Eleven lessons learned in Italy with MSU basketball

Twice in Italy, Mississippi State took games against professional basketball teams into overtime. On both occasions, Ben Howland’s team won. Most impressively, one of those wins came against the national team of Kosovo, a group made up of, as one MSU player observed, some “real, grown men.“ Real, grown men who, for example, were All-Conference players in the United States in college; real, grown men who, for example, had contracts in the millions to play professionally; real, grown men who, for example, were named MVP of the Spanish professional basketball league.

howlandAnd MSU beat them. To my surprise, if I’m being honest. After three wins against teams with varying levels of talent, size and skill, Kosovo was by far the hardest test the Bulldogs had to face, a team made up of real-deal stars, the best the entire country had to offer. That was a game the Bulldogs were expected to lose, and it would have been no big deal had they done so. One missed free throw in regulation and they would have, though it still would have been impressive to have competed so closely.

But they won. They won that game just like they did every other game in Italy, a perfect 4-0 record. The story in that is as much about mindset as it is about talent. People often use the expression “They don’t know how to win” about a team that consistently loses close games. Watching some of the tight losses MSU has had in recent years, one might have said that applied to the Bulldogs from time to time. But Howland is changing that. Perhaps after watching two overtime wins in Italy, I shouldn’t even use the present progressive form of the verb change. Make it past tense. It appears he already has changed it.

Some teams don’t know how to win. This team doesn’t know how to lose. The roster is completely revamped with only three returning players, two of them sophomores. Once senior point guard I.J. Ready got sick, it was down to a dozen freshmen and two sophomores in Europe. And all of them were people who aren’t used to losing, who don’t ever believe they’re going to lose.

Those freshmen were part of the best signing class in MSU history, and the reason is clear. They are incredibly talented. They’re young, of course, but man are they fun to watch play basketball. And because they’re so good, they’ve tended to win at a high rate. It’s what they’re used to.

It’s not just them, though, and Italy wasn’t even the first time. In the big picture, it began when Howland was hired and moved to Starkville. The movement started then. The first ball dropped, very literally, six months ago, shot from the corner when Quinndary Weatherspoon drilled a three at the buzzer to give MSU a win over Vanderbilt. It was the highlight play of the entire athletic year.

Howland is creating – excuse me, has created – a culture of winning. The process is ongoing, of course, and there will be growing pains along the way with such a young team, but the development of Mississippi State basketball is clear, even if it took traveling halfway across the world to get a good look at it.

Walking back to the bus after MSU won it’s first game against a Lithuanian national team, I was talking to freshman guard Eli Wright, who shot 8-of-9 from the field in the win. I told him the team looked so much bigger than it has in recent years, that it has so many great shooters and so many impressive athletes. He smiled, then gave me a knowing look.

“That’s Coach Howland,” was all he said.

It was all he needed to say.

———————–

As you’ve surmised by now, I spent roughly two weeks in Italy (and a few hours in Switzerland, to boot) traveling with MSU’s basketball team as they played four games against international teams. For full game recaps with quotes, scores and stats, check out hailstate.com/mensbasketball.

What I’ll share here are 10 Things I Think, 10 observations from getting an early and exclusive look at year two under Ben Howland.

  1. I think Quinndary Weatherspoon is going to have a monster second year.

q 2Ben Howland has often said that the most development a player ever has is between his freshman and sophomore years. Weatherspoon may end up being his best example of that school of thought, which is impressive considering how strong his freshman year was to begin with. Q scored over 80 points in four games, and did so with limited minutes against the weakest opponent and while battling through pain against Kosovo. The biggest obvious change is his confidence. He knows it’s his team now, and he knows how good he is and can be.

2. I think MSU is going to win a lot of games it “shouldn’t” this season.

People won’t be expecting much of the Bulldogs, but the Bulldogs will be expecting a great deal of themselves. With the confidence this team has, they’ll go into every game believing they’re going to win. With their talent, I’d hazard a guess that they’ll be right more often than not.

  1. I think Ben Howland is one of the best developers of talent on the Mississippi State campus.

You can check out a longer story I wrote from Florence for more details on this, but seeing the improvement in individual players and the team as a whole from game to game (and having the inside peek of practice to see how it was done) was incredibly impressive.

  1. I think I’m planting a symbolic flag on the career of freshman guard Eli Wright.

Howland often said last year how much he wishes he could have had more time with Craig Sword to develop him. I think he has that chance with Wright, who reminds a lot of people of a younger Chicken, and perhaps with an even better jump shot as a freshman. Wright is smart, focused and works extremely hard, having developed that jump shot seemingly out of nowhere. He can create, he can shoot, he can rebound and he has great vision. I was impressed.

  1. I think freshman forward Schnider Herard is going to be immensely valuable to this team, even if the stats don’t always show it.

Herard’s best game came when it was needed the most against Kosovo. They were the biggest and most physical team MSU played, and they needed their biggest and most physical guy to step up, and he absolutely did, scoring 17 and hitting double-digits in rebounds.

“He’s the reason we won that game,” Aric Holman told me after the game as we reviewed the stat sheet, “and he doesn’t even know it.”

Herard is big and talented, certainly, but he’s also a hustle guy, and it was his passion as much as anything that spurred his teammates on against Kosovo. His presence will always be felt, on the court or on the bench.

  1. I think Delta pilots are pretty fantastic.

Granted, it was likely the fault of Delta that our flight was delayed in the first place, as the plane from Milan to Atlanta left three hours later than scheduled. Those who have flown to Starkville and into GTR before know, if you miss that last flight from Atlanta, there’s nothing you can do but find a hotel or take a REALLY expensive cab ride. The pilot of the 10 hour flight out of Italy, the pilot with hundreds of other passengers on board, not only called ahead from somewhere over the Atlantic to ask the Atlanta-Starkville flight to wait for the 32 of us who needed to catch it, but he escorted us through customs and across terminals all the way to our gate, just to make sure we got to our flight on time. Thanks to him, we did.

