The start of Independence Day weekend last Friday marked the official end of the 2015-16 athletic year for Mississippi State and the rest of the NCAA, bringing to close a year beginning with soccer and volleyball in August and finishing with baseball and track in June, a dozen other sports sandwiched between.
Each year is special in its own ways, to be sure, just as no season stands completely alone, always forming a chapter in the greater story of its program and sport. As far as Bulldog athletics go, however, 2015-16 easily stands one of the best in MSU history, and by one measurement, ranks top-to-bottom as the greatest in the modern era for those wearing the Maroon and White. MSU finished 44th in the annual Learfield Director’s Cup, a ranking of every athletic department in the country based on factors such as postseason success, conference championships and final rankings. That was the best finish ever not just by MSU, but by any school in the history of the state of Mississippi.
The Director’s Cup uses up to 20 sports for the rankings, meaning a school like MSU will always be at disadvantage in terms of overall ranking. However, the success can be easily seen as MSU has finished 52nd or better for four-straight years, when just a decade ago the Bulldogs were regularly outside of the top 100.
Of course, no numbers-based ranking can truly reflect the entirety of a year for any program. MSU’s football team winning nine games and going to a bowl for the sixth-straight year is measurable. But no algorithm can convey the leadership and inspiration provided by someone like Dak Prescott. Similarly, nothing on paper shows the heartache of loss when Keith Joseph, Sr. and Keith Joseph, Jr., were unexpectedly taken from their family of both the blood and collegiate types.
A first place finish for John Cohen’s baseball team helped MSU’s standing, but the dogpile when MSU won the SEC Championship in Starkville can only be weighed in pounds. Joy, elation and realized potential are not so quantifiable as to be measured by any rankings.
Quinndary Weatherspoon’s game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer against Vanderbilt in The Hump still only counted for three points on the scoreboard. That shot, however, was one of the highlights of a year deemed to be a great success, even if it never showed up in the standings.
Record crowds, new facilities, even occasional acoustics issues – none of those counted toward the rankings, either.
But the things that do count? Well, MSU had plenty of those, too. Eight of MSU’s sixteen teams advanced to the postseason. Seven of them finished the season ranked in the Top 25 of their sport, while a total of nine made an appearance at one point or another.
Eleven different players were named All-Americans in their sport for their achievement on the field, while three more were named Academic All-Americans for their achievement in the classroom.
The baseball team won the SEC Championship, while John Cohen was named the SEC Coach of the Year. In track and field, MSU had two individual National Championships and four SEC Championships.
Important to the rankings or not, three different teams set a program record for SEC wins in a season. Three teams posted or tied their highest postseason finish ever. Three teams were among the final sixteen in their sport still alive in their postseasons and two of them even earned the right to host in the NCAA Tournament.
And it wasn’t just the coaches and players. MSU’s fans set single-season or average attendance records in five different sports, an impressive feat given the great attendance history of Bulldog athletics at home.
In the last year, MSU has had first-round picks, first-place finishes and first-year coaches. But it was just as much about those undrafted, about the last-place finishes, about the underdogs, about the Bulldogs always building toward something better, never being satisfied, no matter how great or small the achievement.
You get one day to celebrate, coaches say. Then, tomorrow, it’s on to the next game, practice or season. If that’s the case, then consider this MSU’s day to celebrate a milestone year as it patiently prepares for the next one to come.
To review the success of the 2015-16 athletic year, Athletic Director Scott Stricklin sat down with HailStateBeat writer Bob Carskadon for the following question-and-answer session.
Question: MSU earned its highest finish ever in the Director’s Cup this year. To ask the obvious question, what does a department-wide performance like that mean to you, the person in charge of it all?
Answer: It’s an indication we’ve had a lot of teams have significant postseason success. Seven teams finished in the Top 25, and on top of that, you have a football team that won nine games and went to its sixth-straight bowl game. There are a lot of people succeeding at a high level. Five teams finished in the Top 16 of their sports or postseason event. There have been years where that happening to one team was a pretty big deal. You look at the sports it’s happening in; it’s a mix of men’s and women’s, high profile and Olympic sports. To me, it’s exciting. It’s a great indication of the great things that are happening here. I think it also sends a strong message that we can continue to build on this and do even better things.
