Behind The Dominant Play Of #HailStateHoops

At 24-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country, Mississippi State is the only Southeastern Conference team in the Top 10 nationally for scoring offense, and it is the only SEC team in the full Top 25 of scoring defense in all of women’s basketball. In fact, you have to drop all the way down through the 30s before you find another team in the conference on that list.

Perhaps that isn’t surprising, though. After all, Mississippi State has the only defense in the SEC that doesn’t have to play Mississippi State’s offense. At least not in a game, anyway.

MSU’s identity under head coach Vic Schaefer has been defense, the specialty and area of focus for the man tabbed “The Minister of Defense” when he was hired almost five years ago. But as the defending National Finalists are dominating their regular season schedule, they’re not just doing with their usual suffocating defense – this team has turned into a juggernaut on the offensive end of the floor. At 83.1 points per game, the Bulldogs are far and away the best in the conference, and they’re proving themselves yet again to be among the best in the country.

Much of that success, of course, comes from a pair of players that everyone knows – Victoria Vivians and Teaira McCowan. They’re renowned for good reason, both of them in the Top 5 in the SEC in points per game with Vivians averaging 19.6 and McCowan at 19.3.

In many games, those two alone are practically enough to beat someone. But in one of the toughest conferences in the country, two players can’t always do it on their own, and that’s why Schaefer’s team is streaking through the regular season. He’s got more than just those two, and no one to date has figured out what to do about it.

Just for starters, if an opponent double-teams McCowan in the post, Vivians is sure to go off. But say someone manages to limit both of those stars, then it’s time for any number of Schaefer’s weapons to be put into action.

While Vivians and McCowan get the headlines, the Bulldogs have a pair of guards among the deadliest shooters in the conference. Senior Blair Schaefer is shooting 42% from three-point range, while the versatile junior Roshunda Johnson is just behind her, drilling threes at a 39% clip.

“That in and of itself allows Teaira not to be double-teamed,” Schaefer said. “When Teaira is doubled, we can play through her and she finds these two out on the perimeter.”

McCowan, by the way, is completely fine with that. Against South Carolina Monday, she was perfectly pleased to haul in a game-high 20 rebounds while she let her teammates do the bulk of the scoring. That game serves as a perfect example of what makes MSU so hard to defend.

In the first half against the Gamecocks, Vivians was playing beyond even her high standards, and by halftime, she had scored a full 20 points. At that point, Blair Schaefer only had two points. USC, naturally, changed their game plan to try and slow down Vivians. She only had four points in the game’s final two quarters, but with so much attention diverted to guarding Vivians and McCowan, Schaefer went off. By the final minute of the fourth quarter, she had 14 points and MSU had the victory sealed up.

And then of course – how easily one forgets – there’s Morgan William, the senior point guard who last year hit one of the biggest shots in the history of basketball at any level and put on one of the greatest postseason performances that women’s college basketball has seen. Ignore her at your own peril.

“Arkansas didn’t guard Mo,” Schaefer recalled. “She went 8-for-11 in the first half.”

And MSU won by 40 as William totaled 18 points that night.

All of this fails to even mention the stellar play of State’s role players, guards and forwards alike coming off the bench to play meaningful minutes, to offer flexibility in size and skillset. As MSU navigated an eight-day stretch that started with a rivalry game on the road at Ole Miss, continued with a road game against No. 15 Missouri and finished days later with No. 7 USC at home, it was thanks to players like Jazzmun Holmes, the reserve point guard who racked up eight assists in 22 minutes against the Gamecocks, and Chloe Bibby, the freshman forward who stepped into the biggest game of the year and played with as much ease and confidence as if it were just a pick-up game with friends. And the list doesn’t even stop there.

In most post-game press conferences, the head coach is joined at the podium by one or two players. Sometimes coaches even do it alone. On Monday night, Schaefer sat in the middle of five of his players, enough to fill out a full starting lineup. That visual served as a perfect example of what has made his team just so difficult to stop.

“It’s hard to pick who you’re not going to guard,” Schaefer admitted. “Just picking your poison, it’s really hard. I’d hate to try to have to figure out who to not guard on this team, because you’ve got some kids that can really do some things, and they’re not just one-dimensional.”

“It really gives us flexibility to do some things and get some mismatches offensively,” he said. “I like our flexibility. I like our ability to change our lineup. It really adds a dimension to our team that we haven’t had. We’re a little bit different and harder to defend sometimes.”

Perhaps the important part of it all is that those pieces all work so well together. They’ve put in the work and the hours. They’ve had the experiences and battles. Through it all, they’ve grown closer, grown to know each other, and grown into a set of pieces that operate as one unstoppable force.

“I’m proud of the chemistry this team has,” Schaefer said after his most recent record-breaking win. “I just think our whole team has that, and that’s why we’re where we are today. I think they played for each other today.”

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Q&A With New MSU Football Strength Coach Anthony Piroli

Last week, Bob Carskadon from the HailStateBEAT sat down with Mississippi State football’s new strength and conditioning coach Anthony Piroli. Hired by first-year head coach Joe Moorhead, Piroli was an assistant on MSU’s strength staff during the 2014 season and spent the last three years as an assistant under the legendary Buddy Morris with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.

The following is the full question and answer session from that interview.

Bob Carskadon: Let’s start by talking about the players. Those who know college football know how important your position is and how much time you spend with the team even when other coaches aren’t around. What’s your big picture approach, style and philosophy in working with your players?

Anthony Piroli: First and foremost, coming from an NFL background, one of the things that I guess you could say I missed, was the collegiate setting. You really do get a lot more time and a lot more opportunities to develop these players through the years that you know you’re going to have them. If you do the right things in those time periods, you can get the most of out of your players. It’s really about maximizing their potential. Those are essentially the things were’ trying to do here – maximize their potential.

In a nutshell, we’re just looking to make better football players out of everyone here. We’re not necessarily trying to make a guy look good in a mirror, or make a guy bench press or squat something that he can do in a competition. At the end of the day, are we making them a better football player? Or at least helping bridge the gap between the weight room and the field for the position coaches so that they can then do their job. That’s the most generic sense of it, but that’s how we look at it from the base level.

BC: As you mentioned, you were in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals the last several years. What were some of the things you learned there that you can apply at this level at MSU?

AP: The greatest thing I saw there was that even at the most elite level, when you’re really putting the best product out there on the floor – and what I mean by that is the training program itself is as individualized as possible – and the players actually start to see the benefits on the field, then they’re willing to do anything for you. It really doesn’t take that much twisting of the arm at that point in time because at the end of the day, all these athletes want to be better at their sport. If they’re starting to see those results happen faster and faster, that’s pretty much taking care of all the other things that you would normally have to see.

BC: As we’ve mentioned before, you were at Mississippi State back in 2014 for one of the best seasons in program history, and it was after that year that you went to Arizona to join the staff of the Cardinals. What a lot of people don’t know is that through all of that, Joe Moorhead has actually been tracking your career this whole time, and in fact, he wanted to hire you as the head strength coach at Fordham when he was named the head coach there. You of course had a great opportunity in Arizona and went to work with your mentor Buddy Morris, but now that you guys are together, what makes him the kind of coach you want to work for?

AP: Having some common people in the field that we’re both close with, whatever he heard about me was obviously positive if he was following that far back. Those are all things that played into this. Coach Joe and I are kind of cut from the same cloth, just hard-working, blue-collar type guys from the same area. Probably the same type of upbringing in our family situation.

