, as a result of his passion in practice leading up to the SEC-opener against South Carolina, Mullen busted his nose open, a mark still visible as he took the floor for interviews Saturday night.

“He was out there actually practicing with us,” senior receiver Fred Ross said. “He was running around yelling at guys, in guys’ faces. I like it when practice is like that. It gets everybody going. You know you can’t slack off for even one play in practice. That’s how practice needs to be.”

Earlier in the week, players said Mullen apologized to them for letting them down in the season opener. Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon lamented the lack of passion and drive displayed in the dooming second half of the season opener. Coaches shouldered the blame. The response of the players was to take ownership for the loss themselves.

“The coaches can lead a little bit,” senior linebacker Richie Brown said, “but if you don’t have leadership from within, then what’s it worth? You’ve got to have guys inside the program, got to have players echoing things the coaches are saying and coaches echoing the players. Good followers as well as good leaders, it’s got to come from within.”

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-1-02-14-pmOver the last seven days, the voices and echoes within the program grew considerably. Peeps became yells, the speechless found their words and the lead-by-example morphed to lead by brute vocal force.

The result was a team transformed in appearance against South Carolina, a team that jumped out to a quick lead, and more importantly, a team that protected that lead. Save for the names on the jerseys, no one would have been able to tell it was the squad that was out-scored 21-3 in the second half on their home field against South Alabama just a week prior.

MSU racked up 485 yards, forced two turnovers, held USC to 34 yards rushing and notched 11 tackles for loss, State’s defensive line chasing down Gamecock quarterbacks and running backs like they were the ones personally responsible for every bad thing in their lives.

On the third play of the game, USC was already on third and long. MSU senior defensive end/linebacker Jonathan Calvin flew out of his stance as soon as the ball was snapped on third and seven, blew straight past the tackle fruitlessly trying to block him and he barreled straight into the unsuspecting quarterback, drilling Perry Orth into the earth for a loss of nine to send the Gamecock offense off the field and to send a message to all in attendance.

“That looked like Mississippi State football,” Mullen said late Saturday night as he reviewed the game.

Said defensive end A.J. Jefferson, the senior captain responsible for a pair of tackles for loss of his own, “The mood coming out, we were just ready to unleash on them.”

And it came from practice.

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-1-02-59-pmNick Fitzgerald is only a sophomore by football eligibility, but he’s been on the team since mid-December in 2013, almost three years at this point. On a team as young as this one, he’s been around Mullen longer than most and said he hasn’t seen his head coach act the way he did this week since bowl practices that first week in 2013. Here it’s worth noting, that bowl game in question was the 2013 Liberty Bowl in which MSU dismantled Rice at the end of a tough season that barely saw MSU make it to the postseason. That blowout win was the launching pad for everything that happened in 2014 when MSU ascended to the top of the college football world.

Coming back from defeat, resiliency, is part of the Bulldog mentality, if you ask Mullen.

“That’s what we expect here,” Mullen said. “That’s what we expect from our guys.”

When MSU’s head coach left Davis Wade Stadium last Saturday, he was determined to make sure it happened. He stayed up late into the night as he made one decision after another. On Sunday, he called his quarterbacks in to let them know that Fitzgerald was going to be the starter. On Monday, he went to practice and showed a fire most of his players had never seen him.

Mullen knew easily what the problem was leading up to game one.

“I don’t know if I saw that desperateness, that desperate intensity to go,” he said. “That’s on me. That’s on me to set that standard.”

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-1-05-16-pmAnd so he did, flying around practice, getting in players’ faces, challenging them to be leaders, reminding them what it means to wear their jersey and preaching to them, clichéd as it may be, that they must give relentless effort until the final whistle is blown.

“It’s been pretty intense,” Mullen conceded. “I’ll tell you that much.”

“Very intense,” Fitzgerald confirmed Saturday night. “The entire team, we turned up the intensity to a whole new level. I don’t think you’ll ever see us like we were last week. We played Mississippi State football tonight and we’re going to keep doing that.”

Playing ‘Mississippi State Football’ appears to have done the trick. They’re not there yet, Mullen said, but the Bulldogs bounced back in a big way. In a game interrupted by an hour-long lightning delay, the atmosphere of the locker room after the win was appropriately charged.

Said Fitzgerald, “It was electric.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Tan White Adds To Legacy Of Domination With Hall Of Fame Induction

This weekend, the MSU Sports Hall of Fame inducts five new members. Each day this week, we’ll be highlighting one of those individuals in this space.

