Behind Reid Humphreys multi-faceted success for MSU baseball

This weekend, he batted in the first run, then scored the second, ensuring his Bulldogs a 2-1 victory and clinching the series against Alabama.

Last weekend, he took the mound and earned a save, beating LSU in their own stadium on Friday night to help Mississippi State win that series, too.

UTJJLUXYULLDDMU.20160419225624Playing in 42 of MSU’s 45 games so far in 2016, Reid Humphreys has made his presence felt in any space with room for a presence to be had. Pitcher, outfielder, slugger. He’s third on the team in batting average (with a team-high 39 RBI) and tied for third in strikeouts per inning, all while maintaining a fielding percentage of .983 and slugging a team-high .557. The only question left – and some say they know the answer already – is what can’t the junior star do?

“He is the most talented person I know,” said MSU outfielder and national freshman of the year candidate Jake Mangum. “He could go pick up a soccer ball and go play for somebody. Anything, you name it. He can go do water polo somewhere. It’s amazing. I’ve seen him just throw up golf balls and hit it in the air and it goes really far over a lake. He really is a talented guy.”

In fact, Humphreys was once a quarterback for his high school team, too, with dreams of adding that position to the many he already claims in Starkville. Had he had not had Tommy John surgery before his senior year of high school, it might have become a reality.

That injury, though, only makes what he’s doing now for MSU that much more impressive. Humphreys was barely able to pitch at all his senior of high school, and while it was always in the plans to be both a pitcher and a positional player at State, he hadn’t yet taken the mound for the Bulldogs when this season began less than three months ago.

“That’s the thing that’s really incredible,” MSU head coach John Cohen said. “He really went through some tough times. That’s why I think this progression he’s had has been so neat.”

Said Humphreys, “If you had told me that I’d be pitching in Alex Box Stadium on Friday night a year and a half ago, I probably would have laughed. It was a dream come true.”

OBLKATWNKXMWXQQ.20160403221723About that night in Baton Rouge, though. Perhaps it was some kind of bayou magic, or more likely, it was a result of that knack Humphreys has for being able to do just about anything he wants to with his body. Whatever it was, the junior pitcher/outfielder/hitter did something his coaches had very literally never seen before. Not from him, anyway. Only three people in the stadium full of 10,000 fans, two teams and a horde of media even knew Humphreys had considered trying this: the pitcher who taught it to him, the outfielder who saw him try it out, and the catcher who was on the receiving end of it when the new skill debuted.

But let’s go back a day. During a bullpen session, Humphreys was watching Friday night starter and fellow junior Dakota Hudson throw. Considered an elite prospect for this year’s MLB Draft, Hudson has an arsenal of pitches to choose from. One of them caught Humphreys eye: the cutter.

Casually, with no grand schemes or plans in mind, Humphreys asked Hudson to show him how he gripped the ball for that pitch, requesting a quick explanation on just how he throws it. Considering himself more of a visual learner (Humphreys picked up baseball by watching his older brother and MLB player Tyler Moore play as a kid), the willing student studied Hudson as he threw the pitch, then gave it a shot himself. To no one’s surprise, at least in retrospect, it worked for him.

Then Friday night came. In the bottom of the eighth inning, MSU was up 9-8, but had just given up a grand slam to the home team Tigers. Humphreys was called in from the bullpen, taking the mound with two outs and the bases loaded.

With four outs left to protect a one-run lead, Humphreys probably ought to have stuck with what he was used to throwing – what his coaches were used to seeing him throw. But in the back of his mind was that cutter Hudson had just taught him. Maybe he could pull it off.

Mangum and the rest of his teammates watched from the dugout, none of them knowing the decision Humphreys had just made.

“He came in the game and threw a pitch,” Mangum remembered. “I looked over at [outfielder] Mike [Smith] and I was like, ‘What was that? He doesn’t throw that.’”

IQSEZWEUHPGFEFO.20160403221723If Mangum and his teammates were surprised, it would seem LSU’s batters were, too. Humphreys retired four-straight Tigers in only 17 pitches, first ending the eighth-inning threat and second, ending the game entirely with the Dawgs on top.

