The crowd in Biloxi was fully aware who each speaker was as they needlessly introduced each other.
Dan Mullen is the head coach of the football team – the football team that rose all the way to No. 1 last fall and will start its next campaign with a Heisman frontrunner. Vic Schaefer is the women’s basketball coach who was the surprise star of the SEC this year, getting his team into the Top 15 and to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in only his third year. Ben Howland, the new men’s basketball coach, may have the best resume of them all, plus he just signed one of the top five high school players in the country barely one month into the job. And then Scott Stricklin is the athletic director who takes credit for all of it. (Kidding, Scott!)
It was, in fact, Stricklin who had a hand in hiring all three, and it was again he who pointed out that Monday on the Road Dawgs Tour was the first time those three Mississippi State coaches had been together. Taking it in turn to address the crowd at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Miss., each had different words but ultimately a similar message.
They are all at different points on the same path, their progression down it in reverse order of how little hair they have. (“I know I’m losing my hair,” Schaefer cracked after relating that he’d frequently been mistaken for Howland, “but my goodness, I’ve got more than Ben.”)
For Mullen, that path began in 2009, as he told it.
“We went 3-5 at home my first year,” Mullen said, “but that’s when we started selling out games.”
Since his first day on the job, Mullen has preached the same message when it comes to the program. He couldn’t build it on his own and then get fan support. They had to come first, then he could build it. Luckily for him, they did.
A few years later, as crowds continued to come and Mullen began to win more and more, Schaefer started reaping benefits from the fervor for football.
“You’ve got no idea the environment that football creates for us,” Schaefer said of bringing visitors to campus on football weekends. “It’s hard for me to screw that up when I’m recruiting with that.”
Likewise, record crowds began turning out for women’s basketball. Not just this past year, though. Many of the records Schafer’s crowds broke in 2015 were originally set in 2014, back when his Bulldogs were just in the WNIT. Within a year, they went from hosting the WNIT to just barely missing out on hosting the NCAA Tournament.
At the beginning of that path is Howland, the newest of the three who has yet to play a single game at Humphrey Coliseum.
“I didn’t see a lot of fans in The Hump,” Howland told the crowd of his days watching from a distance the last couple years. “The only way we’re going to have success in the future is to fill it up. I know we’re gonna have that in the future. I really look forward to it.”
If crowds for Mullen and Schaefer – as well as those for seemingly every other sport on campus – are any indication, Howland will get his wish. Based on the excitement from the crowd in Biloxi (over 400 people, nearly double the usual attendance) he may only have to wait until his first game for it.
In addition to sharing his enjoyment of Biloxi, Howland sang Starkville’s praises at length, and not in a disingenuous manner.
“The people,” Howland explained, “are so nice, so hospitable, so welcoming, so lovable. That’s gonna make it so easy to recruit.”
Whether Schaefer intended to do so or not, he actually gave a perfect example of what Howland meant when he told the story of securing the signature of his latest high-profile signee, a 6’7” five-star forward from Texas. One of the country’s most sought-after players, Teaira McCowan had taken visits all over America, to cities big and small.
Near the end of her first visit in Starkville, she stopped Schaefer and her family and said, “Coach, we had no idea all this was here.”
That night, while eating dinner at The Veranda, Schaefer remembers McCowan rapping her fork against her water glass and telling the table she had an announcement. She stood up and told Schaefer she wanted to be a Bulldog, she wanted to move to Starkville and she wanted to play for Mississippi State.
“I’m 54 and I had my first heart attack,” Schaefer joked with the crowd Monday night. “Mississippi State is an easy sell.”
It’s a sell Howland has already made once, securing the signature of Malik Newman, the top player in the state of Mississippi and a McDonald’s All-American. It’s a sell Howland will continue to make, even immediately, he hopes, as he said plans to add another player to the roster by the time his first game starts.
Oh, and that first season – he thinks they’ll be pretty good.
“Malik would not have joined us if he didn’t believe we’d win right away,” Howland explained.
Howland speaks as someone who can’t wait to get on the court, who can’t wait to play a game, and certainly as someone who very much hopes to have a big crowd there to watch every game. He also speaks, both in direct words and perceived tone, as a man who wants to take MSU basketball back to the top of the conference and the country.
As Schaefer said before him and Mullen detailed after, the path has been laid.
“Three years ago, I told y’all we could do something special, and we did,” Schaefer said Monday night. “Mississippi State is here to stay. That’s not going to change.”