  1. I think the addition of freshman forward Mario Kegler is going to be a very big piece for this team.

As impressive as the team was in Italy, they did it without one of their best players. Adding an extremely talented four-man who can shoot and create offensively will do wonders to keep teams from focusing on Weatherspoon or any of the team’s new sharpshooters. Speaking of…

  1. I think this team is going to light up the scoreboard.

Stretching back to the early days of Jarvis Varnado, MSU basketball has almost exclusively been dependent on playing good defense and keeping games low-scoring. Howland loves coaching defense, too, but man, this team is going to be able to score. They have so many shooters, and a great deal of variety. Freshman guard Tyson Carter might have been the surprise star of the trip, racking up basket after basket throughout the entire trip, threatening Weatherspoon for the four-game scoring title and even hitting a ¾ court shot at the halftime buzzer in one game. I hate to put this on him as a freshman, but he’s got the kind of pure shooting ability to make me think he could push for Barry Stewart’s career three-pointers record. MSU will score a lot in 2016-17.

  1. I think Lamar Peters is one of the most entertaining players I’ve watched in a long time.

The freshman point guard ended up starting for three out of four games when I.J. Ready got sick, and he performed very well, getting better with each outing. Like all freshmen, he has to develop as he learns what it takes to be a true point guard in the SEC, but even from day one, he is just a ball to watch play. Peters is very much an example of an electric athlete. He is the quickest player on pretty much any court he steps on to and he may very well lead the SEC in broken ankles this year, were such a stat tracked. I saw at least a half dozen would-be defenders fall to the ground as a result of his crossovers.

  1. I think MSU fans should buy tickets now while they still can.

This is probably the part where someone would encourage me to include a link to hailstate.com/tickets. Whatever. My point is that this is going to be an incredibly fun team to watch, and when people start to notice that fact, The Hump is going to fill up much faster and much more often than it has in a while. Win or lose, MSU’s games won’t be boring for a long time to come. Through TV, internet or in person, this is a group that will grab people’s attention.

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Brian Johnson breaks down MSU’s QB competition midway through preseason

Finding the replacement for Dak Prescott, it turns out, has surprisingly little to do with emulating the former star quarterback for Mississippi State. In fact, calling the next starting QB for the Bulldogs a “replacement” for Dak would be misleading at best, and more than likely, just plain inaccurate.

Brian Johnson at MSU's spring game with Dak Prescott and Fred Ross

Brian Johnson at MSU’s spring game with Dak Prescott and Fred Ross

Quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson spoke with local reporters halfway through preseason camp about the three-way battle to be the team’s signal caller in 2016, a race he says remains quite even. He didn’t talk about who can run the best, like Prescott did throughout his career. He didn’t speculate who had the best deep ball, who was the best leader, who was the most personable in interviews, who could make the quickest reads or who could scramble best if the pocket breaks down.

Johnson – and head coach Dan Mullen, by extension – wants one quality in his starting quarterback: consistency.

Who cares if you can throw the prettiest touchdown, if you’re just as likely to throw an interception the very next play (even if it is somehow a prettily-thrown pick). Sure, you can scramble, but so what, if you can’t remember the hot route?

High ceilings are good. High ceilings are why guys are recruited, why the three young men battling for this position were signed, but a high floor is the key to making a coach comfortable letting them on the field every play.

“Consistency is what this whole thing boils down to,” Johnson replied when asked what he’s looking for.

The candidates are known, generally, and now down to three after the transfer of Elijah Staley. Junior Damian Williams is the veteran of the group, having both started and won games in the SEC, though he redshirted all of last season. Sophomore Nick Fitzgerald was the primary backup to Prescott last year, the only of three to take a snap in 2015. And freshman Nick Tiano is the greenest of the bunch, having never taken a snap of college football in his life, though his talent and charisma have given him an equal chance in this race.

As it stands today, none have separated themselves, their coach told reporters after practice.

“Consistency,” Johnson continued to explain. “Be the same guy every play. No roller coaster. Have that baseline up here, and you can wiggle on the baseline, but I don’t want to see the huge ebbs and flows. Consistency in performance … You want to be closer to your ceiling than your floor at all times. The whole deal is bringing that baseline up and shrinking that gap.”

It’s like playing the stock market. The idea makes sense. The quarterback is the only player on the field guaranteed to touch the ball every snap, except for the center, of course. MSU also believes it’s going to have a strong defense in 2016. A reliable quarterback pairs well there, too. Add in a veteran group of running backs and receivers, including the leading returning receiver in the SEC in Fred Ross, and MSU has even more of a need to find someone who can support them on a play-by-play basis.

The question for Johnson then becomes: you can work on fundamentals and technique, you can develop talent and you can review playbooks, but how do you coach consistency? How does Johnson, the man so in need of consistency, teach his pupils to have it?

“It’s a constant, every day reminder,” he answered. “Like you said, how do you coach it? You just have to beat it in every single day that this is the standard. What do you want your standard to be as a player? What do you want your standard to be as position group? You have to live up to or exceed that standard every single day. Understand the consequences at hand, what’s at stake, understand what you’re competing for. You have to be self-motivated to achieve that. 99 percent of the world can’t do that. They have to understand that and meet that baseline of effort, intensity and focus every single practice, every single work out, every single walk through, every single meal – everything they do in every aspect of their life, they have to meet or exceed their baseline.”

Find your floor. Never sink below it. Always seek to raise it. The one who does, has the job of a lifetime waiting on him.

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Howland Building Through Details, Experience In Italy

Ben Howland lives in the details. Not in a way to suggest he needs organization to function – though disorganization is almost certainly among his pet peeves – but in the sense that he builds his knowledge on details. He sees the forest because of the trees.

As his team tours through Italy on a four-game exhibition trip for Mississippi State basketball, the head coach of the Bulldogs has shown what it is that’s made him so successful in his career as a builder of programs and players – the details.

unnamed-1His style as a coach comes very much from his natural tendencies as a person, exhibited on a regular basis throughout Rome and Florence and their collective museums, towers and cathedrals. The trip is for the team, for the young roster to develop chemistry, to play other opponents and to experience new cultures and see history in person. However, seemingly none have been as excited away from the court in Italy as Howland. On each of the many guided tours, he is rapt with attention, carefully making sure he takes in every word, often turning to his players to ask if they heard what was said, repeating some interesting tidbit of information on the Sistine Chapel or Il Duomo or even Michelangelo’s statue of David.