Q: You mention the variety of sports doing well. I imagine there has to be a parental feel to being the Athletic Director. It may be the big three that get the attention, but you’ve said before, you care just as much as about winning in any one sport compared to any other.
A: It kind of reaffirms we’ve got good people in the coaching positions, and they in turn have put together good staffs and they’ve gone out and recruited really talented young people. We want to be a broad-based athletic program that succeeds across the board. You’ve got to have good people in all those positions to do that, so that’s affirming.
Some of those sports that didn’t have postseason opportunities I think are poised to join that mix really soon. You look at Ben Howland and men’s basketball and the excitement he’s generating there. What he’s building follows a similar path to where some of these other sports have been. We had some sports that didn’t make postseason this year that have been there in recent years in women’s golf and softball, so you think, ‘Man, if they get back in there and these other sports continue to achieve at a high level, we’re zooming past where we are right now.’
Q: You had two new head coaches in their first season on the job this year, Ben Howland with men’s basketball and David McFatrich with volleyball. The volleyball program had its best season in nine years. Basketball saw a huge uptick in recruiting while the product on the court, I think most would agree, appeared very improved. What’s your review of those two hires after year one?
A: They’re both different. Fatch is obviously a very good coach, had a winning record and kind of came out of nowhere. What I love about Fatch is, when he speaks, he is like. E. F. Hutton with his players. When he speaks, those girls just really lock into him. He is leading. They are following his leadership. At the end of the day, that’s what coaching is. It’s teaching and leading. They are locked into him. I don’t know if we have another sport where the team locks into their coach like the volleyball team does with Fatch, and it’s a credit to his ability to lead. Obviously, based on his first year, there’s a lot of excitement. He’s done it before. He had a lot of success at Central Arkansas, so he’s a guy with a track record who is showing why he had that track record.
With Ben, what a veteran, experienced, good guy he is, who knows how to win. He’s competitive. You can see that he really understands his sport and what it takes to be good in his sport and I think he really appreciates the opportunity of being at Mississippi State and being able to build something back up here. With the recruiting class he’s got in here – and just the improvement we made during the course of the season last year. I think you combine those two, and there’s cause for great excitement.
Q: The spring semester had a good deal of historic achievement. Baseball winning the SEC, track having incredible performances by both men and women, women’s tennis having one of its best seasons. But then, women’s basketball may be the biggest story of the year, reaching the Sweet 16 and hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Obviously, you hoped for good things when you hired Vic Schaefer four years ago, but even he has said it sometimes seems like things have gotten ahead of schedule.
A: Yeah, Vic’s just really good. You talk about a guy that’s got some charisma about him. Great passion, great work ethic for what he does. There’s not an audience that Vic Schaefer could stand in front of that wouldn’t get excited about what he’s talking about. He’s just got that southern Baptist preacher thing going. He’s got folks fired up for women’s basketball. Part of that is because they’re winning, and part of that is because he makes it fun. Kids play hard. Coaches attract young people who fit their personality, and Vic’s done that. He’s got a lot of charismatic young ladies on that team that are a joy to be around.
He’s set up well. He had a young roster this year when he won 28 games, finished second in the SEC and made the Sweet 16. So, there’s a lot of optimism that it’s going to be able to be maintained. The hardest thing to do, the most important thing to do, is to be good consistently. Don’t be a one-hit wonder. Vic has, I think, got the makings of making us a women’s basketball power pretty consistently.
[men’s tennis success under second-year head coach Matt Roberts]
You know, the other great story is what Matt Roberts did with men’s tennis. A lot of turnover on the roster. Some guys just didn’t fit what he envisioned for his program, and some of those guys were really good players. It took a guy who really has a lot of faith and trust in his own ability to go out and find the right guys and put them together. To have four freshmen out there playing quite a bit and to get to the Round of 16 in men’s tennis is a huge credit to his abilities. Also, I’m so proud of him. He just did what he believed in. Sometimes if you do what you believe in, it takes a while for the payoff. I’m just so happy and proud that he got that payoff finishing fourth in the SEC and making the Round of 16 the first year that he does it. For a young coach, that takes a real belief in yourself. I think that was an amazing story this year.
Q: Over the last few years, it feels like track and field has been similar as far as underrated stories. It’s not a spectator sport, so it perhaps doesn’t get the attention it deserves, but there have been multiple National Champions and SEC Champions under head coach Steve Dudley, and around a half dozen of his players will be representing their countries in the Olympics next month.
