Scott Stricklin still remembers when the idea for Maroon Friday came up. Now Mississippi State’s athletic director, he recalls someone in the meeting telling him that nobody was going to do it. State fans wouldn’t wear maroon every Friday just because they said so.
“I was like, ‘We’ve got to try,’” Stricklin says. “We had to do something.”
Not long after, he remembers the first time MSU asked its fans to wear the same color for a game – a white-out when the Bulldogs hosted LSU in 2009, Dan Mullen’s first year as the head coach.
“There was a real fear that no one would do it and we’d look stupid,” Stricklin recalled. “It was raining when that game started so everyone had ponchos on, but the rain stopped for the second half and all the jackets came off. We looked around and thought, ‘Wow, we did it.’”
Since then, it’s gotten to the point where MSU’s athletic department designates a color for every game. Most recently, the lower level wore white and the upper level maroon when MSU beat Auburn Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium. After the first few white-outs and maroon-outs, people were coming to Stricklin and saying, ‘Hey, you haven’t told us what to wear yet,’ so they had to start designating colors for every home game.
“People wanted to participate at a high level,” Stricklin said. “Our fans were hungry to do whatever it took to make us successful.”
It may sound a little silly on the surface. Or at least some would conclude that, in the case of T-shirts and victories, correlation does not equal causation.
But things like that really are what turned the direction around for an MSU program which, when Stricklin got to campus, had been struggling seemingly across the board.
Mullen has told the story this week of his reaction when he got to Starkville in December of 2008. Basically, he told everyone in the department, “You are the problem.” Mullen said the lack of belief was an issue. So was the complacency and the ease with which people were willing to do things “the way we always have.”
The new head coach didn’t hold back at all when he decided to let everyone know how he felt about them.
“He probably didn’t have the bedside manner you’d want,” Stricklin jokes now.
While perception had to (and did) change within the department, the biggest goal was bringing about revival in a somewhat deadened fanbase, a group who was exhausted in its search for something to believe in.
In 2009, before his first season, Mullen asked the fans to believe in him. And they did, setting attendance records, selling out game-after-game and, of course, wearing maroon on Fridays. They did it despite the fact they were cheering for a team which went 5-7, at home for the holidays again.
But the signs of something worth believing in were there. At that whiteout in 2009, MSU was one yard away from taking down the highly-favored Tigers of LSU, which was about 98 yards closer than they had been in quite some time.
Four years later, something else big happened at Mississippi State, though it had nothing to do with football directly and Mullen wasn’t even there (although he was watching on TV from his vacation home in Georgia).
Walking through the streets that night after the game, maroon was everywhere. In the roads around the stadium, hanging out on sidewalks, underneath tents, sprawling over railings at restaurants and bars, cheers of “HAIL STATE!” rolling through the air everywhere from hotel lobbies to gas stations.
That night in June of 2013, Omaha, Nebraska was the western-most suburb of Starkville. 20,000-plus MSU fans had shown up to watch their Bulldogs in the College World Series with the National Championship on the line. Many of them couldn’t even get into the game, but they wanted to be there. They had to be there. As Stricklin put it, they were hungry.
And something happened during that two-week stretch as State bulldozed it’s way to the Championship Series. MSU has always been good at baseball, the school’s most storied athletic program, and fans believed the baseball team could be great, but something about seeing a Mississippi State jersey step onto a field with the National Championship on the line struck a chord within them.
Somewhere between Wes Rea belting a home run in Virginia in the Super Regional and Dak Prescott blasting ahead for a touchdown in Louisiana three weeks ago, that belief became bigger than baseball. It applied to everyone in every sport.
I remember sitting in the lobby of the team hotel around 3 a.m. local time. Chad Bumphis, MSU’s all-time leading receiver, was sitting next to me. He kept saying the same thing as I was writing a story about the magical two-week run.
“Mississippi State just played for the National Championship.”
The words sounded funny in his head but made him smile as he said them. It didn’t even matter MSU lost the final game. They were there.
In the early hours of the morning, as the celebration of something incredible continued around us, those were the thoughts I tried to put into words.
“This run, this experience, is far bigger than baseball.
In doing something no one in Maroon and White had done before, it became a Mississippi State benchmark.
Academics and athletics, football and softball, men’s and women’s.
These Bulldogs proved it can be done.
No one had to tell themselves they believed. They did believe.
Just as the state of Mississippi can claim generosity, hospitality and countless professional successes over any other shortcomings, so can Mississippi State now claim time at the top in spite of any days at the bottom.
When you’re a kid, you always believe your team is the best in the country, that they can win it all.
With age, realism and awareness set in. You know what limitations your team has.
But now, for the first time, Bulldog fans have made it within reach of doing what they imagined as children.
The baseball team knows it can win it all, and now everyone else has seen.
Quarterbacks and defensive linemen watched their diamond counterparts and said, ‘Mississippi State really can win a National Championship.’
Tennis players, basketball coaches and those from every sport saw the realization of dreams.
Now they don’t just have to say, they know, it can be done.”
Fast-forward to present day, and Mullen’s team is currently No. 1 in the country, one spot higher than the baseball team finished that summer. It’s appropriate that John Cohen, the man who coached that World Series, stood in the wings and watched as Mullen met with the media following his win over No. 2 Auburn Saturday night. Cohen and Mullen built this together, part of the new guard at Mississippi State.
“I think the last two or three weeks has been a lot like the Omaha run,” Stricklin said, referring to the string of upsets over Top 10 teams and the monumental support of the fan base. “It gives you a lot of confidence. The next time you have one of those dreams, you know it can happen.”
“It’s not win first and then fans will come,” Mullen says. “If the fans come, then the wins will come later.”
Those fans bought in. They believed, showing up for the white-out in 2009, soaking wet and watching as their team fell just short. Five years later, sunshine or pouring rain, they’re enjoying the benefits of that labor.