Intentional or not, Howland has found himself standing right next to the guide by the end of every tour, asking question after question as the group walks behind them. In one instance he even asked the guide if she would take he and his family to a nearby area he wanted to learn about, the famed Piazza della Signoria in Florence.

In those questions Howland asks, he is seeking information. The Whos, the Whats, the Wheres, Whens and Whys. In one instance, he wants to know more about the Medici family, ancient bankers who warred with Michelangelo and controlled much of the direction of the country.

In museums and churches, he wants to know the names of the artists, the names of their works, why their works were given that name and what inspired those works to begin with.

Outside the entrance to the town hall of Florence is mounted a large re-creation of Michelangelo’s David. Opposite that statue stands another marble creation, that one of a man of strong build and stature holding a club with a smaller man cowed on his knees before him. Merely 20 yards away, in front of a museum, stands the famous Bernini sculpture Howland had come to see, one he had learned about on the previous tour. But Howland needed to know who the other statue was, the one he did not know or recognize. In this square, the Piazza della Signoria, containing statues of famous men created by famous men, Howland needed to know the name of the anonymous Adonis with a club.

Howland couldn’t see the whole square until he saw each part of it. Or because he saw the whole square, he wanted to see each part of it, to trace the lines of the puzzle pieces. His big picture, just as with the eyes of the artist, is seen in the individual strokes of the brush.

Ben Howland lives in the details, and because of that, he coaches in them, too.

Few head coaches are as hands-on in running their practices as Howland, regularly switching sides of the court to work with guards or forwards. The assistants are running each drill their players go through, while Howland observes, notes and teaches, often stepping in to coach an individual on technique or to physically provide an example of what needs to be done.

Howland enthusiastically sets picks against men one-and-a-half times his size, happily runs through drills with his players and regularly rolls off screens himself.

And then he explains why. He doesn’t just want his players to know what they’re doing. He needs them to understand why. And The Why is in the details.

Saturday afternoon, Florence

“I’ve never seen you jump so high,” Howland says.

Leaning against the wall of the Galleria dell’Accademia – home of The David – Joe Strugg looks at the ground and sheepishly smiles.

Strugg, because of a stress fracture in his leg last year, hasn’t played in a single game for MSU. The rangy, athletic forward is finally healthy, finally practicing, and finally ready to put on a jersey and play after having to redshirt his first year on campus. The night before in Rome, Strugg did just that, albeit in an exhibition against a Lithuanian pro team.

Strugg played well in that game, a fact not escaping Howland’s notice, particularly as he finds himself needing depth in the post.

“You’re going to play more minutes in our next game,” Howland says, this time more seriously. “You’re going to rebound and you’re going to defend.”

Sunday afternoon, Florence

unnamedNearing the end of their practice, MSU is doing halfcourt five-on-five to review the sets they went over all practice. Strugg has been noticeably putting forth extra effort the full time, paying extra attention to Howland in the moments he comes to the forwards’ side of the court, mimicking his coach when he shows him what angle to take on a screen and making eye contact as he listens intently before mentally running himself through reps of what he just learned when Howland walks away.

But now, as the team is playing five-on-five, Strugg is having difficulty remembering which of all the moving bodies are the ones he’s supposed to screen and supposed to screen for.

Howland calls out and brings the motion to a halt.

“If the ball goes here,” Howland says to Strugg, pointing to a player out on the perimeter as he walks into the middle of the fray, “where do you go?”

Strugg thinks for a moment, eager to show his coach he deserves the extra minutes he promised. He then points to a spot a few feet away.

“You got it,” Howland says. “Your screen opens him up and it gives you the lane,” Howland continues, pointing again as he explains The Why after demonstrating The What.

“Let’s do it again.”

This time, Strugg nails it.

Socrates may have been Greek, but his method is still effective in this Italian gym on the land of ancient Rome.

Monday night, Florence

It’s game day, the second of MSU’s tour of Europe. The Bulldogs are playing another Lithuanian pro team and Strugg is eager for his chance to get his minutes and prove his worth.

Midway through the third quarter, MSU’s bench erupts in cheers and clapping for the result of a play on the offensive end.

Moments before, when the ball was passed around the perimeter, Strugg sprinted to the top of the key and planted himself on the back side of the Lithuanian defender guarding the ball. When the point guard ran free thanks to the perfectly set pick, Strugg rolled in the appropriate direction, turning inside toward the lane, and saw that the man responsible for guarding him had left to cover the recently-freed point guard. The man responsible for the point guard was trapped behind Strugg, no angle to defend a pass. So, when Strugg turned and caught the pass that immediately came, he streaked through the open paint and into the air to bring home a thunderous one-handed slam.

“It was the exact play we worked on in practice,” assistant coach Ernie Zeigler confirmed after the game.

Moments like that are why this trip is so valuable to MSU, to Howland, as so many new pieces come together. Little breakthroughs in practice lead to big breakthroughs in games. The more trees, the bigger the forest, and Howland cherishes every chance to plant a seed.

—————–

The unknown statue in the square outside town hall turned out to be a name Howland had heard plenty before – it was a monument to Hercules, sculpted to show his strength following his eradication of the fire-breathing monster Cacus.

The statues of Hercules and David flank the entrance to the palatial town hall, meant to signify spiritual power (David) and physical power (Hercules) joining to give the city dominance and success. Certainly, the symbolism wasn’t lost on Howland as he lays his plan to build a college basketball power.

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MSU Basketball Tours Roman Coliseum On Maroon Friday

 

It took each of them traveling thousands of miles halfway around the globe to one of the world’s most historic sites, but finally, with perfect timing on Maroon Friday, the two met.

unnamed-6Just outside of The Coliseum in Rome, as Mississippi State’s basketball was taking a group picture before leaving, a lady nearby called out, “Hail State!” Up walked Kristy James, a Bulldog fan and a 1991 MSU graduate, and coming from the middle of the group to meet her was Ben Howland, head coach of her alma mater’s team.

Never mind that they both live in Mississippi. It was probably more fun to make introductions at this Coliseum, as opposed to the one Howland’s team plays its games in back home in Starkville.