“I just think it’s really neat that Reid has really come into his own,” Cohen said. “You want players to be inventive. You want them to create things on their own, because they take ownership in that. He’s really proud of himself. He’s really excited about that pitch.

“What it is,” Cohen continued, “is just a shorter, tighter, harder slider that looks more like a fastball. Just watching on film today, it’s a pretty impressive pitch for him. I just love the fact that he wants the baseball. I just love it when he walks by me in the dugout and says, ‘Hey, if you need to get three or six guys out at the end of this game, I feel really good.’”

The season as a whole has shown what Humphreys is capable of, driving runs in when he’s at the plate and keeping runs from being scored when he’s on the mound or in the outfield. Talents like his aren’t unheard of in college baseball, but they’re certainly far from common, being especially rare to be so effective in all areas.

But that cutter, that literal overnight success of a pitch, that’s the example of what makes Humphreys so special.

“You’ve gotta know Reid,” Mangum said, drawing on years of experience playing against him in little league and high school. “He’s the guy that goes out there and closes a game in the SEC with a brand new pitch without even warming up in the bullpen.

“He’s been that way all his life,” Mangum finally finished. “He really has.”

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Dustin James helping MSU on the track, impacting others outside of competition

He could feel the phone constantly vibrating in his pocket, calls coming in wondering where he was and if he was going to come. He couldn’t take the phone out in the middle of the program, but he didn’t need to, anyway. He knew who was on the other end, and his mind was racing, counting down the moments until he could run out of the room to join her.

At a luncheon honoring outstanding student-athletes (emphasis on student, in this case) at Mississippi State, the track and field star was attempting to keep two promises and be both places he had assured people he would be present. Finally, in a room full of honored athletes, distinguished administrators and over-busy coaches, it was his turn to speak and be recognized.

“They got to me and I said, ‘Hi, my name is Dustin James, yada yada yada, I have to go tutor Debra Ann, do you mind if I go?’”

Dustin and Debra Ann at the library in Starkville

Dustin and Debra Ann at the library in Starkville

Debra Ann, 21 years old, has in very short time become an important part of Dustin’s life, as the pair gets together at least twice each week. Dustin, while competing for MSU’s track and field team, is working on his degree in special education. Debra Ann, whose favorite food is chicken and favorite books are written by Dr. Seuss, has Down syndrome.

Dustin and Debra Ann began working together this semester after he was approached last fall about taking over for her then-tutor who would be busy student teaching this semester. It was one of those tutoring sessions Dustin was determined not to miss when he made his quick exit from lunch, grabbing a Gatorade and a bag of chips on his way to the door.

“The last thing they saw was me running out.”

Their schedule remains flexible, often having to work around Dustin’s track training and competition, but the two generally get together on Tuesdays and Thursdays, working on reading, learning about coins and going on adventures around town, often to the supermarket.

“I’ll say, ‘Hey Debra Ann, where’s the chicken?’ She’ll walk me over there and point at the chicken.”

The bigger point of what Dustin and Debra Ann are doing on those excursions is to help her learn how to handle various social situations, though she’s already quite personable, Dustin says, calling her “super fun and energetic and outgoing.

Working with Debra Ann was something Dustin was initially nervous about, having never worked 1-on-1 with a special needs student before, but the experience is also something he’s deeply passionate about. While many college students are still wondering what to do with their lives, Dustin has known his dream since middle school and has been hard at work ever since to accomplish his goals. He has the notion that perhaps he’d like to be a principal one day, but specifics such as those can be figured out later. What he truly cares about, and what he hopes his career focuses on, is helping people.

“My goal,” he said, “is to, one, graduate, and two, just help students. Help somebody. I don’t have a set goal, as long as I’m in the classroom and I’m able to help somebody.”

His supportive and philanthropic nature, his track coach Steve Dudley says, comes from his parents, and similarly, it’s a family connection that first led Dustin down this path. Growing up, Dustin had a cousin in California who rarely talked, only speaking when prompted. When Dustin’s cousin would come stay with his family on visits in the summer, the two would spend hours every day hanging out together, Dustin naturally gravitating toward him, and the cousin to him.