Many stories in sports are about overcoming the odds to succeed, about underdogs breaking through or about miracles saving the day at the last minute.

cr6z9mwxeaqe2lfThat is not Tan White’s story. Hers is about one thing: being an incredibly good basketball player.

Not to say that White didn’t have her own hurdles and hardships in life, but her story on the court is that she quickly becomes the story of nearly every court she steps on.

The former Mississippi State women’s basketball great, now in her 12th year of playing professionally, will be inducted into the MSU Sports Hall of Fame, an honor she never saw coming, but one she very much earned in her four seasons at MSU.

When White finished her time at State in 2005, she was the career MSU record-holder for three-point field goals made (222), three-point field goals attempted (714), steals (372), blocked shots (118) and field goals attempted (121) as she became just the second player in school history to score 2,000 points and set an SEC record for career steals that still stands today.

And no, that’s not a typo. As a guard, White set the school record in three pointers and blocked shots.

“I’m 5’7”, but don’t get it twisted,” she said, “I can jump. I think for the most part it was just my energy. I was so determined with the passion I played with. I was everywhere. As I continue to play, I’m not even really that much of a scoring threat now. I can actually see that my drive comes from defense.”

Says the player who, as a senior at MSU, led the entire country in scoring with 23.5 points per game. Not the team, not the conference, but the entire country – no one in America scored more points than Tan White in 2005. Accomplishments like that are what White is looking back on with awe now as she prepares for her induction into the Hall of Fame.

“All these years,” White mused, “you say you want to be the best basketball player you can be, then when you get an honor like this and you reflect on all the things it took for you to get there, it seems surreal because it was just a thought, just a dream at first; ‘I want to be the best.’ To lead the nation in the scoring, how many people can do that? I know, every year someone has to be the No. 1, but you, out of all people? My mindset was, if I can accomplish that, I can do anything.”

Of course, part of White’s legacy comes in the form of the historic frontcourt-backcourt tandem MSU women’s basketball showcased for two years when White played with fellow MSU Hall of Fame inductee LaToya Thomas. One of the greatest forwards in SEC history, Thomas was a big part of White choosing to play basketball at MSU in the first place. Thomas and her teammates had started something, and White wanted to be a part of it.

“Once you had [LaToya] and Tan came with her,” then-head coach Sharon Fanning-Otis remembered, “that was quite the threat offensively with those two kids in the perimeter and post.”

Said MSU Athletic Director Scott Stricklin, “That was a great 1-2 punch and put Mississippi State women’s basketball on the map for the first time. Candidly, when we were hiring [current head coach Vic Schaefer], I said, ‘I know we can do it here, because we’ve had success when LaToya and Tan were here. They kind of charted the course, if you will, that our ladies are now on.”

Together, the duo gave the conference fits. It was only appropriate that Thomas, who barely preceded White at MSU, went No. 1 overall in the WNBA Draft, only to see White be selected No. 2 overall two years later. Fitting that Thomas was inducted into the MSU Sports Hall of Fame last year, followed by her younger teammate White now in 2016.

“She made it easy for me when I came to State,” White said. “We’re both pretty laid back. Some people have this ego, but she never did that. She welcomed me to the team saying, ‘Yeah, I’m here, but we’re with you. I need your help.’ It could have been even more special had we had a couple more years together.

“It’s really a dream come true,” White continued. “That wasn’t something I thought about growing up. I just loved basketball. So to be a part of turning a program around is unreal. It’s something that I’ll be forever grateful for.”

White was already considered one of the greats in MSU lore. Her numbers speak for themselves, though plenty more words have been spoken about her regardless. White didn’t expect to lead the country in scoring, didn’t imagine she’d be the No. 2 pick in the draft, didn’t guess she’d still be playing pro ball 13 seasons after her last game in the maroon and white, and she certainly had no plans to one day stand in front of a crowd as she is inducted into the Hall of Fame. But here she is.

“I’m just some kid from Tupelo who just wanted to play basketball,” she said.

But, don’t get it twisted.

“I’m not surprised by myself.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Phil Silva Adds To Legend With Hall Of Fame Induction

This weekend, the MSU Sports Hall of Fame inducts five new members. Each day this week, we’ll be highlighting one of those individuals in this space.

Everyone has a story about Phil Silva. The trouble is, Phil Silva has a story about everyone else, too.

112815_fb_olemiss_silva_kp2594Mississippi State’s head equipment manager for the last 33 years, Silva has been the most consistent presence in the modern era of Bulldog football, his time spanning from Emory Bellard to Dan Mullen and John Bond to Dak Prescott. The equipment room in the new football complex is already named after the legendary figure and personality, and this weekend, Silva gets yet another honor as he is inducted into the MSU Sports Hall of Fame.