Although, there might be more similarities than one would imagine between the two structures, as one player noted while the tour guide shared stories of the various games played at the historic amphitheater – much more than just the gladiator battles, the team learned.

“Instead of basketball, they had this,” he remarked while walking along the second level.

If only James Naismith had been around in ancient Rome to pitch his idea to the emperors of the time.

We’ll have more from MSU’s trip to Europe coming soon, starting with their first game tonight at 6:30 local time, 11:30 a.m. central time. We will attempt to broadcast the game on Periscope for as long as the wireless internet connection holds up. In the meantime, here are a few more pictures of today’s tour.

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Freshman Eli Wright having his picture taken

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Freshman Schnider Herard capturing a panoramic shot of The Coliseum

Freshman Schnider Herard capturing a panoramic shot of The Coliseum

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MSU Basketball Arrives In Europe, Tours Rome Ahead Of First Exhibition Game

 

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Mississippi State’s basketball team in front of St. Peter’s Basilica

Buongiorno from Italia! After somewhere between 20-30 hours of travel, depending on how you do time zone math, the Mississippi State basketball team arrived in Rome on Wednesday morning for a two-week, four-game exhibition trip in Europe. Days one and two were mostly devoted to sightseeing and acclimation to the area and new time zone, including visits to the Trevi Fountain and The Vatican in Rome, as well enough local food to feed most families for a month.

The trip to Italy and Switzerland will include nearly a dozen cities, and is important to second-year head coach Ben Howland for nearly as many reasons. Certainly, he recognizes the cultural opportunity this is for himself and his players, calling it a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Like his team, it’s Howland’s first time in Italy, as well.

But among trips to the Sistine Chapel and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, another something important is happening with MSU’s basketball team – emphasis on basketball. A young and talented group, largely made up of the best signing class in school history, the chance to build chemistry both on the court and off couldn’t come at a better time.

The extra time for development and cohesion as a team is a great benefit, and Howland and the staff have made sure to drive that point home to the players, repeatedly reminding them how much they want to win a difficult first game in Rome against the Lithuanian National Team. It showed in practice on Thursday – an activity many teams might have skipped, opting to wait have a shoot-around on game day. Howland wanted his team to get on the court ahead of time, to learn the gym and to get experience with the rims. He wants them ready. And with a young team, he wants them to get better. This is too prime an opportunity for him not to take advantage.

unnamed-2It was evident in practice, too, where his demeanor while coaching down the street from the Roman Colosseum was the same as it is in Starkville at the Humphrey Coliseum. On one end of the court, Howland ran guards through situational drills. On the other, forwards were put through their paces, coaches teaching technique and developing skill rather than just repetitive drills to keep them fresh.

When practice was over, Howland was as serious and demanding as ever, reminding them they couldn’t leave the court until the objective was met. As the players watched each other shoot free throws in order, Howland stood and stared, expectantly and stone-faced, pausing only to offer coaching advice on form or to congratulate the players who made both of their shots.

When enough free throws had been made in few enough shots, Howland’s final words to the team before exiting the court reminded them that they have a goal here.

“We want to win this game tomorrow,” he said, looking from player to player, making sure they understood the message.

They’re here to get better.

But they’re here to have fun, too. Call it the Duality of Vacation, if you like, and the first two days in Italy have certainly been entertaining as players experience a completely new culture.

“Do you know where I can get a regular water?” freshman forward Schnider Herard asked Fabio, the team tour guide for the trip.

Fabio laughed, while just to Herard’s left, senior point guard I.J. Ready was cautiously pouring a liter of satisfactorily non-carbonated water into his Gatorade bottle before they left breakfast.

Just as funny is watching the team of very large basketball players wander around a city of very averaged-sized people. In the Sistine Chapel, freshman guard Eli Wright was pointing out the snake wrapped around a tree in the middle of the ceiling, explaining to his teammates that the snake and the man and woman next to its tree were Michelangelo’s representation of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. In the midst of such historic artwork, people who had presumably traveled thousands of miles to see that masterpiece were too busy staring at the 7-feet tall young men standing 100 feet below the painted ceiling.

unnamed-3In the square outside of St. Peter’s Basilica, the biggest and grandest church in the entire world, a pair of 20-year-old men stopped to take their picture not in front of the enormous building, but with basketball players. They didn’t even attempt to get the Basilica in the background.

“We are the same age,” one of the tourists said in awe after asking and learning how old sophomore guard Quinndary Weatherspoon is.

He couldn’t believe he was the same age as this large person he presumed to be a star in America. The fact that Peter himself – THE Peter – was buried a mere 100 yards away seemed almost secondary in that moment.

MSU’s players and coaches, however, were certainly wrapped up in the tour, taking pictures and videos every chance they had along the way, enveloping themselves in the history and the experience, not to mention the beauty.

Two days in, with more than a week to go, the Bulldogs are enjoying the experience, even if some of the cultural specifics require occasional adjustment.

“It’s incredible,” Wright said when asked what he thought of the trip so far. “But the food is different – they don’t use any salt or butter.”

Perhaps they could do without some of the unhealthy add-ons for a bit, anyway. They do have four games to play, after all. And as Howland has reminded them, those are four games they want to win.

MSU plays Lithuania Friday morning at 11:30 central time, and the game will be live-streamed by @HailStateMBK on Periscope as wireless internet access allows. Follow @HailStateMBK on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to keep track of the team’s trip in Europe.

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Jackie Sherrill remembered as he enters Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame

Jackie Sherrill is the winningest coach in Misissippi State football history. He took the Bulldogs to the SEC Championship game one year, and his teams were collectively the ‘Best in the West’ for three more. He produced All-SEC and All-American players on an annual basis, sending player-after-player to the NFL. He set records, only to break them again and again on his own. His numbers and his accomplishments are why Sherrill is being inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame this weekend.

Erik S. Lesser - Associated Press

AP Photo – Erik S. Lesser

But what he means to those who cheered for him in Starkville throughout the ‘90s, who he is to MSU fans, is more than just being ‘Coach’ or ‘Hall of Famer.’ To Bulldogs of the time, Jackie Sherrill is The Kang. He’s Jackie Wayne. Sherrill is swagger, he’s confidence, he’s the interlocking MSU – unique and unmistakable.