Dustin’s mother still remembers watching her son before a track meet one summer around the time he was a freshman in high school. A little boy walked up to Dustin before his competition began and just started chatting away. Dustin happily conversed with his new friend, while the little boy’s mother also watched, smiling the whole time. After the conversation ended, Dustin’s mom asked if he knew that the boy had special needs, Dustin replying that he had no clue.

“I didn’t know. I just thought it was a cool little kid coming to hang out. It was fun.”

In high school, Dustin started helping out in special education classrooms as part of his school’s inclusion center. By the time he got to college, he was well on his way to making the needs of others his life’s priority.

03-19-16 MWTR John Mitchell Alabama Relays Dustin James II Photo by Robert Sutton

03-19-16 MWTR John Mitchell Alabama Relays
Dustin James II
Photo by Robert Sutton

Oh, and he was a pretty talented athlete, too. Now a junior at MSU, Dustin is in the middle of the best season of his track career, competing in the 400-meter run and the 400-meter hurdles, setting personal bests along the way. His coaches say the same determination he shows in helping others away from competition is evident when he steps onto the track to run.

“He works very, very hard,” Dudley said. “He has a real vision of what he wants to do in life, and he’s gonna do whatever he’s got to do to accomplish what he wants in life. So many people, kids and adults, talk about what they want to do, but they’re not really invested in the process to be able to get there. Dustin James is not one of those people. He understands there’s gonna be a process and he’s invested in it.”

Dustin takes his training and running for MSU very seriously, just as he does his sessions with Debra Ann, but he keeps the two worlds separate in his mind. He sees the correlations in the hard work required for special education students to grow and learn, and the dedication needed for track athletes to compete and win, but big picture, he knows that one battle is far more important than the other, and that’s how he lives his life.

“Track is a thing where you’re working toward a goal, whereas, in special education, the goal is life. There is no end game,” he said. “The life of the student is so precious, and it doesn’t end. Track will end for me one day. It’s gonna happen. Track ends for everybody. But that goal of life, it just keeps going.”

For now, that goal is focused on Debra Ann who, Dustin is proud to say, has made great strides in her reading ability lately, learning to recognize periods at the end sentences, when to turn the pages and how to pronounce so many of Seuss’s fantastical words. There are many people with similar circumstances to Debra Ann, though Dustin would be quick to say there is no one just like her, but he hopes to impact as many as he can with whatever time he has on Earth.

Said Dudley, “It doesn’t matter if he’s scoring points or not. He’s a person that you want in your program so the other kids can take note of that example.”

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Mullen, Howland, Schaefer share message of support and family on Road Dawgs Tour

Throughout each of their preseasons, regular seasons and postseasons, Mississippi State’s coaches live in their own bubble within Bulldog athletics. Preparation, execution and review are their priorities, time spent working on their own team with few free moments to worry about anyone else’s.

unnamed-2That’s part of what makes Road Dawgs – MSU’s annual road trip tour of coaches in their short offseasons – such a unique thing. Seeing football coach Dan Mullen, men’s basketball coach Ben Howland and women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer in the same room, on the same stage and wearing the same polo is sort of an odd thing. Worlds colliding, perhaps, within their small solar system.

Each of these men is imagined as a separate entity, though Howland and Schaefer share their basketball facilities. When they’re together once per year, however, it’s a surprising reminder that, despite all of their individual successes and the attention they receive in their own worlds, they’re just coworkers. Schaefer, Mullen and Howland are just three [very rich and successful] dudes who work together in MSU’s athletic department. Steve from the business office and Leah from marketing may as well have been on the stage, too.

Watching the three coaches in Tupelo, Mississippi, on Tuesday, though, was interesting. Each of them is carving their path in the same way. As Mullen said in his speech as he discussed his running of the Boston Marathon, they don’t know where in the race they are, but they all know they’re in it.

unnamed-3There’s Schaefer, who in back-to-back years has set and then broken his own record for wins in a season.

“It’s been four short years since the first time I stood up here,” he observed, “and probably none of y’all knew or cared who I was.”

There’s Howland, who just signed the best-ranked class in MSU history after only one year on the job.

“We’re creating a new culture in basketball at Mississippi State,” he announced to Tuesday’s crowd.