His name is not one typically heard by most fans of the game, but there are few people who work in any level of football who don’t know Silva, not just because of his work with the New Orleans Saints or the Senior Bowl in addition to his role at MSU, but because after 33 years, he’s sent hundreds of young equipment managers out into the world. The Phil Silva equipment tree is metaphorical redwood, stretching high and wide with branches in every direction.

Silva’s relationships with coaches and players are a big part of his legacy, but just as important to him are the students who have worked for him the last three decades.

“The main thing is seeing my students I’ve had grow up to be good young people,” he said in his signature gravelly voice. “We put in a lot of hours. They don’t make enough money. I try to do everything I can to help them and guide them in the right way. After they get out of school, they realize, they understand why I got on their butts about being on time, being clean cut. It makes a difference.”

Beneath the sarcasm, the jokes, the high demands and the oft-present cloud of cigar smoke, Silva wants to help people. A heart like his is practically a requirement if one is going to last that long in the equipment world. It’s not an easy job, nor is it one that often receives many thanks. As Athletic Director Scott Stricklin pointed out, there is a lot of giving and very little receiving for someone in his position.

But that’s what Silva likes, and that’s what he’s done for the last 33 seasons of MSU football, taking time for those he serves and putting in the extra effort when many others would choose not to. And for his favorites over the years, his office was always open for someone to talk to, or even just a place to getaway from all the noise. Players like Jerious Norwood and Dak Prescott frequented Silva’s office hidden in the bowels of MSU’s athletic complexes. Coaches like Jackie Sherrill and Sylvester Croom found shelter and quiet on his couch.

“Coach Sherrill used to come all the time and hide in my place,” Silva recalled. “He’d sit down and take a nap. Coach Croom too. I’d close the door and take the phone off the hook so nothing could bother them for a while, then we’d go out to practice through the backdoor.”

Relationships like those are what helped put together the look of one of the most iconic games in MSU history – the 2000 Snow Bowl. Of course, they didn’t know it was going to be a snowy game. Before the end of the game, it was called by its proper name, the Independence Bowl.

Shortly before MSU was due to leave Starkville, Silva and a few of his students and assistants were eating dinner at Harvey’s, and they happened to be seated near Sherrill and his wife.

“I guarantee he’s going to ask me about getting white helmets,” Silva told one of the students.

Texas A&M was already planning to wear maroon jerseys, MSU knowing it would wear white, but at that point, the Bulldogs hadn’t wore white helmets in decades. It certainly had never been done under Sherrill.

“Phil, come here,” Silva remembers Sherrill calling to him. “What do you think about white helmets?”

“Coach, I told them you were going to ask me about white helmets,” Silva replied. “I already called. We’ve got four styles of white helmets on the way to choose from.”

“How’d you know?” Sherrill asked.

“Coach,” Silva answered, “I know you by now. I understand what you want.”

Just another part of the job, playing some combination of psychologist and psychic.

“You figure them out after a while, what they want,” Silva said. “So that was it. We wore white helmets for that game. Got white shoes to go with them. It was really cool, it was. That’s probably one of the best games I’ve been a part of.”

Silva’s career is littered with stories like those, anecdotes from bowl games and rivalry games, winning seasons and losing seasons, the unexpected and the meticulously planned. There’s the can of Sprite Silva had ready for former quarterback Wayne Madkin before every game. There are 33 years worth of extra wristbands, misplaced socks and late nights doing laundry for 100-some-odd football players, making sure their practice and game gear magically reappears in their locker rooms every day, fresh as new.

A New Orleans native, Silva didn’t go to school at MSU, and he actually got his start in equipment as an undergraduate at Nicholls State, but after all this time at State, after raising his three boys in Starkville, there’s nowhere else he’d rather call home.

“It’s been a great ride. I never went to school here, but it’s felt like my university. I’ve always thought that,” he said. “When I retire, I ain’t gonna go anywhere. My two granddaughters are here. I’m going to be a good grandparent, that’s the next thing I want to do.”

It will be a sad day for MSU whenever that moment comes, but it will surely be a happy one for MSU’s living equipment legend.

“Phil is one of those iconic guys in our athletic department,” Stricklin said. “For better or for worse, there will never be another Phil Silva.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hall Of Fame Enshrinement A Timely Honor For Bulldog Great Wayne Madkin

This weekend, the MSU Sports Hall of Fame inducts five new members. Each day this week, we’ll be highlighting one of those individuals in this space.