Before he arrived, it was hard for many not to think, “We’re just Mississippi State.” Sherrill took the scene and changed that to, “We ARE Mississippi State.” It’s a cliché to say, perhaps, but Sherrill changed the culture, and did so as only he could do.

“He had a way of understanding, as a head coach, how to build confidence in his team,” former MSU quarterback Matt Wyatt said. “That was important, I think, at State, because there hadn’t been a lot of history.”

Much of that, Wyatt remembered from his time under center for Sherrill’s teams, was in the way their head coach carried himself. On the sideline, in the homes of recruits and anywhere on campus, Sherrill had a larger-than-life persona and appearance wherever he went, and the confidence he possessed so naturally found its way into those around him.

“He was always dressed to a T,” Wyatt recalled. “Big rings, $1,000 shoes, fancy watches, drove a Jaguar around campus. So, he’s got all these kids from small town Mississippi and Alabama on his team, but he always had his teams believing, ‘You know what, we don’t take a backseat to anybody.’ He did a great job of instilling that confidence.”

Sherrill was a strong offensive mind, certainly, and at the peak of his tenure, that offense paired with the nation-leading attack of defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn to make the Bulldogs a force in the SEC. But just as important as Xs and Os was that demeanor he showed and that the team around him took on.

Part of that personality, Wyatt remembers, involved making sure the team had the best of everything. The facilities, for their time, were among the best. Players were always being given new gear when equipment shipments came in. They were fed the best food, stayed at the best hotels and trained to feel like they were rock stars.

And it worked.

“We got off that bus, man, we were treated like kings,” Wyatt said. “He instilled that so that when we not only competed with the big-name programs but beat them, the only people surprised were everybody else. Not us. He did a great job of instilling that attitude and that outlook.”

AP Photo/Dave Martin

AP Photo – Dave Martin

Because of that personality, and through experience gained in previous successful stops at Pittsburgh and Texas A&M, Sherrill was also able to recruit in a way that MSU had never seen before. Big names with bigger personalities came from all over the country to play for The Kang.

“Some of the players that he recruited,” Wyatt said, “that others might not have been able to recruit to Mississippi State, we’re still celebrating those guys. Fred Smoot. Wayne Madkin, who’s going into the Mississippi State Hall of Fame. Eric Moulds, who we still talk about. Those guys maybe don’t come to State if Coach Sherrill’s not coaching there.

“In some ways, he opened the door to the idea that there’s no ceiling,” Wyatt continued. “You give us a few years, we’ll put a team together and we’ll beat everybody. That was the attitude, and you believed it.”

And it happened, too. Texas, Alabama, Florida, and his personal favorite, ahem, Mississippi – all fell to Sherrill. Some more than a few times. His plan worked, his style took hold and Mississippi State placed itself squarely in the middle of the national college football landscape under Sherrill’s leadership, setting a foundation for the program still being built upon today.

However, while Sherrill had that demeanor in public, there was another, very different side to the man who made the maroon sweater vest famous.

“He was more of a deep person than people realized,” Wyatt said. “I think he was more of a deep thinker, on a personal level dealing with you 1-on-1, than some people knew or would understand.”

In addition to asking his players to study playbooks and go to workouts and meetings, Sherrill also had every individual on the team keep a personal growth workbook. In it, Sherrill had them answer questions, share their innermost thoughts and offer anecdotes on their daily lives and personal views. He would have them define what success meant to them. He wanted to know what guided their interactions in life, with teammates and otherwise.

Every summer, he would meet with each player 1-on-1 to talk about what they wrote in their workbook. Sherrill would have the players turn it in ahead of their meeting so that he could read every word. He would study what they said and take notes on his reaction to their thoughts, so that when they met he knew exactly what he wanted to discuss.

Wyatt still remembers Sherrill pressing him on social issues, on his own definition of success.

“There were a couple times where he met with me because he thought he needed to coach me on some of the things I believed and thought,” Wyatt said, “which is totally fine, because it meant he cared enough to spend his time with me. I think that would surprise people.

“He was constantly trying to help you improve as a person, grow up in a way that wasn’t just football stuff.”

Moments like those, just as much as any seen on the field, are part of why, this weekend, he goes from ‘Coach Sherrill’ to ‘Hall of Fame Coach Jackie Sherrill.’

Although, to many, he’ll always be The Kang.

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SEC Network takeover for MSU on Wednesday highlights impressive year of Bulldog athletics

At 11 o’clock tonight – midnight tomorrow, technically, if you’re on the east coast – 24 hours of all things Mississippi State sports begins on the SEC Network. With the two documentaries leading off the programming block being the exceptions, everything on MSU’s SEC Network Takeover day comes from the 2015-16 athletic year. Those who track such things will recall that, based on State’s record finish in the Learfield Director’s Cup, this was the best year of athletics in recent MSU history. Ought to make for a fun day of viewing.

DVRJPQNOLTJKICT.20160522033824Anyway, below is a quick schedule of what all will be airing with descriptions of what makes those moments, games or shows important. Perhaps there are experiences you’d like to re-live, or maybe there are some you never had or even knew about. Either way, there’s plenty to watch while at home, work or the vacation destination of your choosing.

A reminder: all times listed are central standard.

——–

Time: 11 p.m.

What’s on: MSU Update

Why it’s worth watching: A slight departure from sports, the MSU Update (airing three times throughout the day) features MSU President Mark E. Keenum providing an overview of university research prowess in unmanned aerial systems and global food security, and then outlines MSU community service.

———–

Time: 11:30 p.m.

What’s on: One Night in March

Why it’s worth watching: I’m actually really excited about MSU choosing to air this documentary, as I’m not sure that it’s been as widely seen as it deserves to be. One Night in March is an excellent look into The Game of Change when MSU’s all-white basketball team snuck out of the state to play in the NCAA Tournament against an integrated Loyola team. Worth staying up late to watch.

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Time: 12:30 a.m.

What’s on: SEC Storied: Thunder and Lightning

Why it’s worth watching: Thanks to being produced by ESPN and the SEC Network, this one has been a little more widely seen. That said, if you haven’t seen the documentary on MSU baseball stars and teammates Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro, consider this a required viewing. Throughout all of the great history of MSU baseball, this story may be the best.