Then of course there’s Mullen, the veteran of the group who took over a seemingly-hapless program eight years ago and in the seasons since has set and re-set record after record, helping lead the team to No. 1 in the country.

“I thank you for always believing,” he offered. “We’re all in this together and we can do so many great things together.”

unnamedThat togetherness seems a natural thing for the fans, but it applies to the men who were at the podium speaking, too. They proved it as they each, in turn, ended up talking nearly as much about each other’s programs as they did their own.

Howland regaled those in the crowd with stories about the incredible atmosphere in the second round of the NCAA Tournament when a packed out Humphrey Coliseum saw Schaefer’s Bulldogs take down Michigan State and advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Schaefer shared anecdotal evidence as to why he’s been able to recruit so well, not just praising the atmosphere at football games when recruits are on visits, but thanking Mullen for coming over to Schaefer in pre-game one day to introduce himself to the visitors with him and offer his opinions on why they should choose MSU. Shortly after that interaction, Mullen’s Bulldogs went on to beat Auburn, vaulting themselves to No. 1 in the nation.

Mullen related experiences not just of bringing recruits to Howland’s games, but bringing his own children during the week to watch what his coworker was building, seeing visions of himself in his first year as head coach of the Bulldogs.

The praises weren’t confined to football and basketball, either.

“Our fans for the baseball team blow me away,” Howland confessed.

“It felt like 30,000 people out there,” Mullen said in reference to the 15,000-plus crowd at Super Bulldog Weekend.

Fittingly, the three were preceded by Jeff Davis, executive director of the Alumni Association, who shared that last fall’s enrollment was a record high, including the largest freshman class in the history of Mississippi State University. And they’re expecting another record this fall.

unnamed-1Records do seem to be the recurring theme, as each coach on the tour boasts at least one, if not several or dozens, of their own in MSU’s history books. Seemingly every program has reached higher heights than ever before, coaches watching other coaches over recent years in bowl games, NCAA Tournaments, primetime matchups, World Series appearances, upsets, beatdowns and rivalry victories.

To hear Howland, Mullen and Schaefer on Tuesday, those successes have come not just from their work, but from the dedication of those in the room sitting at their tables and listening to their favorite coaches speak.

“All of our programs are strong,” Howland confidently assured them, “and it’s because of the support you give.”

The key now, Mullen said: don’t stop running.

“Dreams are never handed out,” he told the crowd. “We need the support. We can’t slow down where we are now.”

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On the quiet, quick rebuild of MSU tennis as Bulldogs hit postseason play

The No. 33-ranked collegiate tennis player in the country, Mate Cutura, delivered serve after serve on Mississippi State’s tennis courts as he waited for the rest of his teammates to arrive for practice. Behind him, second-year head coach Matt Roberts stood watching quietly with arms crossed over his T-shirt, peering out underneath the safari-style hat he wore either for protection from the sun or because he thought it looked cool. Both, probably.

QNYBEMTBZADVVOB.20160410223033Roberts was calm, relaxed, not overly demonstrative, not yelling. There was no strong language, no huffing or puffing. Just small corrections, encouragement and advisement.


“Perfect. Yes, sir, just like that,” Roberts observed.


“Very good.”


“That was too flat,” he said before offering quick instructions on what to fix.


“There it is.”

When not working on serves – or playing soccer tennis before practice, flying around the world in the offseason or coaching in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments as he will in the coming weeks – Roberts invests his time in building MSU’s tennis program with the vision he’s had since taking over before the 2015 season.

Between 2015 and 2016, however, there was a not insignificant bump in the road. Two players from that first team, he knew, were not good fits with the culture Roberts wanted to create at MSU. When they transferred following the season, two more joined them, saying they wanted to go with their friends. Following those departures and after graduation took its yearly toll, Roberts was left with only two players in his entire program, junior Rishab Agarwal (No. 60 in the country currently) and the previously mentioned Cutura.

The team Roberts had taken to the NCAA Tournament in his first season as the head coach was almost completely gone. And for a coach trying to instill a new culture of accountability, competitiveness and comfort, it was the perfect opportunity, even if it was a bit unexpected.

