Everything but the game: Four days with fans, friends, ESPN and MSU in Starkville

7:45 a.m., Thursday, Seal Football Complex parking lot: Did you know Dan Mullen was raised around the theatre? I’ve been paid to learn things about him for the last five and a half years and had no clue his mom was a classical ballet teacher.

unnamedMississippi State’s head coach was shooting an interview with ESPN to run on SportsCenter later that morning and the producer was explaining to him how to know when the interview was starting. It’ll be fine, Mullen told him. He’s used to that stuff. He grew up around performances and knows how to recognize his cue.

Anyway, Mullen taped the interview, it went off without incident and the day began. The weekend began, really. One of the biggest weekends Starkville, Mississippi has seen. For me, it started there as I trailed the ESPN crew all day Thursday, did so again during the day Friday, hit Bulldog Bash and the Cotton District Friday night, made it to The Junction by dawn on Saturday, found my seat in the press box for the MSU-Texas A&M game around lunchtime and wandered in a daze on Saturday night trying to stay awake in my sleep-deprived delirium.

Throughout the weekend, I kept a running notebook of what I saw and heard, a timeline of somewhat-sensical observations on a throughly enjoyable (if not occasionally-exhausting) weekend.

8:30 a.m., Thursday, multipurpose room, Seal Football Complex: Is she talking to herself? Or does she have an earpiece in? Maybe she’s just rehearsing her lines.

Kaylee Hartung, one of ESPN’s rising-star personalities/reporters/faces/adventurers was getting ready for another live shot. She was behind the scenes with MSU all day, doing look-ins from the world of Bulldog football to be broadcast on the world of ESPN networks throughout the day. She was probably rehearsing her lines; trying to describe “Dawg Juice” without anyone actually telling her what exactly is in it.

“Can’t tell you that,” strength coach Rick Court said as he laughed. “But it’s nothing against the rules, obviously.”

Shortly before that shot, Hartung and the rest of the ESPN crew watched as the interview with Mullen from earlier aired on SportsCenter. ESPN watching ESPN interview Mullen on ESPN was a funny moment.

“Mississippi is a fabulous place to live,” Hartung watched Mullen tell her. “The people in Mississippi are some of the best people you can be around. My kids were born here so they’re locals, even if I’m a transplant.”

9 a.m.: Still in the same area, I was sitting at the table with Preston Smith, MSU’s breakout defensive end. I looked up and realized all the ESPN cameras were setup around our table and one of the guys was coming in to hook up a microphone on Smith.

“I need to get out of the way,” I told him.

“Don’t leave me,” he said half-jokingly. “I don’t wanna be alone.”

I think Preston is like me in that he gets chatty when he’s nervous.

“Is it heavy?” he asked one of the cameramen of his videotaping apparatus.

“After a while.”

“It’s kind of like a weight vest,” Smith observed.

12:30 p.m., defensive coaches meeting room: Geoff Collins is one of my favorite coaches I’ve been around. MSU’s defensive coordinator has made a quick name for himself since getting to Starkville, but even he got a little nervous before going live on SportsCenter to break down film on A&M with Hartung.

“I might go Ricky Bobby on you,” he warned her. “I don’t know what to do with my hands.”

unnamed-1By the end of it, whatever nervousness he’d had turned into confidence. He nailed the segment, an interview the crew was still singing the praises of later in the weekend.

“You were great,” producer Jonathan Whyley told Collins. “And I don’t give out compliments.”

I offered Collins similar praise, telling him he looked like a natural.

“You didn’t see my right leg shaking,” he whispered to me.

But he popped right back from that confession to say goodbye as the crew left the room.

“Don’t forget: at CoachCollins is the Twitter,” he called to them.

1:30 p.m., multipurpose room: It’s a late lunch for Mullen, but I get the impression his body has adjusted to his whacked out schedule and just makes the best of whatever food it gets whenever it can. Like a camel with water.