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Time: 2 a.m.

What’s on: SEC Football: Mississippi State Summer Tour

Why it’s worth watching: We don’t often get a look into what happens around the football program during the seeming doldrums of summer. Nice peek into the activity.

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Time: 2:30 a.m.

What’s on: SEC Inside: Women’s Basketball Tournament

Why it’s worth watching: One of several milestones during a historic season, MSU’s women’s basketball team made an extremely impressive run all the way to the title game of the SEC Tournament. Good chance to see behind the scenes of something that happened so far from Starkville.

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Time: 3 a.m.

What’s on: SEC Inside Football: Kentucky vs. MSU

Why it’s worth watching: Because there’s nothing better on at 3 a.m. Nah, just kidding. This game was actually really fun if you were cheering for MSU, who won 42-16. In it, Dak Prescott tied the school record for a single game with six total touchdowns, including over 450 yards of offense. Taveze Calhoun also had two interceptions.

———-

Time: 3:30 a.m.

What’s on: Softball – Ole Miss vs. MSU

Why it’s worth watching: This one was a thriller. An extra-inning affair, MSU (SPOILER ALERT) went on to win the game 1-0. Drama. Excitement. Rivalry. You’ll love it.

———

Time: 5:30 a.m.

What’s on: MSU Update

Why it’s worth watching: A slight departure from sports, the MSU Update (airing three times throughout the day) features MSU President Mark E. Keenum providing an overview of university research prowess in unmanned aerial systems and global food security, and then outlines MSU community service.

———-

Time: 6 a.m.

What’s on: Volleyball: LSU vs. MSU

Why it’s worth watching: This was one of MSU’s most dominant performances of the year and a highlight of head coach David McFatrich’s first season. One of 12 sweeps on the year, the Bulldogs won this one 3-0 in straight sets.

——–

Time: 7:30 a.m.

What’s on: Women’s soccer – Kentucky vs. MSU

Why it’s worth watching: Like the game airing before it, this was a signature win for MSU soccer in 2015, taking down a top-20 Kentucky team in Starkville. In front of a big and active crowd, MSU won 3-0.

——-

Time: 9:30 a.m.

What’s on: Men’s basketball – Vanderbilt vs. MSU

Why it’s worth watching: The whole game is nice, but you’re really watching for the last half-second when Quinndary Weatherspoon hits the game-winning three at the buzzer. This game and that moment are perhaps the most memorable from the year, regardless of sport.

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Time: 11:30 a.m.

What’s on: Football – MSU at Arkansas

Why it’s worth watching: My goodness, this game. It was the absolute definition of a roller coaster of emotions. 101 points were scored, though it was a blocked field goal by Beniquez Brown that secured the 51-50 win for MSU. Not a dull moment from start to finish.

——

Time: 1:30 p.m.

What’s on: Relentless: Mississippi State football vs. Arkansas

Why it’s worth watching: I assume most of you are familiar with the very excellent job Hail State Productions does putting together Relentless, the weekly series featuring MSU sports from inside the locker room and on the field. In one of two instances today where this sets up nicely, MSU has made the good call to follow up an exciting game with the Relentless episode featuring that contest.

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Time: 2 p.m.

What’s on: Women’s basketball – Tennessee vs. MSU

Why it’s worth watching: For the first time in history, MSU beat Tennessee in women’s basketball. It was a big deal and a big game. The emotion from Vic Schaefer and the team and staff following the win quite a sight.

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Time: 4 p.m.

What’s on: Relentless: Mississippi State women’s basketball vs Tennessee

Why it’s worth watching: As with the football game, the entertaining basketball game is followed up with a superb behind the scenes view of what made it happen.

——

Time: 4:30 p.m.

What’s on: MSU Update

Why it’s worth watching: A slight departure from sports, the MSU Update (airing three times throughout the day) features MSU President Mark E. Keenum providing an overview of university research prowess in unmanned aerial systems and global food security, and then outlines MSU community service.

——

Time: 5 p.m.

What’s on: Baseball – Arkansas vs. MSU

Why it’s worth watching: Because MSU wins the SEC regular season championship for the first time in 25 years. Not many moments better than that one in 2015-16.

——

Time: 7 p.m.

What’s on: Football – 2015 Belk Bowl: NC State vs. MSU

Why it’s worth watching: Belkamania! Not only did MSU win big, but it was the final game of Dak Prescott’s career as he won the Belk Bowl MVP and broke his own records for most passing yards and most passing touchdowns in a single season in MSU history. Certainly helped that he threw for 380 yards and four touchdowns in this game.

——

Time: 9 p.m.

What’s on: Women’s basketball NCAA Tournament: MSU vs. Michigan State

Why it’s worth watching: No hyperbole, it was one of and very possibly the biggest game in the history of the program. A mind-numbingly (in a good way) raucous crowd at The Hump watched as Vic Schaefer’s team took down Michigan State in a thriller and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.

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Hair Science: Categorizing and explaining every Bulldog beard

This time of year, it seems as if all sportswriters are writing stories about silly preseason projections or rankings, attempts at comparing teams or players to characters from TV shows or all kinds of other poor attempts at humor. This is not one of those stories. This is very, very serious journalism about the hairs growing out of football players’ faces. Such an endeavor became clearly necessary when, at SEC Media Days last week, none of the players could agree whose facial hair was best.

In fact, this isn’t even a story. This is science, breaking down and reviewing the facial hair of each Mississippi State football player who has any, using the new headshots recently posted on HailState.com. In science, of course, we categorize and associate our discoveries in easily identifiable groups, so we will do the same here, assigning each beard to either the high, middle or low phylum.

And again, with science in mind, we recognize that each beard is a variable. Therefore, we need a constant, a perfectly hairless football player face. See below for an example, then scroll at your leisure to view the rest of the facial hair findings.

Westin Graves: Constant

Westin Graves: Constant

Phylum: High

Nelson Adams: Nice of his barber to cut a breathing hole for him in the middle of the woodland creature he sewed onto his face.

Nelson Adams: Nice of his barber to cut a breathing hole for him in the middle of the woodland creature he sewed onto his face.