“We saw it as a blessing,” Roberts said. “We saw it as we were lucky. We were grateful to have that. Some people might have seen it in a negative way around the athletic department. But Mate and Rishab were really positive. They said, ‘We trust in you guys. We know there’s good tennis here. We know you’re going to continue to bring good players in here. You’re going to continue to develop us.’ We just took it as a challenge and learned a lot from it.”

HGAAWLWIMZTZDZR.20160313210554Then, the global recruiting travels began. Like a tennis-centric episode of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, Roberts and assistant coach Tanner Stump were everywhere. Roberts went to Brazil via Skype for Lucas Sanchez, while flying to Serbia twice for Luka Sucevic and Strahinja Rakic.

Meanwhile, Stump was in Germany showing a powerpoint presentation on his iPad to Niclas Braun (who had offers to go pro) and his family, which was shortly before flying to Portugal to meet with and secure a commitment from Nuno Borges. Lastly, Vaughn Hunter and Trevor Foshey filled out the roster, both coming on visits to MSU and eventually signing on to play for Roberts and Stump. Finally, breathlessly, they had their team.

“Our practice shirts say family,” Roberts said. “We have it now and it’s unbelievable. It’s part of the reason why we’re doing well. We’ve got good character in here. We’ve got good talent. We’ve got guys who love tennis.”

The proof is on the court, as the Bulldogs are No. 23 in the country as they begin the postseason in the SEC Tournament on Friday. On a team with seven newcomers on a nine-man roster, six of them freshmen, MSU finished fourth in the exceedingly-difficult and competitive SEC. Cutura and Agarwal have steadily moved up the rankings, Braun has been named SEC Freshman of the Week twice and the Bulldogs have grown stronger and stronger as Roberts and Stump have taught and guided their team along.

The success has been both welcomed and expected for Roberts, a highly-competitive person by nature who recalls an interaction following the depletion of his roster after the 2015 season. When walking through the administrative building of MSU’s athletic department, one staffer stopped Roberts to congratulate him on a nice season and for making the NCAA Tournament. The staffer then remarked, “But boy, you’ve got a lot of people gone. How are you going to be next year?”

“I hope to be the same.” Roberts replied. “Or better.”

Roberts’ confidence was rewarded with a surprised and disbelieving look from the man who didn’t quite seem to understand what Roberts was planning to build.

“At the end of the season,” Roberts said this week, “I’m gonna go up there like, ‘Hey, what did I say?’ I don’t like to lose. I don’t like to be bad or average at anything.”

“He’s very competitive,” Braun confirmed when asked about his head coach. “I’m always feeling like he’s competing with us. He’s not just a coach. He’s playing with us. It’s not two coaches. It feels like two players competing with us.”

DDFGSKKIZMKRFTJ.20160328202628That competitive nature is one Roberts and Stump have instilled in their team, and they’ve done so relatively easily, recruiting players who fit the mold they wanted: high character and high talent.

The talent part is easy enough, but the character requires building. One of the cornerstones of MSU’s program is accountability, from both players and coaches. The mood before practice is light, fun and usually involves several rounds of 2-on-2 soccer tennis with a miniature soccer ball and half the court.

Once practice begins, however, the competitive streaks and the desires to be great shine through. They have to, really. If they don’t, the whole team is punished.

“If they make a bed decision in practice, a bad shot selection or stop supporting their teammates or lose their focus, we run four over and backs as a team,” Roberts explained. “It gets the guys accountable. Iron sharpens iron. It gets them on each other. And if Tanner and I don’t make them run, we’re not being accountable with them, just like they have to be accountable with each other.”

And because they’ve recruited the right guys, Roberts believes the style is bringing them together. It’s not just his word that has to be taken, though. His players believe it, too, and it’s that chemistry that they credit for the success they’ve had and the overwhelming improvement they’ve made since the season began.

“It’s fun,” Cutura said. “Obviously, it’s very hard. We work very hard every day trying to improve our game and everything off the court. But it’s really fun. As a team, we’re really competitive, as well as coaches. Everybody likes winning. When we work hard, it pays off. It shows on the court.