But lunchtime it is for him as he sits with Pete Thamel from Sports Illustrated. Thamel was in Starkville from Sunday-Sunday for what I assume will be a lengthy, in-depth, behind-the-scenes story on MSU’s program. He and Mullen were in a pretty deep conversation about the state of the program, what drives Mullen, how things have changed, what Dak Prescott has meant, what the fan support has been like. Everything.

Following a lull in conversation toward the end, Mullen offered a random thought as he looked back on his five-plus years at MSU.

“I love the building,” Mullen told Thamel.

“Yeah,” Thamel said, looking around, “it’s a nice facility.”

“No,” Mullen replied laughing. “I like building a program. But yeah, it’s a great facility, too.”

Noon, Friday, SEC Nation set in The Junction: Friday is generally a slow day football-wise, as players are just resting and doing last-minute study, so it’s then that the coaches visit with more of the TV folks for production meetings to get them prepared for the game. It’s a low-key day, so things of that nature are easier.

unnamed-2Around lunchtime (if such a time exists for Mullen) MSU’s head coach was off to The Junction for an interview on SportsCenter with Bram Weinstein. Typically, that’s the time on Fridays Mullen goes for a run around on campus. Instead, he skipped the cardio and found himself talking with Weinstein about all he’d ate since getting to Starkville.

Weinstein and the majority of the ESPN crew had been at Restaurant Tyler in downtown Starkville the night before. He’d eaten Little Dooey’s for lunch, while some of the crew had been to The Veranda and Bin 612, as well. Spicy fried alligator, stuffed pancakes, BBQ, nachos – all kinds of Mississippi delicacies.

“You can get some good food in the ‘Sip,” Mullen told him before their shot went live.

Weinstein agreed. You really can. I asked Hartung later that day what she thought about Starkville and her first response was how great the food is (followed by gratefulness for the impressive hospitality).

On Thursday at Restaurant Tyler, one of the producers told me about his lunch at Little Dooey while he scarfed down the plate of shrimp and grits in front of him at the moment.

“This is the best food I’ve ever had in my life,” he told me.

Not surprisingly, he’d never been to Mississippi before.

Anyway, back to The Junction, where Mullen finished his interview and walked through the crowd back to his golf cart. He stopped along the way for pictures, high fives and hugs.

“We have selfies with EVERYBODY!” one MSU fan cried in exuberance after taking one with Mullen.

Selfies are the new autographs, I think. I know Tim Tebow was in a few thousand this weekend, whether he was aware he was in all of them or not.

12:30 p.m., Seal Complex media room: Next came the production meeting I was talking about. All the ESPN crew – talent, producers, the works – who’d be working the game the next morning were meeting with coaches and players to glean whatever relevant info they could.

“You’re slimmed down, huh, coach?” one of them asked as Mullen walked in.

I guess all that running on Fridays has worked.

1:15 p.m.: After Mullen, Dak Prescott came in to chat with the group. They asked him a bunch about himself, about Mullen, about the program, about the attention he was getting and more.

At some point they asked what it was like when he got to MSU.

“I’d never even tried to read a defensive end before,” he joked, telling them how much things changed from high school to college. “I thought I was going to come in and have the Tebow role,” he told them, referencing the fact he arrived early, getting on campus in January a semester ahead of time.

But whether he was able to play or not (he wasn’t that year) Prescott was determined to help any way he could. If he couldn’t play, he’d try to win every stadium run and every weight room workout. He wanted to push his teammates and make them better, he said.

“There’s no age on leadership,” Prescott told the room. “I didn’t care that I was a freshman.”

1:30 p.m., Scott Field: I rode the golf cart over to the stadium with Prescott for his interview with Tebow (a spot which aired Saturday morning on SEC Nation).

unnamed-3The mass of people which gathered around the stadium gates as word spread that Prescott and Tebow were on the field was massive, but inside the stadium itself, it was pretty quiet. The ESPN crew stood in the middle of the field by themselves as we walked for the first meeting of the two No. 15s.

