“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
Some give Dan Mullen the credit. Or Dak Prescott. Maybe Scott Stricklin or even the President of the whole school, Mark Keenum.
Whoever is responsible, nothing now is the same at Mississippi State as it was before. Expectations, experiences, perceptions and praises have all been altered.
When MSU won the Belk Bowl to close out their 2015 season, it wasn’t the end of the road for the Bulldogs from a big picture sense. However, in a very literal sense, it was the final stop for a group who made all those changes happen. The senior class who took that field, some as starters, some as backups and some as injured players in street clothes on the sideline, were catalysts for the revolution and resurgence of Mississippi State football.
The rebuilding had just begun when most of them arrived back in 2011 with MSU coming off its first nine-win season this millennium. Mullen was only entering his third year. Stricklin and Keenum were just getting started, as well.
At the time, most observers were unsure if the success of 2010 was a fluke or a sign of things to come. For many members of that surprise team, it was their first trip to a postseason game. For all who returned, it was a luxury they would come to expect. And for those who entered after, it was the new expectation, even if people on the outside hadn’t caught up yet.
The group who arrived in 2011, and a few more in 2012, helped ensure that no more questions would have to be asked or respect ever again be missing.
“We’re walking out as one of the winningest senior classes in Mississippi State history,” senior offensive lineman Justin Malone said after Wednesday’s Belk Bowl. “When I got here, I was told that we wouldn’t win. That there was no way we could compete in the SEC, that we weren’t good enough, that the team had a history of being bad. In my five years here, we’ve changed it. We were No. 1. My class has been ranked 29 weeks. We’ve done all these things. We’ve had winning seasons. We’ve been to five-straight bowl games. It’s one of those things where we’re just winners. We’ve changed the perception.”
No matter what was predicted of MSU, whatever people outside the program thought or critics said, the seniors now, with the staff who brought them in, led the way from the inside, creating a culture not of hope, but of expectation. Before they arrived, playing close games against good teams wasn’t such a bad result, even if they lost. Five years later, there’s no such thing as a moral victory. Just wins or losses – more of the former than the latter.
“They may pick us again to be last next year, who knows,” Prescott said, “but this is a team, a program, a university that doesn’t listen to what people say, doesn’t listen to negative criticism. We just come in each and every day and work hard, give our best. It paid off. That’s exactly what this senior class has done.”
In the entire history of Mississippi State football, in 114 years of competing on the gridiron, the Bulldogs have won nine games or more in a season only six times. This senior class, they did it twice, in back-to-back years, a feat never pulled off in over a century of football. In 16 months, they won 19 games.
And they did it as a group, as a team, as a family. Dak Prescott was the star, that much is obvious. In four years on the field, he totaled 6.8 miles of offense, over 100 touchdowns and three dozen school records. Most careers would be considered all-timers just from breaking one record.
But it was more than Prescott. It was more than Mullen. It was more than any one individual. This group did it together, and even one piece missing could’ve kept it all from coming together.
Years ago, when both were freshmen, Devon Bell’s kickoff ended up in the hands of Taveze Calhoun, two young players destined to push their program to greatness, even if neither knew it. When Prescott was still the holder on field goals, he was taking snaps from Winston Chapman. Further down the line on those plays, Malone, Rufus Warren and Damien Robinson were protecting the kicker from opposing teams.
Ryan Brown, Will Redmond and Kendrick Market watched from the sideline in Charlotte, but all three were among the biggest reasons the Bulldogs were there to begin with. Torrey Dale rushing the quarterback on the line, Darrion Hutcherson converting first downs and Joe Morrow blocking downfield were all among the final moments for a senior class dedicated to the betterment of the program.
This outgoing class didn’t just change Mississippi State football. They are Mississippi State football. They made the program what it is today, a legacy none can tarnish or change. And their impact goes far beyond accomplishments on the field. What they meant to a fanbase in need of someone to fight for them, how every autograph, picture and smile made adults and children alike feel, that is what they leave behind. They showed Bulldogs everywhere that they were part of family, that they were deserving of respect and that they had the ability to truly be great. They changed the Mississippi State world for the better.
Thousands preceded them, and thousands more will follow, but none yet have done as much these legends to wear the maroon and white.