I told him right after he got this job that one of the things he would like the most about the players I know in this program is that’s exactly who they are. I know it might be the south and people might not see similarities between steel country up north and down here, but that’s what I’ve seen in these players when I was hear last and I already see it now. One thing you don’t have to teach Mississippi State football players is effort and how to work hard, because these guys go a million miles an hour all the time. Any strength and conditioning coach or head football coach that could walk into that situation is blessed.

BC: What was it like when you got the call from Moorhead asking you to come work for him and come back to Mississippi State?

AP: Obviously, you never know when it’s really going to happen, when the time is going to come, when you’re going to get that call. I had a little bit of a hint that the possibility may have existed. I was at home and we had just got done winning a game. It was late for us in Arizona, so I’ve got to imagine it was really late here. My wife woke me up letting me know my phone was ringing and it was him. He basically just started to talk to me about the program and I was taken aback like, whoa, do I have the job? That was essentially it. At that point in time, I kind of figured out that he was pretty much a straight shooter and we were just going to hit the ground running.

Once we got going it was awesome. Just knowing the type of person that I was going to get to work for, knowing the young guys on this roster when I left were going to be the upperclassmen and the leaders on this team, that was I was going to see out the same guys I saw came in. Just the familiarity, I was really excited about that. I don’t think my first head job could have been laid out any better for me.

BC: Speaking of the players, I wanted to ask you about the spring “draft” you had with them. I’ve seen the video of the draft itself and it looks like it’s going to be entertaining. What’s the backstory on that?

AP: It’s nothing new to college football, but making a team of teams within the program is essentially what we’re doing. We kind of let the players themselves have full ownership of it. We’ve got captains across the entire team picked based on position group and they’re essentially the head coach and GM all in one. We had everything broken down for them in the war room based on each player’s past performance whether it be classroom related, field related or weight room related so that they can essentially have a statistical breakdown of every player in the draft.

The guys had a lot of fun with it. It’s just a good way to allow these captains, per se, to grow into better leaders and that’s really what we want across any team we’re coaching, to have guys that can lead and players that are going to elevate their play based on that. Everything is scored in our program – in the weight room, academically, recovery-wise. Beyond that, people will also compete with their teams once we get to a team competition phase in late February. Twice a week, they’ll be with their teams competing against all the other teams for the duration of the spring.

BC: As we mentioned, you were here in 2014 for an incredibly special season and MSU’s rise to No. 1. What are some of your memories of that season?

AP: From the moment that I stepped on campus here and we started to train the guys, it was my first SEC team, I was just wondering, is this how it is everywhere? The amount of talent that I was seeing in the weight room and on the field, through all the competitions that we did then. Obviously, once the season began, it didn’t take long to see how special we were. I believe it was week four, we were down in Baton Rouge playing, and we were going into halftime up a couple touchdowns against LSU. You’ve never heard 100,000-plus people so quiet in your life. I think it was kind of that moment that it clicked that the team was really special.

I think what set that team apart from many others is the leadership that it had. And it wasn’t just one person, but it was really across the board. A lot of the upperclassmen on that team were phenomenal leaders on and off the field. They backed it up with their play and they backed it up with their preparation, as well. That team was definitely really special, and luckily for me, I got to stay in touch with quite a few of those guys when they made it to the next level. When I was in Arizona, I got to see them whenever we would play their teams, and they were definitely bonds that we’ll keep with us forever.

BC: So, going forward, this is obviously a very important time for a program before spring ball starts. What are some of the things you want to accomplish between now and then with the guys?

AP: We just finished our period of assessing all the players individually, seeing what their strengths and weaknesses are. Our job as a strength staff, as a sports med staff, as a football coaching staff, is to sit at the table and come up with the single best solution for every player on the team so that we can maximize their potential. Doing that allows us to figure out where and how many times we have to break down the program across the board into little individual categories for the players so we’re making sure over these next couple weeks that they’re not just beating a dead horse, but finding out what things we need to do for them to continue to be good at their strengths and what things we need to do to lift up their weaknesses.

A lot of the things that we’re already adopting, that we think are going to benefit the team across the board, are a style of conditioning and speed work and mobility work that we’re doing with them. I think the players as a whole are really enjoying that already. It’s really just getting started. We’re at the base level of that. We plan on continuing to roll that out in spring ball. Once we get into summer training, we’ll take that up again.

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Bulldogs Rally Together For Impressive Taxslayer Victory

Mississippi State took the field Saturday with an interim head coach, a skeleton staff and an opponent everyone expected them to lose to. Louisville had a Heisman winner at quarterback, while State had a true freshman making his first start ever after its usual starting quarterback was hurt in the final game of the regular season. The Bulldogs had injuries, absences, illnesses and more. By the end of the first half, only one of their four captains was even still able to play.

And MSU won, the 2017 Taxslayer Bowl Champions. Not only did they win, but that freshman stole the show on the same field as the winner of college football’s greatest award. The defense without a coordinator played lights out for almost the entire game, racking up four interceptions and six sacks against Bobby Petrino’s vaunted Cardinal offense.

It shouldn’t have happened, and few would have been surprised if it hadn’t, but it happened anyway, largely because those select few also happened to be the ones on the field. It can often sound cheesy, insincere or clichéd, but when MSU beat Louisville 31-27 on Saturday in Jacksonville, the players on the team were making a statement about the truth behind the word: they’re a family.

“There are coaches missing, a few players being hurt, Jamal Peters didn’t play, a couple seniors are hurt,” the winning freshman quarterback Keytaon Thompson listed off the reasons people doubted them. “It takes a family to come together in a situation like this and still fight in a tough game against a Heisman trophy winner in a big game.”

“It’s been a tough time for everyone, a lot of emotions. You’re talking about 120-something guys and everyone is viewing things differently,” interim head coach Greg Knox replied when asked what it was like leading with an interim staff. “Today, that’s what you saw on the field. It was a chance for everyone to breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘Thank you God for this win.’

“I’ve been here nine years,” he finished. “These guys, I recruited them. I’ve been in their homes. We’re family. We’re a family.”

“I know it means a lot to the team. I know it means a lot to Coach Knox,” sophomore defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons offered as confirmation. “When he first got in front of the team I told Coach Knox, ‘We have your back.’ He said, ‘I need that.’ From that point on, I knew this was going to mean a lot to him.”

“We had to face a lot of adversity, especially throughout the coaching change, and our team stayed focused,” Simmons added. “We stayed together as a team. Like I told the team earlier, the bond we have as a team won’t be broken because of all the changes going on. Like I said, the family is strong and the team was strong to come and finish a bowl game.”

“Back on January 1, when this team was born, we made a commitment to this team and this season. We were going to hold that rope, hold that chain up high,” Taxslayer Bowl MVP Mark McLaurin offered as explanation of the history. “We locked arms and said we’re gonna take the field today and come out with a win.”

“It’s the same way we’ve been having success. Nothing changed. Just hard work and preparation. It doesn’t matter who’s in, what quarterback or what coach. It comes down to us and hard work and preparation,” freshman linebacker Errol Thompson shared. “That was kind of the sense of everybody. We’d come into the weight room and it was go time, everyone knew they needed to lock in no matter what. Everybody understood that from the start. It helped to have that mindset.”

“We’re a family,” Thompson repeated. “Guys knew it was my first start and they wanted me to win. Defense had all the confidence in me and the team. We wanted to go out with a bang.”

And that’s what they did. In the coming days and weeks, the 2018 team will be born and their journey will begin, aided by many who helped make this year so successful. But before that happens, Mississippi State made sure to finish what it started in 2017, and above all, the Bulldogs made sure to do it as a family.