“I’m a big fan,” Prescott told Tebow as they waited on the crew to get setup,” but I’ll be honest, I haven’t watched the show much. I try to get away from distractions on gamedays.”

“Oh, man, I always watched GameDay,” Tebow responded. “I wanted to get my mind off my own game. I took in all that stuff.”

The interview went well, and was actually really interesting as the two Mullen-educated quarterbacks talked about their favorite plays from his playbook. They basically have the same preferred call, with the only difference being a change in the route of the tight end, or something of that nature

Once the interview ended, Tebow shook Prescott’s hand and then turned to the crew around them.

“Did you hear why my man told me he wears 15? That’s right!”

It’s for him, even though it’s another one-time Mullen quarterback Prescott thinks he compares more favorably to – Cam Newton.

As they left the stadium, one fan waiting called out, “I want to be like you when I grow up, Mr. Tebow!”

“I just want to be like Dak!” Tebow called back.

I asked Tebow about Prescott later that afternoon, asked him what made Prescott a Heisman candidate. Tebow’s response was similar to most when they talk about MSU’s QB: he’s got the stats, sure, but that’s only part of it.

Tebow spoke at length about the type of person Prescott is. He’s watched the same features and read the same stories on Prescott that the rest of us have. Dan and Megan Mullen, who had him over for dinner Thursday, have backed it up by telling their former quarterback what a great person their current quarterback is.

Later that night on Friday, while the rest of us were gallivanting around the Cotton District, Tebow and Prescott were moments away from having a weight room competition after Mullen said he thought Prescott would do better than Tebow. That’s why Mullen says the two are similar. Not because of their playing style, their coach or their number. Because of the type of person they are. Each refuses to be out-worked. Both are natural leaders. To see the permanent smiles they wear and their patience with attention (an ESPN staffer told me Tebow will take pictures and sign autographs for hours straight if they don’t pull him out of the crowd) you’d think neither has ever had a bad day.

6 p.m., Dawg Rally in the Cotton District: After hula-hooping children, cheering cheerleaders, a dancing dance team and some loud music, Mullen arrived at the Dawg Rally, the crowded pep rally in the middle of the Cotton District.

“Have fun tonight,” he told the crowd hanging out of windows and standing on stoops and in the street, “but get there early tomorrow. We need you. You have to cheer us on all the way to Atlanta and the SEC Championship.”

7:30 p.m., VIP tent, Bulldog Bash:

“Dude, is that Jerry Rice?” a guy at my table asked. “Yeah, that’s Jerry Rice.”

“He’s been in town all weekend,” I told him. “He was at Mullen’s radio show last night at The DawgHouse, apparently.”

Rice, from the area, finds himself in Starkville regularly, where his mother still lives. Everywhere else he goes, he’s a rock star. And he still is here, but this is home. He’s a local. He waits in line to get into a crowded restaurant on Main Street just like everyone else. He doesn’t travel with an entourage or security guards when he’s in Starkville. Just him and a friend or two, whoever else is in town he knows.

I popped another hushpuppy as he kept watching the band from his table.

8 p.m.:

“Is that Marcus Spears?” the same friend, Kyle, asked.

Sure is, I told him. The ESPN crew had passes for the night (a list I managed to sneak myself onto, making me feel much cooler than I am).

“Oh, man. I want to meet him.”

8:15 p.m.: I ran into a few of the guys from that crew and asked the producer how the day had gone.

“You get some good stuff for tomorrow?”

“Man, we’re gonna blow everyone else out of the water,” he told me. “The way our guys put this together, everyone is going to want to go to Mississippi State.”

8:30 p.m.: I have no idea who the band was, but their singer was on stage talking between songs.

“Any of y’all feel like you were born 50 years too late?”

A few people cheered, most of the crowd unsure of where he was going with this.

“If you wanna ditch your phone and just go out in the woods with everybody, lemme hear you! If you wanna go fishin’ with nothin’ but string and a cork, lemme hear you! Y’all come see me at the merch stand. I wanna shake yer hand and look you in the eye.”

8: 35 p.m.:

“Seriously, think I could go talk to Marcus? I just want to thank him for coming,” Kyle said. “Like, on behalf of MSU and our fans, all of us people, we just appreciate you coming here. You think it’d be cool?”

“I’m sure it’s fine. He’s talking to fans right now.”

“OK, I’m going in.”

8:38 p.m.:

“I did it! He was cool. He said he’s having a good time.”

Spears on the stage at Bulldog Bash

Spears on the stage at Bulldog Bash

It’s not surprising. Mississippi is Spears’ kind of scene. I overheard him asking a group of fraternity guys at the SEC Nation set Friday if they knew of any good fishin’ holes nearby.

Before long, Spears had somehow found his way on stage, predicted an MSU win (much to the delight of the thousands and thousands of fans at Bulldog Bash) and led everyone there in singing the fight song.

10:30 p.m.?: Somewhere around here I stopped writing down timestamps in my notebook of observations and eavesdroppings, but if I was tired from a long week, it wasn’t so bad as the guy I saw standing in the middle of the crowd with his head drooping and his eyes completely closed. There’s no way he was anything but fast asleep. Impressive that he was staying on his feet in such a state.

At one time or another, I made a quick run back to my house nearby to welcome a friend who had just gotten to town.

“What time should we get to the stadium?” my brother asked him.

“I want as much Junction time as possible,” Reed responded.

“The Jack Cristil tribute starts a little after 10:30,” I told them. “Video, missing man flyover. Bunch of good stuff.”

“10:30 it is,” they said.

Back at Bulldog Bash, I wrote down a quick snippet of yelled conversation.

“I mean, I like him.”

“It’s OK if you don’t.”

“Yeah…I really don’t like him.”

“No worries, man. You’re not supposed to.”

“I mean, we really don’t like each other.”

“That’s healthy.”

5:45 a.m., Saturday, University Drive: It’s that early point of the morning where you can’t yet see the sun but you get a little bit of it’s light. A truck spraying insecticide drove by, as if trying to clean away the sins of the night before.

Somewhere, a fire truck sounded.

At the end of someone’s sidewalk was an open box with an entire carrot cake, icing untouched.

Further down the sidewalk, it looked like someone had tried to leave a trail of bread crumbs, but instead of crumbs it was entire pieces of pizza, leading all the way to the door of a house where someone surely slept with an empty stomach having lost all their pizza to the ground.

The first group of tailgaters I found was the Rester family, a group of locals I grew up with. The patriarch had arrived at 4:30 in the morning, not because he had to set up, but just because he couldn’t sleep. He was too excited.

“I skipped work yesterday,” he told me (hope this doesn’t get you in trouble!). “I couldn’t do it. I saw Jackie Sherrill at breakfast and thought, ‘Alright, this is an omen.’”

6:45 a.m.: The next group I found one was one which had invited me on Twitter and had a sweet setup. Two tents, TV, bacon on the grill. They were doing it right.

“I had to ride my bike down the highway at 5 a.m. to get here,” Arthur told me. “I had to leave the truck so my wife can bring the kid later.”

Dedication.

6:50 a.m.: I saw a little kid all bundled up in MSU gear with his mom and asked if I could take his picture. He ran away. I’m gonna be a great dad.

unnamed-47:00 a.m., The Junction, SEC Nation set:

“I hope GameDay comes next week,” local celebrity Lee Battle told me. “I’ve got some things I want to say to Desmond Howard.”

Like what?

“Like 52-14, that’s what,” he answered, referencing MSU’s win over Michigan in the Gator Bowl a few years ago.

Elsewhere in The Junction, I talked to a father and son who had driven over at the crack of dawn from Columbus.

“The lights of Davis Wade were brighter than the sun,” they said.

At the tent next door, the matriarch of a mixed bag of college friends and their families said she got up at 3:30 to get everything ready and make it from Jackson.

7:30 a.m.: Food. So much food. Again, as Mullen said, you eat well in Mississippi.

A group led by locals Darrin Dodds and Angus Catchot set up their massive grill, smoker, pots and tables at the intersection near the ESPN set on Creelman next to Dorman Hall. They were cooking 250 ribeyes Saturday. Breakfast sausage, boiled peanuts, chicken legs and brisket, too. Anything they could think of.

“It’s just for whoever wants to come by,” they told me.

“Free game?” I asked.

“Free game.”

unnamed-6For Southern Miss, they had made 400 quartered chickens and 500 sausage dogs. They love to feed as much as they love to eat.

On the other side of the tailgate scene, in front of the police station near The Union and the Chapel of Memories, Guy Bader became my hero.

A big MSU fan, Guy lives in Franklin, Tennessee where he runs Papa Boudreaux’s, a Cajun restaurant. Here in Starkville, he’d brought some of his goodies, including breakfast jambalaya. Yeah, that’s a thing. And it’s incredible. Jambalaya rice mixed with eggs, sausage, cheese and maple bacon. Holy wow. It’s like falling in love. And along with it came his peach-bourbon bread pudding. If the jambalaya was falling in love, the bread pudding was having your first kid.

9 a.m.: Back in The Junction, I was trying to make my way through to the SEC Nation set as the show had just started. The Dawg Walk was at 9:10, so it was kind of difficult get around. I somehow found an open path to walk and that’s when possibly the coolest moment of my life happened.

unnamed-5I should’ve realized where I was, but I just wasn’t tracking. The reason that sidewalk was open was because it was the actual path the Dawg Walk takes place on. Either side of the pavement was lined 10-deep with State fans waiting on Mullen, Prescott and all their favorite Bulldogs to pass by. At the moment, all they were getting was me. A security guard probably should’ve stopped me from my mistake, but apparently none noticed me.

A few strides down the sidewalk, a group of guys I grew up with saw me and started yelling and high-fiving me, because why not. It was a happy day. The problem was, everyone else heard yelling and saw movement and assumed the Dawgs must be there. All the fans nearby started yelling, too, ringing cowbells, shouting, screaming and reaching out for high fives and handshakes.

As they yelled, I walked on through with arms out returning the greetings and feeling for about three seconds what it must be like to be Dak Prescott all the time.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the cheering to stop once they realized it was just some skinny dude with glasses and backpack.

unnamed-711 a.m., Davis Wade Stadium: I think the game itself has been discussed enough, so I’ll just share one quote I overheard in the press box.

“I’m sorry, Mississippi State,” someone said behind my shoulder. “I was very, very wrong.”

4:30 p.m., The Junction: Seemingly every tailgater in Starkville had found their way to a TV to watch Ole Miss and Alabama play, a highly-entertaining game just a couple hours northwest.

I stood in a circle with close to a dozen old college buddies, everybody breaking down the game and projecting the rest of the season based purely on the outcome of Saturday afternoon. Hard to blame them, of course.

During a timeout in game play, one friend at the next tent over offered an observation on the group styling itself ‘The Juice Boys,’ the group of injured and redshirting MSU players who wear sweats in the bench area during games.

“Those boys on the sideline are awesome,” she told me. “They get the team pumped up. They get the crowd pumped up. They’re great.”

Midnight, Starkville:

“We’re gonna be the first 15-0 team in college football history,” one fan said, keeping his expectations realistic.

10:00 a.m., Sunday, my living room:

“Yesterday was fun,” my brother James said.

“Yes it was,” I replied.

“I can’t imagine how next week can top it,” he mused.

“And it probably will,” I said.

“Yep.”

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2 Responses to Everything but the game: Four days with fans, friends, ESPN and MSU in Starkville

  1. Julie Dalrymple Nation says:

    Great job Bob! You make me proud to be a bulldog and proud to know you. Hail State!

  2. david thoms says:

    great story. i expect a same type of story this next week.

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