For the last two years, Wayne Madkin watched every Saturday as the records kept on falling – as his records kept on falling. When Madkin graduated from Mississippi State in 2001, he did so as the best quarterback in the 100-year history of the football program. His 25 wins were the most by any signal caller to wear the uniform. His pass attempts (887), pass completions (462) and passing yards (6,366) were the most all-time in MSU history.

madkinw_a2When Madkin took over as President of the M-Club a couple years ago, most of those records still stood. Then Dak Prescott broke them all. The timing was perfect as this year, Madkin’s peers have voted for him to be enshrined in the MSU Sports Hall of Fame. The quarterback on MSU’s All-Century team, Madkin will be inducted Friday night, then honored Saturday on the same field where he set so many of those records.

As the games were played, as MSU went to three-straight bowl games, as the Bulldogs made their first and only appearance in the SEC Championship game, and as Madkin passed his team up and down the field, he never quite understood what was happening. It was good, he knew, but at 18 years old, the gravity of the moment was a mystery to him.

It took nearly 15 years of waiting for him to put it all in perspective.

“It’s sunk in now,” he said. “Especially when Dak broke my records. The older you get, the more you realize you were a part of something special. He’s gonna feel the same way. Then there will probably be somebody who surpasses him years from now. Records are meant to be broken. When Dak surpassed those records, and I realized it was going on 15 years, that really made me appreciate the opportunity I had while I was there. Holding something for over a decade, it really sunk in how special of a time it really was.”

Beyond the numbers he put up, Madkin was a part of some of the most meaningful seasons and moments in the history of MSU football. The Snow Bowl, the Peach Bowl and a handful of Egg Bowls. The kick and the pick. All the comebacks. The first 8-0 team in school history. The Best in the West. The SEC West title and MSU’s first trip to Atlanta. There is an entire generation of MSU fans who grew up on Madkin and those Bulldogs around him, raised with the expectation that MSU is going to win, and it was thanks to those teams.

Madkin still runs into people like that today, men and women now in their 30s who tell him how much he meant to them when they were young.

“That what’s really special,” Madkin said, “that I got to be a part of so many kids’ lives, especially in the state of Mississippi.”

The feeling of inclusion, of being a part of something, is what always meant the most to Madkin as a player and what still lives in his heart today. He was a star at MSU, but Madkin’s childhood was anything but glamorous or easy.

That’s why Madkin’s favorite memory isn’t a game-winning touchdown in a bowl game, an appearance in a Championship Game or even a record-setting pass. What the new Hall of Famer cherishes the most is the moment he first truly knew that his coaches and teammates believed in him.

It was in 1998 as a freshman, in the second-to-last game of the regular season against Arkansas. If MSU won, then they guaranteed themselves an SEC West title if they won the Egg Bowl the following week. But that possibility rested entirely on beating Arkansas. And to do that, late in the game, MSU needed points. More than that, they needed a first down to keep the ball and the dream both in their possession. Fourth and long, Madkin came to the huddle with the play call. Wide receiver Kevin Cooper was going to get the ball, and Madkin was going to give it to him.

“Everybody’s eyes were so big and so focused and they were looking at me and they said, ‘We got this.’ When I took the snap, Arkansas had some very good defensive players, and one came off the end and got to me. I dipped under him. It was just a reaction. I rolled out to the right and, lo and behold, I see Kevin. By that time, I was going down. I felt somebody dragging me by my shoulder. I threw it, and quite frankly, I didn’t see the play. I was on the ground. But I heard the crowd roar and I knew something good happened.”

The pass was complete, setting the Bulldogs up for the go-ahead field goal, the victory and the SEC West title.

“Then after that, all the guys, Eric Allen, Randy Thomas, all those guys, they came and picked me up, hugging me, smacking me on the butt,” Madkin remembered. “When that play happened, everybody was in a state of like, ‘This is happening.’

“I was just a kid from Alabama, from the projects, and Coach Sherrill and a group of seniors trusted me enough to grow with me. That right there was very special,” Madkin continued. “They taught me so many things about being a leader. How to take the good with the bad and continue to push on … That fourth down and long play, I remember that vividly, looking in the huddle and seeing everybody’s eyes looking at me and believing in me to make the play at age 18. I’ll never forget that. For all the things that I was able to be a part of at Mississippi State, that validated and brought me over to an affirmation of myself and what I was part of.”

Madkin spent four years as a player, and the last 15 as an alum, validating Mississippi State football. It’s only appropriate that now, MSU once again validates him, assigning him to his proper place, enshrined in the MSU Hall of Fame.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment