Last fall, Mississippi State’s football team finished the regular season 6-6, having to win its last two games in overtime to avoid a losing record. Now, the Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the country, the highest ranking in school history where Dan Mullen and Dak Prescott are in the middle of what could be State’s best season ever.
“It’s an amazing story, isn’t it,” CBS college basketball reporter Seth Davis asked as the interview began.
“It really is,” MSU’s head basketball coach Rick Ray responded, sitting on the other side of the camera.
In Charlotte for SEC Tipoff, the revamped SEC basketball media days, Rick Ray and his players wandered the halls, studios and converted hotel rooms as they answered question after question. Vic Schaefer, head coach of MSU’s women’s team, did the same on Tuesday with his two players.
And everywhere any of them went, people were talking about football – about the No. 1 team in the country. Mississippi State.
Schaefer and Ray have been to these events before, and both coaches are as popular and well-liked by the media and fellow coaches as any. But the receptions they received this week went far beyond the usual. People they’d never met were exclaiming upon their arrival.
Schafer walked into a social media and marketing room (where the group responsible for ESPN’s commercial on the Left Field Lounge was set up) and was immediately greeted with enthusiasm when they saw his maroon MSU polo.
“Hey, Mississippi State! No. 1 in the country!”
On Wednesday, Ray and Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy appeared on the Paul Finebaum Show together, though it had very little to do with the fact that they are rivals. Finebaum wanted to talk about the best football state in the nation at the present time.
“There is great excitement on both campuses.”
It could have easily been frustrating for Ray and Schaefer, who have their own teams they want to talk about, their own excitement to share. But the more each talked about it, the clearer it became what an impact a great football team can have on an entire school.
Beyond strangers in the hotel stopping them to congratulate them for having the best team in the country (“Do you guys have great high school football in the state or something?”) and the enhancement to the brand evident by the fact Sirius/XM hosts can’t wait to get the MSU coach on the show, there are positive changes on the inside of the program resulting from the gridiron successes.
“Any time you’re in the spotlight, it’s good for the whole university,” Ray told a crowd of reporters in the main media room. “This isn’t just about football. It goes to all of our programs. A lot of times there’s jealousy between staffs when one is having success. At Mississippi State, it really is a family.”
That’s the right way to look at it, certainly. It’s the way the football team responded when MSU’s baseball team finished second in the country two summers ago. Ray and Schaefer, because they are supportive rather than jealous, are able to take advantage of the success of Dan Mullen’s football team.
Both of the coaches have recruits on campus for football games throughout the fall, and Schaefer himself has credited the atmosphere at a football game last year to securing the commitment and signature of one of his players.
“Since I got here,” Schaefer said, “we’ve only had two players who came to campus that we didn’t get. Mississippi State is a great place. You gotta get people on campus.”
Said Ray, in reference to big football weekends, “It’s the only time you’re gonna have 80,000 people in Starkville. You’ve gotta take advantage of that. When we have guys come in and we’ve got College GameDay here and all these fans showing how much they support you, it’s a great tool for us.”
And then there are the examples set by MSU’s football team. Very little is expected of Ray’s team on the outside, who the media picked to finish last in the SEC this week. But, as you’d imagine, he’s not concerned with that. His point guard I.J. Ready told reporters last week that the basketball and football players spent time together this summer with each having the same thought: our team is going to surprise people.
“I think the football team is a good example of what we can do,” Ray told Finebaum. “They were picked to finished fifth or sixth in the west. Now, they’re the No. 1 team in the country.”
Like the football team in 2013, Ray felt he had a team last year that was young, shorthanded and relatively inexperienced. Now, like the football team this year, he’s got depth, experience and the opportunity for someone to become a leader. That right there is a big part of it, of what Ray takes from the football team – Dak Prescott. He’s the team leader every coach dreams of having. When Ray talks to his players, he talks about Prescott. About being selfless, holding others accountable, encouraging your teammates and putting them on your back when the moment hits.
The comparisons of his team to Mullen’s aren’t as far off as they seem, either. In the hallways of ESPN’s studios, that was some of the conversation Ray had.
Mullen’s offense is based largely on having a talented dual-threat quarterback. Ray’s offense is based on having a skilled person in the four spot. Mullen has Prescott, and while most people around the SEC don’t know him now, Ray has Travis Daniels, who he calls the most skilled non-point guard on the team. He’s huge, built like a brick wall, but has the shot and the handles of some of the best guards in the league. With size in the post and skills on the perimeter, Daniels is yet another big-time dual-threat player on campus.
Ray also has players he thinks are ready to step up and be leaders. And in an evolution reminiscent of Mullen’s receivers through the years, Ray’s team finally has height and size, flipping the balance of roster from under 6’7” to over.
Junior forward Gavin Ware couldn’t hold back his excitement when chatting in passing with Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson.
“We got some height now,” Ware told him with a grin. “You gotta watch out.”
“Coach, high expectations for your team this year,” one reporter stated as preface to her question.
“The next step is on the horizon in Starkville,” ESPN analyst Maria Taylor said as she sat on the SEC Network set with Schaefer.
Schaefer’s Bulldogs, like Mullen’s in 2013, struggled a bit through portions of the season, playing great at many times and poorly at others as new parts worked to figure each other out. Then, just as football won it’s last three games in a row, Schaefer’s team made a season-ending surge, tearing through the Women’s NIT all the way to the Final Four, some of the most exciting games Humphrey Coliseum had seen in some time.
Now, nearly all the pieces from that run are back, plus he’s added one of the best recruiting classes in MSU history.
Maybe all the similarities are why it’s so easy for Ray and Schaefer to talk football. It’s a cliché for either to say that winning is contagious, but it’s also pretty simple for the two to draw comparisons to their football brethren.
“It’s relatable to our players because they know those guys,” Ray said.
The excitement is easy to feed from.
“Man, Mississippi State,” the clerk at the team hotel said when the MSU contingent checked out Wednesday morning. “Big-time football. Did you guys see it coming?”