A: Steve Dudley is a Bulldog in every sense of the word. Not only was he an athlete here, but just his personality, man, he is determined and fierce and tenacious. He’s a winner. We’ve been fortunate to have two incredible athletes from a career standpoint in Brandon McBride and Erica Bougard, but then we had Marta Freitas win the 1,500-meter. Second-straight year a Bulldog has won that event. Last year, it was Rhiann Price. So you have two straight years Mississippi State wins the same event with different athletes. That doesn’t happen very often. You’ve got a young guy like Curtis Thompson step up and win the javelin. A lot of that is a credit to our coaches in finding these young people and developing them and putting them in a position where they can succeed.
Q: Continuing with the theme of spring success, MSU won its first regular season SEC Baseball Championship in over 25 years. At a school with this much history and tradition in the sport, it must feel good to be back at the top.
Q: Not that it’s been bad recently!
A: Yeah, I mean, we’ve been to Omaha five times in that interim, which is crazy. I don’t think anybody would’ve guessed that. In some ways, it’s harder to win the SEC than it is to get to Omaha. It’s good to add another number, another year to that total and to reacquaint ourselves with what that trophy feels like. To me, it’s a great example of why it’s important to be consistently good. If you’re good every year, you can maintain momentum, but then you do have opportunities like this. If our baseball team was not one that’s consistently good, it’s probably a lot harder to win the championship. As it was, we’ve been consistently good and it’s still a challenge. I think we’ll see it in some other sports going forward, the same kind of opportunity present itself, because we’ve been able to build sustained momentum and put ourselves in a position to bring some more trophies home.
Q: To that end, you see all these programs steadily rising. Several teams had their best finishes this year in their respective team histories. Does it feel like that elusive National Championship is becoming more and more possible, or even likely?
A: I keep saying, it’s not a question of if. It’s a matter of when. That’s gonna be a lot of fun when that happens. I don’t know which sport is going to be the first sport, but we’ve had a baseball team play for a National Championship. We’ve had a football team spend five weeks as the No. 1 team in the country. We’ve had a women’s basketball team and several others this year come a few games away from winning it. You can sense that we’re closing in. Our women’s golf team finished sixth in the country. Track team finished in the Top 10 two-straight years. That’s still a big step, but I think we’re progressing that way and we’re going to have a big-time celebration when it happens.
Q: Going back to the big picture here, MSU set records all over the place in attendance this year, both for single-game and full-season attendance. Certainly, a lot of that has to do with the facilities themselves expanding in some situations, but why do you think it is? Not that MSU fans have ever not been supportive, but over the last several years, that seems to have taken on an all new life.
A: Well, I think a lot of the credit goes to our marketing team and our ticket office and everyone else who interacts with our fans. They made it more than just about the game. They’ve added a lot of stuff. They’ve made people aware. They’ve found unique ways to bring the sports and the games to the consciousness of the public. As a department, we’re creating some pretty unique experiences, and that’s our goal. We always say that. We want to create unique experiences, and a big part of why you want to do that is you want people to come out. If it’s a great experience, they’re going to come back out again. If it’s just showing up for a game and you don’t worry about the other piece of it, you don’t worry about how clean and nice the facility is, you don’t worry about what the video board content is, you don’t worry about all the other things that go along with that, then they’re only going to come back if they really fall in love with that particular game. But, if you pay attention to all that other stuff, they may come back because of the game, but they may come back just because they had a great time in general.
We want to create that environment that’s fun and inviting. Our coaches have a lot to do with that. We’ve talked about hiring coaches who understand that they’re in the sales business, and they’re selling Mississippi State not only to recruits, but also to fans. So, when you go to a women’s basketball game or a softball game and the team comes into the stands after the game to take pictures and hug necks, that’s a pretty good form of marketing. When the baseball team shows up at your door with the season tickets that you bought, that’s a pretty good form of engagement. I don’t think there’s any one thing. I just think there’s an understanding that we’re going to make this fun and we’re going to connect with people.
Q: I know the numbers have grown from a measurables standpoint, but have you been able to sense that increased something among the fans in a less obvious way?