Richie Brown: Led the Union forces in their victory at Shiloh, once tackled 13 people in a game, probably has some super hairy toes.

Richie Brown: Led the Union forces in their victory at Shiloh, once tackled 13 people in a game, probably has some super hairy toes.

A.J. Jefferson: Has a Mohawk growing out of his face, is just as stylish when viewed upside down, likely has supernatural talents.

A.J. Jefferson: Has a Mohawk growing out of his face, is just as stylish when viewed upside down, likely has supernatural talents.

Phylum: Middle

Cedric Jiles: Wears No. 5, has five o’clock shadow, gets five out of 10.

Cedric Jiles: Wears No. 5, has five o’clock shadow, gets five out of 10.

Jamoral Graham: Well-manicured variety of thickness and length that all somehow connects like an M. C. Escher painting.

Jamoral Graham: Well-manicured variety of thickness and length that all somehow connects like an M. C. Escher painting.

Kivon Coman: Respect for having a neckbeard in a completely-literal, only-on-the-neck way.

Kivon Coman: Respect for having a neckbeard in a completely-literal, only-on-the-neck way.

Keith Mixon: 90 percent chance he hasn’t touched his facial hair in six months. That’s just where it is.

Keith Mixon: 90 percent chance he hasn’t touched his facial hair in six months. That’s just where it is.

Alec Murphy: Looks like he bought that beard at the Ralph Lauren outlet.

Alec Murphy: Got that beard at the Ralph Lauren outlet.

Aeris Williams: Happiest headshot I’ve ever seen. Even the beard is smiling. Ten out of 10.

Aeris Williams: Happiest headshot I’ve ever seen. Even the beard is smiling. Ten out of 10.

Ashton Shumpert: Like cuff links or a pocket square, this beard is just an accessory to the main show.

Ashton Shumpert: Like cuff links or a pocket square, this beard is just an accessory to the main show.

Fletcher Adams: Raw talent with high upside. Potential first-round beard after another year in the program.

Fletcher Adams: Raw talent with high upside. Potential first-round beard after another year in the program.

Lawrence Brown: Has matching BFF necklaces with every cool person you know.

Lawrence Brown: Has matching BFF necklaces with every cool person you know.

Devon Desper: Trimmed exclusively for this picture, has multiple ounces of beef in mustache at any given moment.

Devon Desper: Trimmed exclusively for this picture, has multiple ounces of beef in mustache at any given moment.

Michael Story: Stick to the fairway. The rough is really hairy on this course when you get off the cheeks.

Michael Story: Stick to the fairway. The rough is really hairy on this course when you get off the cheeks.

Rodney Lacy: I have nothing but good things to say.

Rodney Lacy: I have nothing but good things to say.

Harrison Moon: Remember when the black stuff from a curse was growing on Dumbledore’s arm? Your face is under slow attack by your neck, is what I’m saying.

Harrison Moon: Remember when the black stuff from a curse was growing down Dumbledore’s arm? Your face is under slow attack by your neck, is what I’m saying.

Johnathan Calvin: His face doesn’t realize it’s sitting in a neck-hair slingshot and is about to be rocketed away from its shoulders.

Johnathan Calvin: His face doesn’t realize it’s sitting in a neck-hair slingshot and is about to be rocketed away from its shoulders.

Phylum: Low

Elijah Staley: I had to move my laptop screen just to get the right lighting to see most of it.

Elijah Staley: Had to move my laptop screen just to get the right lighting to see some of it.

Traver Jung: You might want to get on craigslist missed connections, where there is a clump of chin hair trying to reach a mustache.

Traver Jung: You might want to get on craigslist missed connections, where there is a clump of chin hair trying to reach a mustache.

Gerri Green: The under-chin is under-rated.

Gerri Green: The under-chin is under-rated.

Fred Ross: Doesn’t matter. No one is looking at the hair on the bottom of his head anyway.

Fred Ross: Doesn’t matter. No one is looking at the hair on the bottom of his head anyway.

Damian Williams: Dragonball Z called. That’s all I got.

Damian Williams: Dragonball Z called. That’s all I got.

Jamal Peters: I am so distracted by everything and have a sudden craving for broccoli.

Jamal Peters: I am so distracted by everything and have a sudden craving for broccoli.

Nick Tiano: Kelly Kapowski called, wants to know if you’re still taking her to the Homecoming dance.

Nick Tiano: Kelly Kapowski called, wants to know if you’re still taking her to the Homecoming dance.

Deddrick Thomas: “You’re fine, son. Bruise ought to heal in 7-10 days.”

Deddrick Thomas: “You’re fine, son. Bruise ought to heal in 7-10 days.”

Nick Gibson: “And it seems to me you’ve lived your life/ like a candle in the wind/ never knowing who to cling to.”

Nick Gibson: “And it seems to me you’ve lived your life/ like a candle in the wind/ never knowing who to cling to.”

Malik Dear: Here is a man who really knows how to accentuate a jaw.

Malik Dear: Here is a man who really knows how to accentuate a jaw.

Chris Rayford: I call that chin look Moses Parting The Red Sea.

Chris Rayford: I call that chin look Moses Parting The Red Sea.

Lashard Durr: The hourglass of goatees. Individual hairs slowly trickle down form the mustache and collect on the chin.

Lashard Durr: The hourglass of goatees. Individual hairs slowly trickle down form the mustache and collect on the chin.

DeAndre Ward: Disappears completely when he buckles his chinstrap.

DeAndre Ward: Disappears completely when he buckles his chinstrap.

C.J. Morgan: “I want to be itchy, but I want to be happy about it.”

C.J. Morgan: “I want to be itchy, but I want to be happy about it.”

Gabe Myles: I remember my first shave, too.

Gabe Myles: I remember my first shave, too.

Mark McLaurin: Understated and always appropriate. The little black dress of facial hair.

Mark McLaurin: Understated and always appropriate. The little black dress of facial hair.

Leo Lewis: Points for creativity and staying on theme. Shaped like a goalpost.

Leo Lewis: Points for creativity and staying on theme. Shaped like a goalpost.

J.T. Gray: I never did see Joe Dirt 2.

J.T. Gray: I never did see Joe Dirt 2.

Dezmond Harris: Like the bottom of a strawberry.