And it wasn’t just the players. It wasn’t just the coaches leaving, the coaches staying or the coaches coming. It was the thousands of fans in the stadium who came to watch their last game. It was athletic director John Cohen cheering them on, and on many occasions coaching them on, from the sideline all afternoon. It was guys like Jay Perry, Brad Peterson, Patrick Austin and Rod Gibson who ensured everything held together. It was the baseball coach, Andy Cannizaro, who flew to Florida on his own dime to watch the team. It was the band, the spirit groups, the equipment managers and athletic trainers. The strength staff, the ticketing staff, the compliance staff and the external staff. It was all who work, cheer and care for the Bulldogs. It was a connection of people with a common goal and an uncommon bond.

Dak Prescott said it first, and these players said it again on Saturday in the most trying of circumstances. You can call it a cliché, but they call it family, and that’s who they play for.

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Fun In The Sun: The MSU Fan’s Guide To Visiting Jacksonville And The Taxslayer Bowl

Days before Mississippi State beat Arkansas in Fayetteville back in November, the coldest and windiest game of the year for the Bulldogs, junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said he was hoping for a win for many reasons, but chief among them was the dream of “a warmer bowl game.”

Three weeks later, he got his wish when it was announced his team is headed to Jacksonville, Florida, for the Taxslayer Bowl on December 30. Sunshine, water, food and fun … and that’s just on gameday, thanks to the pool party inside the stadium. Not that Fitzgerald will be able to watch the game from the pool, of course, but anyone else can. More info on that here: https://www.taxslayerbowl.com/pool-party/

However, the game itself is only four hours, and if you’re making the trip all the way down to Florida over the holidays, you might as well make the most of it and enjoy some extra time in the area. Jacksonville is a fairly spread out city as it is, and when factoring in the nearby beaches, the swath of land in which vacationers will spend their time gets even larger. For that reason, I put together a quick travel guide based on my time there and recommendations from experts to help those who are looking for things to do, places to eat and ways to enjoy the warmth of the Sunshine State.

With the vast amount of hotels, AirBNB’s, beach rentals and the like available in the area, I didn’t list any lodging recommendations. But for those who would like it all taken care of in one neat, easy package, I’d recommend looking at the PrimeSport travel package MSU has available for the Taxslayer Bowl. Check that out here: https://www.primesport.com/d/mississippi-state-bulldogs?utm_source=hailstate.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=universities_mississippi_state_bowl_packages&utm_content=twitter_post_2_1232017

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 THINGS TO DO, DAYLIGHT AND NIGHTLIFE

Whether it’s an activity for the family, for adults or for the solo traveler, Jacksonville has plenty to offer. Beaches, of course, are a hot spot for travelers, and they have their own section later on. For a more detailed guide with extensive information, links and directions to museums, shows, etc., the Taxslayer Bowl has a helpful listing on its website https://www.taxslayerbowl.com/area-information/

The Jacksonville Zoo – What easier way to enjoy the good weather than to stroll through a zoo? From jaguars to giraffes to frogs and birds, the zoo has over 2,000 rare and exotic animals. http://www.jacksonvillezoo.org

Dave and Buster’s, Top Golf – You likely already know what these are, and now you know you can visit them both in Jacksonville. MSU’s football team will actually be making a visit of its own to Top Golf, and it won’t be a surprise if a player or two make their way to Dave and Buster’s. Arcade games, golfing, food – all good things, good for all ages.

Adventure Landing – A good choice for the family, Adventure Landing has locations in Jacksonville proper as well as Jacksonville Beach. They’ve got arcades, laser tag, go karts and mini golf. https://jacksonville-blanding.adventurelanding.com/things-to-do/

The Elbow – The Elbow is Jacksonville’s main entertainment district, where the burgeoning arts scene has flourished, and restaurants, shops and bars with live music line the streets. Some of the food recommendations below can be found here, but honestly, you can wander around and just poke your head inside whatever looks good to you and you’ll be just fine. More information here: https://theelbowjax.com

Jacksonville Landing – The home of MSU’s pep rally the night before the game – Friday, December 29 at 6:30 – The Landing is an easy and scenic one-stop choice for a full evening of entertainment. In what amounts to an outdoor mall and food court on the riverfront, the landing has a variety of shops and restaurants to suit most budgets. Pizza, tacos, steaks – whatever you like, you can find it here. http://www.jacksonvillelanding.com

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PLACES TO EAT

When I travel, this is always the most important and most enjoyable part of my trip. This list comes from a combination of personal experience, online research and recs from locals. For a lengthier list, the Taxslayer Bowl has a full section of its website dedicated to partner restaurants – https://www.taxslayerbowl.com/fan-zone/eat/

Maple Street Biscuit Company – Open for breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday, this is one of Jax’s most popular and highest-rated spots. Sweet or savory, standard or adventurous, the menu is much more than just biscuits. I’d recommend The Sticky Maple – “Flaky biscuit, all natural fried chicken breast, pecan wood smoked bacon all topped with Bissell Family Farm real maple syrup” – but that’s just me. Check out the menu and see what you like https://maplestreetbiscuits.com/menu/

BB’s Restaurant – Better for the adults traveling with more dollars than babies, BB’s is an upscale option that is a regular award-winner and must-visit-list topper. Seafood, salads, sandwiches, soups and pizza lead off the menu, and if you’re staying in town after the game, their New Year’s Eve dinner would be a fine choice. http://bbsrestaurant.com

TacoLu Baja Mexicana – A local staple in a historic building, this is where you’ll find me all week in Jacksonville. It’s a bit off the beaten tourist path, but TacoLu is worth the effort. Excellent Mexican food, Taco Lu has a cheeseburger quesadilla, beef brisket enchiladas and even a filet mignon taco on its menu of a dozen specialty tacos. Check it out. http://www.tacolu.com

Singleton’s Seafood Shack – If you’re in the mood for seafood – fresh or fried – with a view of the water, Singleton’s is the place to go. Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Singleton’s is worth the drive from the city to the beach. https://www.facebook.com/singletonsmayport/menu/

Metro Diner – Southern, hearty and highly-rated, Metro Diner is where you’ll find Jacksonville’s locals, and with good reason. They serve breakfast all day, but it’s the sandwiches and lunch-and-dinner plates that keep people coming back for more. There’s nothing fancy here, just good food the way we appreciate it in Mississippi. https://metrodiner.com/menus/lunch-menu/

Al’s Pizza – A local chain of, you guessed it, pizza parlors, Al’s has locations spread throughout Jacksonville. A family-friendly joint, Al’s has regularly been voted Jacksonville’s best pizza and has an enjoyably large menu of options not just limited to pizza. https://alspizza.com/menu/jacksonville-menu/

13 Gypsies – Jacksonville has plenty of international flair among its many restaurants, and 13 Gypsies comes highly recommended as a place for adults to spend an evening in the riverfront area. A Spanish-style tapas restaurants also featuring cured meats and cheeses, 13 Gypsies offers one of the areas most extensive drink lists for adults, as well. http://13gypsies.com/menu.html

River City Brewing Company – Another option for the riverfront area, River City Brewing features some of the best views of the water and the surrounding area, while also offering a nice selection of food and local craft beverages. The regular menu isn’t overly pricy anyway, but the happy hour deals on the brew house lounge and deck make for an even more enjoyable and cost-effective way to spend an afternoon of snacking and enjoying the sunshine. http://www.rivercitybrew.com/brew-house

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BEACHES

Right, here we are, arriving at perhaps the best thing about winter in Florida – you can go to the beach. Beyond sunbathing and swimming, the area beaches have surfing, kayaking, kiteboarding, paddleboarding and fishing among the many available activities, so don’t feel pressured to just spend your time building sandcastles. For links to any of those activities – as well as several more – I will once again direct you to a quite convenient listing on the Taxslayer Bowl website. Shout out to whoever put that site together. You’ve been helpful. https://www.taxslayerbowl.com/area-information/

In fact, I am going to borrow even more extensively from them and share their breakdown of the four areas to choose from in Jacksonville’s 20 miles of white sand beaches.

“Farthest north, the quaint, historic village of Mayport is home to casino boats and seafood restaurants, offering their freshest catch. Head over to Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, providing what many consider to be Jacksonville’s favorite biking and hiking trails. The park also offers camping and spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and surrounding wilderness.

South of Mayport are the communities of Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach. The intersection of Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach is a hot spot that seems to keep getting hotter. Enjoy casual and upscale dining, diverse shopping options and most of all a very happening nightlife scene.

Rounding things out is Jacksonville Beach. The Sea Walk Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater, hosts concerts, movies and festivals year round. Get a tan, catch a wave on a boogie board or have a picnic on the beach. Nightlife is also hot in Jacksonville Beach with oceanfront clubs and intimate pubs. For a good, wholesome time, try water slides, go-cart racing and laser tag at nearby Adventure Landing.”

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NEARBY CITIES

So, you drove or flew or sailed all this way, and while you’re in Jacksonville, you also want to check out some of the nearby cities. There are plenty more options than just these, but here are three of my favorites, all within two hours of your hotel in Jacksonville.

St. Augustine – The oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine is an easy 45-minute drive from Jacksonville. The scenic city is slow, historic and charmingly upscale with a multitude of museums, a wealth of fine dining, and also an excellent outlet mall where those on a budget like me can look like a rich person from two years ago. https://www.visitstaugustine.com

Orlando – Yeah, I know – duh. But if you’ve never been, it’s only a two-hour drive to reach the No. 1 place on planet earth for theme parks. Disney World and Universal Studios – now featuring two massive areas dedicated to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – are the headliners in a city that is packed to the gills not just with tourists, but ways for those tourists to have an absolute ball. Pro-tip learned from a college internship working at Disney World: the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is one of the busiest weeks of the years for all parks. They’re prepared for it, of course, but I offer two recommendations here. 1. Arrive early if you’re going these days. 2. If you can swing it, wait and make your trip after New Year’s Day when the massive crowds have gone back home and the short lines are just you, a few other smart people and the South Americans visiting during their summer break.

Savannah, Georgia – Most people don’t seem to realize how far south this very southern city is, but just a two-hour straight shot north from Jacksonville is one of my favorite cities. Savannah is considered the most haunted city in America, but beyond that, its historic downtown is also one of the most walkable and its culinary scene is quietly becoming one of the most respected in southern cuisine. You’ll enjoy yourself just fine if you want to go to Paula Deen’s restaurant with the other tourists, but locals know that the best family-style southern dining is at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, where you better arrive early to get in line. My highest of recommendations also go to the funky Treylor Park on Bay Street and to The Grey, the James Beard Award-winning upscale restaurant in a converted old Greyhound Bus station.

The first planned city in America, Savannah’s two-dozen squares are lined with live oaks dripping in Spanish moss, and with the Savannah College of Art and Design spread throughout the historic district, the beauty and charm are not just limited to the plants and parks. If you go to Savannah – and really, I hope that you do – tweet or email me and I can share some more good spots. https://www.visitsavannah.com

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Q&A With New Pass Game Coordinator And QB Coach Andrew Breiner

On Wednesday morning, Mississippi State football announced the hiring of Andrew Breiner as the pass game coordinator and quarterbacks coach for new head coach Joe Moorhead. Breiner and Moorhead have a long history together, having worked together initially for three years at UConn, then from 2012-15 at Fordham with Moorhead as the head coach and Breiner as his offensive coordinator.

Breiner spent the last two seasons as the head coach at Fordham after Moorhead was named the offensive coordinator at Penn State, and now the two will be reunited in Starkville. HailStateBEAT reporter Bob Carskadon caught up with Breiner to talk about Moorhead, MSU and the new job. The full transcript of the question and answer session can be found below.

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Bob Carskadon: You’ve worked with Moorhead a lot in the past, so I feel like it’s safe to say you wouldn’t join his staff at Mississippi State if you didn’t think good things were possible. What makes him a good head coach?

Andrew Breiner: I mean, I’ve seen with my own two eyes the way he motivates the young men on the team, the way he rallies them together, and the way he instills confidence because of the way that things are done and that they know they’re prepared going into each and every game. The Xs and Os – Joe’s reputation is out there as an offensive mind, but what really makes him a great coach is his ability to lead by motivating, inspiring, rallying together and instilling confidence.

BC: You mention those Xs and Os – you were a part of creating that innovative offense years ago at UConn and Fordham. In those early days, what was the process like as far as tweaking, experimenting and learning? What kind of advancements have you made since then?

AB: It was a long process. I still remember when Joe got to UConn. We got there, I think, the same day, and his family was still in Akron and I was single at the time, so we were spending long hours just putting install tapes together and playbooks together and learning the base of it then. We got to Fordham and had a chance with Joe as the head coach having the ultimate say to make some modifications and changes. What we’ve always done is spend time after each season watching offenses and taking ideas that we think fit. It’s been a consistent evolution. No two years are going to be the exact same, but it’s never going to depart too far from its foundation either.

BC: For your role as pass game coordinator, what are some of the necessary skills and traits for quarterbacks and receivers in this style of passing game?

AB: The quarterback position, we’re looking for a guy that is equally a threat as a passer and also as an athlete with the ball in his hands. Decision making is No. 1 for the quarterback position, guys that we can teach the system to and have them make the right decision on a consistent basis. The wide receiver position, we have a few different positions and they all have their kind of unique skillset, but we’re looking for guys that, obviously, are fast, that have the ability to change direction and run precise routes, and most importantly make plays when the ball is in the air.

BC: Along those lines, I know you haven’t even had a practice or anything at MSU, but from what you’re aware of and have been able to learn, what do you see in the roster you have and what possibilities do you see with some of the individual talent?

AB: At this point, the only position I have any familiarity with is the quarterbacks. I have not gotten a chance to really dive into the receivers yet. I’ve watched a little bit of Nick [Fitzgerald’s] tape and think he’s a guy that has the skillset that we’re looking for. I look forward to working with him and developing him in his senior year. I actually just happened to be watching the Egg Bowl and watched KT [Keytaon Thompson] in that game, who you can see has the skills and the tools that are very similar to the quarterbacks we’ve had in this offense who have had a lot of success.

Obviously, both guys are going to have to go through a learning curve and we’ll work incredibly hard with them to get them up to speed. Once you get that done, you can let their physical talents shine through. It’s just a matter of getting them comfortable within the system.

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The Science Behind Weatherspoon, William And MSU’s Buzzer-Beating Shots

For over 40 years, my dad has been teaching psychology at Mississippi State. Dr. Thomas Carskadon’s section of General Psychology can be one of the toughest to get into, despite the fact that it’s held in a 300-person auditorium in Dorman Hall. “Dr. C” is appreciated for his entertaining stories that always, in some way, relate to the subject matter, and I got to have the experience of taking his class when I was a freshman at MSU.

However, despite my knowledge that he knows what he’s talking about after decades of teaching, publishing and researching psychological matters, I disagreed with him on one particular subject of his lectures. As you might imagine given the fact that I’m sharing this story in this venue, it was an issue with sports.

Psychology tells us that athletes being on a hot streak is a myth. Or perhaps a better way to explain it would be to call it a mirage. It’s not what we think it is. In basketball, for example, someone making a long streak of consecutive shots doesn’t mean that player is “in the zone,” or however you’d like to describe such a scenario. Sure, those streaks happen, but over time, shooting is – supposedly – no different than flipping a coin.

Whether a quarter has landed on tails 10 times in a row or one, there is still a 50 percent chance that the next flip will land on tails, no better and no worse. It’s always a 50-50 shot. The same applies for a basketball player: if they’re, say, a 45 percent shooter from the field, then there is always a 45 percent chance the shot will go in. Streaks are going to happen naturally, but over time, they’re meaningless beyond a means for the numbers to work themselves out, despite what it feels like when we watch.

Well, I disagree, and I told him as much in class that day – in a respectful manner, of course – but we haven’t discussed it since. For the first time in years, I revisited the subject with him on Sunday when MSU junior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon made his second game-winning buzzer beater in three games and the third of his career at MSU, having drilled his first one as a freshman to beat Vanderbilt at Humphrey Coliseum.

Making shots like that is as difficult as it is rare, so I wondered if the same principle applied. I texted my dad after the game to see what psychology and odds had to say on the subject, expecting another answer that would completely diffuse the narrative of there being something special or impressive about Weatherspoon’s feats.

I was wrong.

The first message: “The greater the presence of others, crowd, noise, and the resulting stress, the more the most probable response is intensified. Thus, a mediocre person will get worse, but a true star will get better.”

And the second: “Actually, the bridge word is really arousal: The crowd, the stress, etc., increase arousal in the player, and it is arousal that intensifies the most probable response, i.e. super play by super stars, but diminished play by lesser players.”

 

So there we have it: science proves that Quinndary Weatherspoon is a star.

After checking with the psychology expert, I asked the player himself. When you’re in those moments, does your blood pump extra hard? Is your mind racing? In short, can you feel the stress and gravity of the situation? Again, I didn’t get the answer I expected.

“It feels normal,” Weatherspoon answered, “like there are 20 minutes on the clock. I’m just trying to get a shot up and it’s falling.”

Psychology was right. The stress has no effect on Weatherspoon except to help him even more easily do what he so naturally does well: make shots.

“I can remember four times in my 22 years as a head coach that we won a game at the buzzer [before this season]. Now it’s six, and he has three of them, so it’s amazing,” MSU head coach Ben Howland said. “He’s just a player. He really makes plays. He’s a player and he makes plays.”

Perhaps as impressive as the made shot was Weatherspoon’s awareness in the short time leading up to it. When he got the steal near the sideline on Dayton’s side of the court, time was already almost up. Most players would likely have taken a few long strides and thrown up a low-percentage three-pointer when they saw the game clock dip down to one second left. Weatherspoon kept going, though, much to Howland’s delight.

In those 22 years of coaching that he mentioned, Howland has learned a lot, and with the game tied, he knew his team only needed one point. Taking a three-pointer would not only have been excessive, but it would have cut the possible ways to score in half. By driving all the way to the basket and taking a contested shot, there was the hope of A) Making the shot and B) Getting fouled and earning another opportunity to score on a free throw in case the shot didn’t go in.

In Weatherspoon’s case, of course, option No. 2 never mattered, but the fact that he still made the right call to drive all the way to the basket with, almost literally, no time to think about it, only underlines the moral of the story: Quinndary Weatherspoon is a star.

Those who follow MSU sports know well that shots like these, despite how uncommon they are elsewhere, have become something of a regular occurrence lately. After all, it was just this spring that then-junior point guard Morgan William made the biggest play in the school’s athletic history when she hit The Shot, a buzzer-beater to upset No. 1 UConn and advance MSU’s women’s basketball team to the National Championship. Following such a spectacular feat, even the opposing coach had to admit that what he had just seen was special.

“That’s one of the toughest shots to make, from that distance, under that kind of pressure,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said that day.

But William, as psychology could have told us, only excels under pressure. Just the weekend before, William had racked up 41 points and seven steals in an overtime win against the heavily-favored Baylor Bears in the Elite Eight, just one day removed from the three-year anniversary of her father’s death. That William, like Weatherspoon, first made her mark as a freshman when she hit a buzzer-beater to defeat rival Ole Miss should be no surprise.

These Bulldogs have always been stars. They’ve hit the shots to prove it.

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From Plane To Fame: Behind The Scenes Of Joe Moorhead’s First Day At MSU

Through third parties, Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead had an idea he could be a candidate for head coach at Mississippi State before the Bulldogs were technically even in the market for one. MSU athletic director John Cohen, who took the position barely one year ago after a long and successful career as a baseball coach, had known well in advance that he may need a new football coach, so he had been consistently researching and preparing for some time when the moment to act finally came.

The whirlwind began Sunday when MSU’s coaching vacancy became official, and over the next 48 hours, neither Cohen nor Moorhead had more than seconds at a time to let their minds stop racing. In their first interview, Cohen came away impressed enough to ask for a second sit-down with Moorhead. Meanwhile, Moorhead was researching players, recruits, history and anything else he could find on MSU as he worked to impress Cohen.

To Moorhead’s surprise, the second interview very quickly turned into a job offer. That offer was followed by contract discussions, conversations on his coaching staff and their compensation, a storm of trying to find printers to print a hardcopy of the deal they had struck and a quick review of the particulars to make sure everything was fully in order before pen hit paper. When Moorhead lifted his hand, fresh ink marking his signature as MSU’s 33rd head football coach, he could relax for the first time in what surely felt like weeks.

Though no one outside the room knew it at the time, Moorhead had just become the SEC’s newest coach, and once that moment hit, once his mind was able to go back to normal, Moorhead pulled his phone out of his pocket, swiped away the hundreds of notifications and pulled up a video he had saved of his 10-year-old son playing baseball, turning the screen so Cohen could see it.

“What do you think about his swing?” Moorhead asked his new boss.

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4:15 p.m., Wednesday, Bryan Airfield, Starkville

“This is unbelievable.”

When Joe Moorhead steps off the plane, it’s his first time to touch ground in Starkville, and on the other side of the fence lining the runway, there are over 1,000 people he’s never seen in his life screaming his name, clapping their hands and shouting in general admiration and excitement for someone they, too, have never met before. In that moment – the one right before he diverts from the cleared path to his transport van and walks the length of the fence shaking every hand, signing every cowbell and even picking up the dog someone randomly hands him through the bars of the fence – Moorhead realizes for the first time what he’s in for. And he loves it.

“I held a dog. I’m covered in Sharpie. Can’t make that stuff up,” he muses afterward. “It was incredible.”

5:30 p.m., Annabelle Condominiums

In the condo graciously lent to his family to stay in while they search for a house, Moorhead is either scrambling or relaxing, depending which moment you catch him, though his mind is running whether he’s working the phone or working the room. A few alumni, several members of the support staff, Moorhead’s wife and three kids, and a few others fill the living room and porch of the spacious condo.

Taking a moment to relax his legs, Moorhead sits on the porch swing as he maintains at least three different conversations in any given moment. In one breath he’s talking about recruits with staffer and Mississippi high schools expert Brad Peterson. Moorhead called every offensive commit MSU has before he even left Pennsylvania that afternoon, getting all but two of them on the phone for an extended conversation.

“Fantastic,” he says when asked what their response has been like. “They’re all fantastic.”

In the next breath, he’s going back and forth with MSU CFO Jared Benko as they discuss reaching out to potential assistants.

“We’re going to have a great staff,” Moorhead tells Ben Nelson, the owner of the condo. “I could make 10 calls and have a staff done like that, but I want to take my time and get the best people. I’ve learned this much: measure twice, cut once. We’re going to do this right.”

In another breath, he’s talking with Jay Perry, his player personnel man and tour guide for the first couple days on the job, about the players he met at the airfield after he landed.

“You know your ring size?” Moorhead had asked them when introduced that afternoon. “You better find out.”

As Moorhead rises to leave for a meet-and-greet with the head coaches of all of MSU’s other sports, Nelson steps over to say his final words.

“Alright, coach. Honeymoon is over. Let’s get to work.”

“No one around here has low expectations,” Moorhead assures him. “We’re about to get after it.”

6 p.m., Davis Wade Stadium

For the first time, Joe Moorhead steps into Davis Wade Stadium and onto Scott Field. His family beside him, his 16-year-old daughter Kyra yells with glee when she walks out of the tunnel and sees MSU’s live mascot Bully being led around the endzone. While she hurries off to pet him, Moorhead’s 10-year-old son Donovan looks to midfield as he tells dad, “time my 40,” and promptly runs out onto the field.

Moorhead turns to MSU’s Associate A.D. for Communication Bill Martin: “Is he allowed on the field?”

“Of course,” Martin replies. “It’s your field now.”

Inside the Gridiron Club after a few pictures on the field, Moorhead is approached by a muscle-bound man and his pregnant wife.

“Hey, Joe,” MSU’s baseball coach begins, “I’m Andy Cannizaro. I’m the baseb- “

Right there, Moorhead interrupts him.

“Oh, I know who you are,” Moorhead says. “I remember you. You played for the Yankees. I used to live in the Bronx.”

Cannizaro immediately breaks into an appreciative laugh as he discovers something about this big-time football coach: Moorhead is a huge baseball fan. Technically, he’s a huge fan of his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates (he can name every member of the 1979 World Series Champion team, according to John Cohen), but baseball is actually the first sport Moorhead ever played before going on to be an all-conference quarterback in college.

And in fact, this isn’t even his first random Yankees interaction, as Moorhead’s 15-year-old son Mason used to play on the same little league baseball team as former Yankees manager Joe Girardi’s daughter.

“I’m a big baseball guy,” Moorhead will later tell a group of assembled reporters and fans.

That he was hired by a former baseball coach is mere coincidence, of course.

10:30 p.m., Starkville Cotton District

Late at night after hours of meeting with staff members, calling recruits and continuing work on the hundreds of little things required to start a coaching regime, Moorhead goes to the bar. Well, bars, plural, and he’s not there for himself. In Starkville’s central area for nightlife, Moorhead is out to meet and give away cheese fries to hundreds of students who are celebrating the last day of classes.

On his way down the street, Moorhead is mobbed by jumping, whooping and selfie-taking 18-22 year olds who are amazed that their new head coach is there and that they get to meet him. Immediately, a line forms, snaking down the street, with hundreds of them ready to take a picture with Moorhead and accept his offer of free cheese fries. Working the kitchen window, Moorhead’s limbs are constantly in motion as he passes trays over the counter, shakes hands with students and poses for pictures.

“Hey, sugar!” The high-pitched, southern, female voice rings into the kitchen. “We’re so excited! Can we have a picture?”

“Of course,” comes the reply.

“He’s an angel!” she yells as she turns to her friend and asks her to take the picture.

When the clock hits 11, Moorhead is still going, slinging fries and smiles and handshakes despite the lack of sleep and the long list of things he must do in a short period of time.

“Our head football coach is serving us cheese fries right now,” one awestruck student says as he tries to savor the moment. “I love this man.”

9:02 a.m., Wednesday, Seal Football Complex

Joe Moorhead is waiting outside the door of MSU’s team meeting room where athletic director John Cohen is in the process of introducing him to the team. Everyone else is outside in the hallway as Moorhead has made it clear he wants only himself and his team in the room when he has his first meeting with them. No other coaches, no support staff, no one but Moorhead and his players. He wants to speak directly to them, and he wants them to understand that they are now in it together.

While he waits, Moorhead is chatting with people in the hallway about how wild the last 18 hours had been, confessing that he didn’t get much sleep due on one hand to the fact he woke up at 5 a.m. and couldn’t stop thinking about how much he needed to do, and on the other hand because they eventually had to pry his youngest son’s new cowbell out of his hand when he wouldn’t stop ringing it while the rest of the family was trying to sleep.

“We’re going to have to take the ringer out or something,” he jokes.

Moorhead admits that his 10-year-old has an endless internal supply of energy, sharing the story from the weekend about the first morning after the regular season for Penn State ended. Moorhead thought he would be able to sleep in, but early in the morning, he was woken up by his son poking him and begging him to go outside with him to do quarterback drills. Every day at PSU football practice, Moorhead explains, his son goes through drills right alongside the quarterbacks, and Moorhead expects he’ll do the same at MSU. So just because the regular season is over is no reason to stop practicing.

“You out of your mind?” Moorhead recalls asking his son, who by then had shoulder pads strapped on over his sweatshirt while they threw the ball in the backyard. “It’s 20 degrees out here. We’re going to get frostbite.”

The anecdote comes to an end as, inside the team room, Cohen’s voice continues to rise in volume, finally reaching a peak when the door is thrown open and Moorhead walks in to thunderous applause, greeting his Bulldogs for the very first time.

Half an hour later, the meeting ends. The details of Moorhead’s speech will remain between he and the team, but their impact is crystal clear when one player is stopped by a staffer and asked how it went.

“We’re going to win a championship,” he says, a deadly-serious look on his face. “Guarantee it.”

10 a.m., multi-purpose room, Seal Football Complex

At last, Moorhead is ready to address his final constituency. He’s gone through the job interviews, called the recruits, met the team and even started talking to future members of his staff. But he hasn’t yet spoken directly to Mississippi State fans. Now, the moment has arrived.

Reporters will focus on many of the things Moorhead says, as well as several of the things Cohen and MSU President Mark Keenum say about him in their introductory remarks. His offensive prowess and innovation will certainly be discussed, and the decisions to be made on staffing and recruiting will be expounded upon, as well.

But one story – a story that is shared twice, once each by Moorhead and Cohen – offers more insight than any other answer that either person gives to the many questions asked. The story of Murph Moorhead, Sr., is the origin of everything that has Joe Moorhead in this moment now.

Murph, Joe’s father, often had as many as three jobs at a time in an effort to provide for his family, and for 35 years his primary job was as a steel mill worker in Pittsburgh. The sacrifices he made helped to create the man his son has become.

One day when Joe was young, his dad brought him with him to the steel mill, and what happened that day is a story that helped sell Cohen on his new football coach.

“He said his dad took him to work,” Cohen remembers Moorhead telling him, “and the movie scenes of fire and this lava-like steel – it’s real. He was right in the middle of it. He asked, ‘Why are you taking me to work, what are we doing here?’ He said, ‘I wanted you to see this. I’m doing this so that you won’t have to.’”

Murph wanted a better life for his children than he had, wanted them to have opportunities, and thanks to his sacrifice, Murph’s children are first-generation college graduates.

“I really think my formation as a person and what I stand for was understanding what a blue collar work ethic meant,” Joe Moorhead tells the crowd early in his speech. “It didn’t matter how cold it was, didn’t matter how warm it was, didn’t matter how early in the morning it was or how late at night. He got up every day and went to work, came home and got something to eat, and whether his second job was a bartender or janitor, he did whatever he needed to do to put food on the table and provide for his family and make sure that they were well-educated. Ultimately, our goal as parents is to make sure that our children’s lives are better than our own. I can’t be more appreciative of my father.

“He told me,” Moorhead finishes, “’I do this so you don’t have to,’ and that meant a lot to me.”

He likely didn’t realize it at the time, but sharing that story with Cohen is a big part of why he stands at the podium now.

“I loved it. I’m always trying to write a movie script in my mind, and that’s a beautiful script,” Cohen says. “For him to talk about how he was parented was really important to me, because in some ways, he’s going to parent 100 football student-athletes here. I wanted to know that he had that club in his bag, and he certainly does.”

Moorhead’s background also helped convince Cohen that Moorhead, despite having minimal ties to the south, was a perfect cultural fit for MSU’s program.

“We were looking for someone who had a blue collar personality, but an intellectual personality at the same time. We were looking for someone who had to overcome adversity at some point in their life. Because wherever you find people who are incredibly successful, you usually find that they had some type of adversity that they had to overcome.

“If they’ve never had that moment where life kind of punched them in the face, then how are they going to react when it happens for the first time in the Southeastern Conference? There’s no question, when you talk about Joe Moorhead, he’s had that moment and he can reflect on that.”

When the press conference ends, Moorhead is minutes away from his 18-hour blitz of interviews and introductions coming to an end. He takes pictures with his family before they leave to fly back to Pennsylvania, hugging his kids and kissing his wife goodbye after the final snap of the lens.

“Good luck,” he tells his wife Jennifer. “Let me know if you buy a house!”

After a quick interview with MSU radio play-by-play announcer Neil Price, Moorhead is done. Walking out of the team room for the second time today, Moorhead’s gait picks up as he strides to his office in the back of the building. There is a job he was hired to do, and he can’t wait to get started.

——————————-

Moorhead’s last words as the team filed out of the meeting room Thursday morning were directed at star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was the first person on the team Moorhead had reached out to Tuesday when he took the job, having texted the redshirt junior and told him to get ready for a big senior year. Looking Fitzgerald in the eyes as they shook hands Thursday, Moorhead reminded him of that.

“My family is about to fly back home,” he said. “But I’m not going anywhere. Come by the office and let’s talk. We’re going to do big things.”

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Scheme, Philosophy, Recruiting And The History Channel: A Q&A With Joe Moorhead

On Wednesday morning, Mississippi State announced Joe Moorhead as its new head football coach, and on Wednesday afternoon, the innovative coordinator behind Penn State’s offensive explosion the last two seasons touched down in Starkville to be officially welcomed as a Bulldog. Joined by his wife Jennifer, their daughter Kyra and their two sons Mason and Donovan, Moorhead was welcomed by a crowd of over 1,000 at Bryan Airfield.

Shortly after arrival, Moorhead sat down for a few minutes with HailStateBEAT reporter Bob Carskadon to talk about his new job, his philosophy on coaching and a handful of other topics. The following is a transcript of that conversation. For more from Moorhead and his arrival, follow @HailStateFB on Twitter and Facebook.

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Bob Carskadon: So, I’ll start with the obvious question here. You’ve had opportunities to take other jobs before and didn’t. Why Mississippi State?

Joe Moorhead: It checked off all the boxes. When considering opportunities, there are three criteria: personal, professional and monetary. For myself and my family, the Mississippi State and Starkville community seemed like an awesome opportunity. Professionally, it’s the opportunity to lead a team in the most competitive conference in the country. Monetarily, I’m able to set my family up for a type of lifestyle I could have never dreamed of as a kid growing up. Those three things combined just made it special.

BC: I’ve read a ton about you since your name came up, all about your offensive prowess and innovation and success. My question is, how do you take something so complicated and boil it down to a point where 18-22 year olds can pick up on it quickly?

JM: Well, I kind of look at it this way: there are three criteria we talk about as an offensive coaching staff, relative to our scheme. Is it sound, can we teach it, and can the players execute it? If it doesn’t fit one of those three then we don’t use it. We don’t want to do a million different things and major in the minors. We want to pick out the things that we do successfully and make it, with window dressing, look a little more complicated than it actually is. Our simplicity and flexibility combined with our players’ culture, work ethic, discipline and talent, has made us a pretty special offense the past couple years.

BC: On the other side of the ball, is there a particular defensive philosophy or scheme you prefer?

JM: No, I want our entire program to have an attacking philosophy. We’re not going to be a team in any phase of the game – offense, defense, special teams – where we’re going to sit back and let someone dictate the game to us. We’re going to attack on offense, attack on defense, and we’ll get after it on special teams. Now, obviously, everything in moderation. You can’t blitz every single play, but we’re going to be a team that’s going to get after it physically and not let the quarterback get comfortable, and get 11 hats to the ball.

BC: Well, that answers my next question, which was going to be about your general approach and team philosophy. Let’s move to recruiting. Obviously, you’re going to look for talented players – big, fast, strong, all that. But what are some of the intangible characteristics you look for in recruiting?

JM: The first thing you look at is, does the player possess the athletic and football ability to help Mississippi State win an SEC Championship and compete for a National Championship. After that, I’m a believer in the intangibles and how they manifest themselves on the field. We want kids that are smart, tough, disciplined, possess a great work ethic and care about team success more than individual recognition. The three things that I think are imperative to success: talent, culture and coaching. Recruit a roster full of talented kids who do things the right way, put them in a culture that’s going to demand accountability, productivity and persistence, then through scheme put them in a position to be successful. I think that’s the recipe for success.

BC: I’ll ask one last question to finish up, and we’ll get away from football on this one. In the little free time you have away from coaching, recruiting, studying and everything else that goes with the job, how do you spend your time? What things do you enjoy doing?

JM: I enjoy watching TV, particularly reality TV. My latest thing is the History Channel. I’ve been on an American Pickers kick. Been watching a lot of Oak Island, a lot of Pawn Stars. Then we have shows we watch as a family. Then usually if I’m not here, I’m at one of their games or practices hanging out with them. I stink at golf. I’d love to fish if I had more time. But yeah, we’re watching TV or out playing ball.

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Fitzgerald Takes Over As Leader During Coaching Transition

The gap barely stretched 48 hours of real time, but from Sunday night to Wednesday morning, Mississippi State’s old football coach was gone and its new one had yet to be identified. The coaching vacuum was impressively brief, but when the Bulldogs lost the man who had led their program the last nine years – plus several of the people who helped him do it – it seemed for a moment that they might not know who they were anymore.

They were 8-4. They were No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings. They were going to a bowl game. But who was their leader? What was their identity? What was going to happen to them next? Was everything they had worked for about to fall apart?

If there was panic at all in the locker room, it didn’t last long. Had this happened to last year’s team, perhaps things would have gone differently, but in 2017, MSU had figured out who it was, and the leaders of the team weren’t about to let one person leaving change that.

At 5:45 Sunday afternoon, junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald took to Twitter to let everyone – teammates and fans alike – know exactly where his team stood.

“Thank you coach Mullen for building this program into what it is today,” his tweet began. “But a program is bigger than 1 person! We pride ourselves on our ability to always give relentless effort and I am very excited to be able to lead this team to a new level next season! #HaiIState”

Behind the scenes, Fitzgerald was repeating the message to his teammates, joining other team leaders in helping to ensure that morale and expectations both remained high. Fitzgerald said he knew there was an onus on the team leadership to keep things moving in the right direction, and his challenge to his teammates was simple.

“With Coach Mullen leaving and him bringing other guys with him, it leaves a lot of holes in the coaching staff, but all of us players are still here, we’re all the same people,” Fitzgerald said Tuesday night. “From a player standpoint, you know have to be a voice. Someone has to step up. Someone has to kind of rally the troops, keep everyone calm and make sure we all realize that coaches weren’t the ones making the plays on the field. We were doing that. We’re coming back. We’re going to be just fine.”