A: Yeah, I think there is a sense of momentum. I don’t think it’s new. I think it’s been building. Really, you go back probably to when Coach Mullen was hired. It kind of started in football and as other coaches have come in and plotted their own course, it’s kind of taken over campus. Our student body does a great job of supporting our sports. We got incredible student support at football and you see it in all the other sports. Let’s face it, Starkville has become a pretty key retirement community, and part of that is people coming here because they want to be able to go to sporting events. So, we’ve captured a lot of that market.
Most of the sports are priced really affordable for those on a budget, and in a lot of cases, we don’t charge anything. We’ve taken away as many impediments as we can to why you wouldn’t come out. I do think there’s a sense that our campus is a place to be and the sporting complexes are where things are happening.
Q: One of the things you always talk about being important to you and the coaches is the academic side of being a student-athlete. This year, MSU had three Academic All-Americans, some record highs in teams GPA, Scholar Athletes and similar accolades. I would imagine things like that are just as, and maybe in some ways, even more rewarding than many other achievements.
A: Coach Mullen says being a champion is not a sometimes thing, it’s got to be in every part of your life. The academic piece is a big part of why the student-athletes are here. We had 340 scholarship athletes on our campus this semester and 182 of them – well over half – had a 3.0 GPA or better. You look at the number of graduates. A bunch of kids with 4.0s. [Assistant Athletic Director of Academics] Christine Jackson and our academic staff do a tremendous job of supporting them and our coaches make it a priority. Our coaches support those efforts. It takes everybody understanding the role that plays. There’s going to be a time for all of our athletes when the ball stops bouncing and they’re going to have to use that degree. For some, it’ll happen earlier than others, but it’s going to happen for all of them at some point. We stress that to them. Obviously, they take that to heart.
Q: On the facilities end, you’re not going to expand the football stadium every year, but you still had a lot of big projects finished or getting closer to starting this year. How do you evaluate the year and those projects?
A: You know, I never look at that as a year-to-year thing. To me, the facility thing is just ongoing. It never stops. It’s not like you close a fiscal year and just say, ‘Well, we’re done with facilities for the year.’ We’re always in progress. We’re putting some new coats of paint up at Davis Wade. There’s always maintenance and things you’re doing in addition to the more noticeable or impactful things like Nusz Park or the golf facility or the new soccer field house that’s going up right now. As soon as you finish one, you’re already working on the other, you’re going down the road.
Baseball is the next big one, but we’re also going to start some pre-planning on the future of The Hump and Davis Wade. We need to do an indoor tennis facility. There’s always a place you can improve yourself when it comes to facilities.
Q: Finishing up here. A lot of your professional history has been on the external side of athletics with marketing and media relations. After you won Athletic Director of the Year, your marketing staff and media relations staff both won team of the year honors. What did that mean to you?
A: I think it’s really cool. [Senior Associate Director of Athletics for External Affairs] Scott Wetherbee has put together a really wonderful external team. Scott’s an unsung hero of our department. He’s the one who got squeezed out of this deal. His boss gets an award, the two groups that report up to him win an award, and he’s just standing there. I guess he can bask in their reflected glory. I think his first hire was [marketing director] Leah Beasley after we hired Scott three years ago, and Leah has been phenomenal. She’s a superstar. Shortly thereafter, he brought [media relations director] Bill Martin on, and Bill’s just got such a bright future and is so good at what he does. You’ve got some really young, talented people there, and they’ve put together some really young, talented staffs around them. It’s just kind of neat to see them get rewarded in that way. It speaks very highly of our whole department, I think. Those groups would be the first to tell you, they get a lot of help from people outside their immediate units.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know if they do an award for every part of athletics, but I’d put our business office, our compliance staff, our training room, our equipment staff – I’d put them all up against anybody. I just think we’re really blessed to have special people. Our field maintenance team won turf management group of the year. We’ve just got good people from top to bottom.
Sometimes we lose people and I think what you’re seeing now is we’re launching a lot of careers. People see Mississippi State as a place where they can come, they can get their foot in the door and they can have opportunities after that. Our marketing team is a great example. They’ve lost a number of young interns or entry-level positions to other jobs that are promotions, because people are recognizing the talent that’s coming through here. For us to be a good athletic department, we have to have really talented people who work really hard and are passionate about what they do. Those awards are just an example that we’ve been able to do that.