To get inside Humphrey Coliseum and find a seat on gameday for Mississippi State women’s basketball, one has to navigate and constantly moving (and laughing, eating and playing) maze of children and families. Middle schoolers sprint by on the steps into the arena, elementary students pop out of every possible door or crevice in the concourse, looking for their parents or their friends or where exactly the smell of popcorn is coming from. The seats themselves are filled with toddlers to high schoolers, parents and grandparents surrounding them.
They’re among the most enthusiastic during the games – both the kids and adults – and within moments of the game ending (typically a win for the Bulldogs here lately) the kids are swarming all the players on the team who have stepped over the understood boundaries of the court and climbed into the stands to take pictures, sign autographs and just talk with their fans.
“I look up there and I’ve got [6’7” freshman forward] Teaira McCowan up there usually holding a kid with each arm,” head coach Vic Schaefer said.
His team is in the news now daily, ranked in the Top 10 and quickly becoming recognized as one of the SEC’s great powers in women’s college basketball. They’re getting attention outside of the fanbase for winning, but it’s those moments in the stands that the program wasn’t just built on, but built specifically for.
MSU’s team isn’t just important to the community: they’re part of it. The games serve as practically a citywide event, a bi-weekly carnival of games (including the Kidz Court play area for children in the practice facility before each contest) and interaction.
“When you talk about building a program, it’s more than just wins and losses,” the head coach explained. “It’s more than just who the coach is, who the staff is.”
Schaefer’s face broke into a wide, bright smile when he was asked about the particularly strong connection between his team and their fans. Even away home, the relationship is evident.
There are often a few of the more devoted fans on the team plane when the Bulldogs travel, there are regularly organized buses of supporters for away games, and anywhere MSU goes there seems to be at least a small cluster of people nearby who find their way to see the team. Whether it’s a dozen people on the road, the 7,100 who were at MSU’s last home game or the 10,000-plus they’re hoping to have when they host No. 2 South Carolina Sunday, Schaefer and his group treat them like family.
“When we played at Florida, we had 15-20 fans there,” he recalled. “We went into the stands and saw the 15 or 20 from Florida who happened to be Mississippi State Bulldogs.”
The attitude of the team bleeds into the entire atmosphere of the events surrounding games. Toralyn Knox, wife of MSU running backs and special teams coordinator Greg Knox, has seen her little kids become fixtures of games, always finding their way onto the video board and roaming The Hump confidently and fearlessly with their friends.
“They love it,” she said. “They look forward to it. They always tell me what time we need to leave so they can get here on time to plays at Kidz Court.”
“It’s just a good activity for the kids to do,” agreed MSU professor Dr. Adam Love, whose three-year-old daughter Elaina is a regular at Kidz Court. “It’s fun for them to come out and see their friends.”
For the Knox family, it’s a welcome comfort. They’ve been to six different schools through Greg’s career, including three different programs in the SEC. None have been quite like what they have at MSU, where appropriately enough, their cousin Ketara Chapel is a junior forward on Schaefer’s team.
“It is probably the best family atmosphere that I’ve been around in college sports,” Toralyn said.
Of course, hosting events for kids hasn’t been the only reason for the surge in attendance and the growing following Schaefer’s team has. Dominating on the court has played a significant role, too. From day one, just over three years ago, MSU fans could see the difference Schaefer was making. They saw that things were quickly projecting in the right direction. Then, two years ago, the Bulldogs made a not-entirely-surprising and extremely entertaining run in the WNIT, ending the season on a particularly high note, expectations quickly rising. Last year, Schaefer’s third, his team took the next step. They cracked the top 15, they made the NCAA Tournament (very nearly hosting) and advanced to the second round.
Now, in year four, MSU is among not just the SEC’s, but the nation’s elite. The crowds had been coming as it was, but now they’re really showing up, evidenced by the second-largest crowd in program history for a Monday night game against an unranked opponent this week.
“I think our kids have earned the respect of anyone who has ever come in The Hump and watched us play, by how they play the game, how they honor the game and with their effort,” Schaefer said this week. “I think parents want their daughters and sons to see how hard our kids play and how they play the game.”
There are a great number of things Vic Schaefer loves about being a coach, about being at Mississippi State and about his players. The bond between team and fans may be his greatest joy.
“The personalities that our kids have,” he said, “I think that’s the infectious piece. Our kids go into the stands after a game. You get to know our kids. They all have beautiful smiles. They have great personalities.
“Now,” he continued, “it’s not just kids wanting their pictures with my players. It’s parents, it’s moms and dads, it’s students. That’s part of the program. That’s part of building the program. Not what we do, but how we do it. A lot of people don’t do that.
“It warms my heart after a ballgame,” Schaefer shared as his reflections came to an end. “It’s what I really enjoy most, to see our kids, how they interact and their personalities, and the relationships that they’ve built with our fanbase. I think our fans like it, too.”