Sophomore defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, one of the more vocal leaders in the locker room, shared a similar message when he followed Fitzgerald’s Sunday tweet with one of his own exhorting his teammates.

“We will be alright I promise you that,” he tweeted. “Our goal is to take one day at a time. No matter what may happen, nothing will break this team! We all we got we all we need! #HaiIState #Finish”

Fitzgerald, in his new role as acting figurehead for the program, even went so far as to reach out to MSU’s current recruits, knowing that a change at head coach could be a worrisome thought for many who already committed to play at State.

Tweeted Fitzgerald, “#stateteam18 Y’all didn’t commit to a coach.. you committed to a program, to a family! Coaches didn’t make those throws, catches, tackles, etc.. The real Miss State team is still here in stark and we about to do something special! Come be a real part of it!”

The point, Fitzgerald said, was to make sure that recruits and commits don’t freak out over something that only ended up lasting about two days. Fitzgerald knows how good MSU can be in 2018, his senior year, regardless of who is on the sideline, and he wanted to share that message with those who aren’t yet on campus.

“For the recruits coming in, my tweet was saying, hey, just because a coach leaves, doesn’t mean anything about the program changes,” Fitzgerald said. “The team is still coming back. We’re still going to have 18-20 starters returning. We’re going to be fine. Just because a coach leaves doesn’t change the fact that the players are here, we’re ready to play and we’re still going to have a good season. That can impact them. The rest of the program is the same. We’re ready to rock, so y’all just come be a part of it.”

And now, the gap has been bridged. Reports leaked late Tuesday night, and on Wednesday morning Mississippi State announced Joe Moorhead as its 33rd head football coach. And as luck would have it for MSU’s dual-threat quarterback, his new coach happens to be one of the smartest and most creative offensive minds in the country. And his specialty: the spread.

“Couldn’t be more excited!” Fitzgerald tweeted. “Welcome to the family!”

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The Evolution Of The Egg Bowl, Its Passion And Its New Meaning For MSU

Long before Nick Fitzgerald was a record-breaking quarterback for Mississippi State, and years before Dak Prescott was QB1 for the biggest franchise in the country, the two young men were relative unknowns at a game together for the first time. Fitzgerald, a senior at Richmond Hill High School, and Prescott, a sophomore at MSU, were far younger that day in 2013 when Fitzgerald had his first experience with the Egg Bowl.

A no-star recruit on his official visit to MSU, Fitzgerald was cheering in the stands when he watched Prescott make his miraculous comeback in the Egg Bowl’s first-ever overtime game, and when MSU safety Nickoe Whitley forced Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace to fumble into the endzone and secure the win for the Bulldogs, Fitzgerald was among the loudest of those celebrating the win.

“That was my first taste of it,” Fitzgerald said. “That was a good one to come to.”

It wasn’t until the next morning, however, that the depth of the rivalry sunk in for Fitzgerald. At a breakfast for the official visitors, Fitzgerald got to hold the Golden Egg Trophy for the very first time, and though he didn’t know it at the moment, the last time for nearly three years.

“It was a really cool experience seeing how we fought and won it the night before and saw the environment and atmosphere and how people reacted,” he said, “so I really understood the gravity of the situation and how good it was to have that trophy.”

Fitzgerald had to watch from the sidelines as his team lost the next two Egg Bowls, frustration and anger festering until he finally got a shot at the Rebels on his own terms. In his first Egg Bowl as the starting quarterback, Fitzgerald put on a career performance as he led his Bulldogs to a 55-20 victory in 2016, re-claiming the Golden Egg and securing the last victory necessary to send State to a bowl in game in south Florida.

Three years after that breakfast in Starkville, Fitzgerald got to lift the Golden Egg again, and what he learned about the rivalry that day in 2013 still hasn’t changed.

“There’s animosity. There’s nastiness. It’s a big rivalry,” he said.

Except that, well, now …

“It’s a big game, but at the end, it’s an SEC game you’ve got to win,” Fitzgerald admitted. “Once you’re out there and playing, it’s just another game.”

MSU’s head coach attempted to explain that idea, as well. When Dan Mullen first got to Starkville, the program didn’t have much going for it, and winning the Egg Bowl was really the only realistic thing the fanbase could hang its collective hat on at the time. When MSU won the Egg Bowl to finish with a 5-7 record in 2009, Mullen’s first season, fans were ready to build a statue. When MSU won the Egg Bowl to finish with a 5-7 record in 2016, there were those among the fanbase calling for his job.

The reason for that, Mullen said, is that in the years between, MSU’s program has grown significantly, rising to national prominence and developing expectations of doing far more than winning one game at the end of the year.

“We’re looking to try to have our third nine-win season in four years,” Mullen said as his team sits at 8-3 entering Thursday’s Egg Bowl. “As I look at it right now, we’ve changed a little bit of the image, the profile, whatever the right word is. We’ve just changed the program around. Now we’re a nationally-prominent program with the expectation of being a Top-20, Top-15 team every year. I don’t want to belittle it, because this is still the biggest game of the year for us within the program and in the fanbase. It’s still the biggest game of the year. But we’ve also elevated the level of the program with a little more national prominence. It’s not all about one game now. We’re trying to compete for championships in the SEC and National Championships.”

He’s certainly got a point. The year MSU was No. 1 in the country, it also lost the Egg Bowl. And that was rough, certainly, but it didn’t make or break the season. The Bulldogs still went to the Orange Bowl.

With MSU in a position of prominence it hasn’t experienced in decades, the passion of the rivalry lies in seeming juxtaposition with the bigger goals of the program. Fitzgerald and his coach, however, think the Egg Bowl and the big picture go hand-in-hand, even if the big picture is much bigger than just the Golden Egg.

“A rivalry game fits right into that,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a game you’ve got to win if you want to keep getting better, if you want to go to a warmer bowl. On top of it being a rivalry game, it’s an SEC game. It’s a game that we have to win to continue on and make sure we finish out strong and get a good bowl game.”

To be clear, Mullen says, the rivalry hasn’t been lessened. It’s just that everything else about the program has risen in importance to match the Egg Bowl. Now, the game is about the trophy and what it means for the postseason. Entering the game at No. 14 in the playoff rankings, MSU has a chance to not only lock up a good bowl destination, but to potentially earn a berth in a New Year’s Six Bowl for the second time in four years if they can pull off a Thanksgiving win.

But for all that’s on the line, Mullen is a realist, and a passionate one, at that. He could tell his team to treat it like any other game, and perhaps in the moments between kickoff and the final whistle it can feel that way for the teams involved, but Mullen knows this game is different, no matter the stakes.

“I want them to embrace it and I don’t have to worry about it. They do. It’s not another game. The rivalry games are just not. It’s an important game for everybody. I don’t even have to bring it up,” he said. “I think everybody in our program embraces it. And I mean everybody in our program. I’m not just talking about the players or the coaches or the trainers or everybody just in this building. I’m talking about everybody in the Bryan Building embraces it. I know everybody in the President’s office embraces it. It’s a big game for Mississippi State people. It’s a big game for their people, as well, just the bragging rights within the state. That’s what makes rivalries so fun and makes college football so special.”

The only trophy not displayed in a case or out in the lobby of the team complex in view of the public, the Golden Egg today sits on a table right beside the door to Mullen’s office. If Mullen gets his way, that’s exactly where it will stay for the next 12 months – except, perhaps, for another breakfast with the Egg Bowl stars of tomorrow.

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