Dezmond Harris: Like the bottom of a strawberry.

Torrey Dale: BE BRAVE USE YOUR POTENTIAL

Torrey Dale: BE BRAVE USE YOUR POTENTIAL

Hunter Bradley: BASIC

Hunter Bradley: BASIC

Will Coleman: Never colors inside the lines. Oh and Coolio called.

Will Coleman: Never colors inside the lines. Oh and Coolio called.

Justin Senior: Uses a straight razor once a month, has never cut himself.

Justin Senior: Uses a straight razor once a month, has never cut himself.

Jocquell Johnson: Low-cut top, really accentuates the chin.

Jocquell Johnson: Low-cut top, really accentuates the chin.

Evans Wilkerson: Like a watercolor beard painting. Oddly wispy.

Evans Wilkerson: Like a watercolor beard painting. Oddly wispy.

Dontea Jones: Excellent for when needing to appear pensive.

Dontea Jones: Excellent for when needing to appear pensive.

Jesse Jackson: Not entirely sure that isn’t just beard-colored skin.

Jesse Jackson: Not entirely sure some of that isn’t just beard-colored skin.

Nick James: Upside-down angry troll doll.

Nick James: Upside-down angry troll doll.

Grant Harris: Would’ve liked to see a matching blonde patch on the side of his chin.

Grant Harris: Would’ve liked to see a matching blonde patch on the side of his chin.

Anfernee Mullins: The Acorn.

Anfernee Mullins: Acorn.

 

 

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Learning about football and beards with A.J. Jefferson at SEC Media Days

A.J. Jefferson got a lot of questions about his beard Tuesday. Like, a whole lot. By the end of the day he half-joked that he wanted to shave it off just to get the questions to stop.

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 10.29.03 AMI can’t blame them, though. When someone’s jaw line looks like it has a Dragon Ball Z character growing out of it, and when that jaw is attached to a massive defensive lineman, it’s hard to go unnoticed.

Especially at SEC Media Days, the largest annual gathering of sports media outside of the Super Bowl. That’s where Jefferson spent the better part of his waking hours Tuesday, and I trailed him the whole time. In doing so, I got some good insight into the makeup of Mississippi State’s football team this year, much of which I’ll highlight below.

But, that beard. I learned way too much about his beard. He started growing it two-and-a-half years ago, though he kept it trimmed up until the end of the 2015 season. An amateur barber himself, Jefferson is a fan of clean lines amongst the growth and works hard to keep it looking the way he wants.

That said, he doesn’t put any product in it, much to the disbelief of the eleventy-five reporters who asked him what he puts in it. All he does is shampoo it along with the rest of his head every day.

“I just treat it the same as the hair on top of my head,” he told one questionable questioner.

He’s also worried about how the beard is going to work with his helmet’s chinstrap this season. In spring practices, Jefferson often ended up with a mouthful of hair after a tackle. All of that growth, clearly, won’t fit in the small area designed only to cover a bare chin.

Jefferson, to his credit, is determined to keep the beard intact, though. At least for another five months, anyway. He says he’s likely going to cut it off after the season, but not a moment sooner.

No shave ‘til January.

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 10.29.59 AMAnyway, as previously promised, Jefferson did offer some good nuggets and observations when not being questioned about the woodland creature attached to his face. I learned that he wears a size 16 shoe, is afraid of heights and loves basketball, but we’ll mostly stick to football here.

– To begin, he [naturally] didn’t say a ton about the offensive side of the ball, but he was asked several times about replacing Dak Prescott at quarterback, and each time Jefferson showed no hesitation in sharing his thought that MSU has someone who can be just as good as Prescott from a football standpoint, though he pointed out that certainly Prescott “did so much for the university” that wasn’t just about touchdowns and big games.

As for the four quarterbacks, Jefferson said (and Mullen repeated) that there genuinely isn’t a leader for who wins the starting job. However, Jefferson believes whoever gets the job will be in for a big season.

“Whoever wins it is going to have a special year,” he said. “Whoever starts this year deserves it because it’s going to be a tough battle.”

– Speaking of the absence of Dak, Jefferson was also asked who the new leaders are on the team after such an important senior class leaving following last season. On offense, he mentioned wide receivers Fred Ross and Donald Gray, offensive lineman Justin Senior and quarterback Damian Williams. On the defensive side, he singled out linebackers Richie Brown and Gerri Green and defensive backs Tolando Cleveland and Kivon Coman.

– Here, it’s worth sharing some notes on Green, the talented redshirt sophomore linebacker who has drawn comparisons to former MSU linebacker Benardrick McKinney. Jefferson said Green has become a new person this offseason, stepping into more of a leadership role and being quite active about it, in much the same vein as McKinney a few years ago.

“He carries himself as if he’s been here four or five years,” Jefferson said of Green.

Also notable: Jefferson said that when the team ran the stadium this week, the 250-pound Green finished second on the entire team, ahead of dozens of defensive backs, receivers and running backs.

– Jefferson shared some thoughts on a few other teammates, as well.

On sophomore safety Brandon Bryant, “He’s one of the best players in the SEC,” Jefferson said. “He’s the best athlete on our team … and all the women love him.”

Jefferson also singled out true freshmen defensive linemen Kobe Jones and Jeffery Simmons as being extremely eager to learn since arriving at the beginning of the summer.

On Simmons, Jefferson said “he might be the strongest defensive lineman in there.”

– Jefferson also shared the story of head coach Dan Mullen calling a team meeting after he returned from completing the Boston Marathon, wanting to share his thoughts and lessons learned with the team.

“That gave me a lot more respect for him, being able to do it,” Jefferson said. “He told us he couldn’t have looked us in the eyes if he didn’t finish.”

– And finally, this isn’t directly related to MSU’s prospects on the field this year, but I really liked Jefferson’s answer when asked about so many of the divisive racial and cultural issues in the country recently.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re blue, pink, green or whatever,” he said. “I don’t care. If you can play football, you’re gonna line up next to that other person who can play football.”

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Reviewing MSU’s 2015-16 athletic year with Scott Stricklin

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.

QGIPCTSVJQEOEUL.20151231022914Of 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.

A: [Laughs]

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.

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