“It’s very important that we clicked right at the beginning of the season and everybody bought in and we all just worked really hard,” he continued. “When all the guys came here, right at the beginning, we felt like everybody wanted to work hard. Everybody wanted to improve in tennis. Even though they were freshmen, everybody seemed really mature. We never had any problems as far as communication or practicing. It was really easy to work hard and improve.”

Perhaps the most impressive part of MSU’s success this year is that any just watching the on-court results from the outside wouldn’t have even known Roberts was rebuilding, and they especially wouldn’t have known just how big of a rebuild it was. The steadiness speaks to his approach and the victories speak to the work the team has put in.

To say the future is bright would be quite true, but the present is pretty nice, too. Either way, Roberts and his Bulldogs won’t stop working any time soon.

“I’m constantly hungry, man. And that’s what you’ve got to be,” Roberts said. “You can’t really have any dips. You can’t be complacent. You can’t accept being normal. We want to be different in how we compete and how we train and let the results take care of themselves.”

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Spring review: How Mullen, MSU will find Prescott’s replacement

Dak Prescott is gone. 38 records, four seasons and literal miles of offense are out the door, only present now in record books and memories. That much we know. What we don’t know: who will be Mississippi State’s next quarterback? The quarterback of the present, future and, perhaps like Prescott, a quarterback for the record books. After all, both of the last passers to have multiple seasons’ worth of starts now find themselves among the statistical best in MSU history.

Prescott with Johnson, center, and senior wide receiver Fred Ross, right

Prescott with Johnson, center, and senior wide receiver Fred Ross, right

With the annual Maroon-White spring game Saturday, MSU’s spring practices officially came to an end, and head coach Dan Mullen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson have to wait until August 2 before they get their four candidates back in practice. The question now isn’t who gets the job. Big picture, sure, that’s what this is all working toward, but they don’t know the answer to that right now. Junior Damian Williams, sophomores Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley, freshman Nick Tiano – all are legitimate options, given such an even chance that their complete number of reps in practices and scrimmages throughout the spring differs by only single digits, if at all.

The question right now, the one we can actually answer, is how someone gets the job.

“To me,” Mullen said after Saturday’s scrimmage, “it’s about the consistency of play. All of them have the ability to make plays. All of them have the ability to make things happen, extend plays, run the ball, scramble, make some great throws. But they’re learning that it’s what you do on a consistent basis. Every single snap. It’s the most important thing.”

“That’s the biggest issue, is the consistency,” Johnson confirmed. “I think what kind of naturally happens when you’ve got four guys competing, one guy will play well one day, then the next day the other guy will play well.

“That’s what we preach to them every day. Who can be the most consistent? That’s huge. Once you get to this point, all four of them are extremely talented, and they all do certain things very, very well. But consistency of being the same guy every day in your performance, your attitude and your leadership. Just being very, very consistent and leading the team will be key.”

Staley at MSU's spring game

Elijah Staley at MSU’s spring game

Mullen shared his belief Saturday that all his quarterbacks are “pretty even” coming out of the spring, while Johnson confirmed that it has been a true four-man race. They don’t have many more answers now than they did when the spring began, which they don’t believe to be a bad thing, knowing there is a long way to go before the season begins. Mullen and Johnson each said they’d like to see the field naturally pared down as time goes by, with someone hopefully emerging from the pack, and both said they think the summer is when that starts.

Yes, the summer, when coaches can’t work with the quarterbacks. Johnson and Mullen can break down practice, game and scrimmage film all they want to decide who is best, but they both know that one of the most important factors isn’t what they think, but what the rest of the team thinks. That’s what develops over the summer when players are on their own watching film, working out, running routes and preparing for the next round of practices in August.

“That’s an opportunity for them to really showcase their leadership abilities in the summer when we’re not around,” Johnson explained. “It’ll be moreso for their teammates than us as a coaching staff. What they do out on the field and in the weight room during the summer, that will dictate a ton going into fall camp through their teammates.

“Chemistry wins in college football,” he continued. “I’ve never been a part of a great team that didn’t have great leadership from within. And as you all know, quarterback is an inherent position of leadership.”

Nick Fitzgerald passing while Mullen and Johnson observe

Nick Fitzgerald passing while Mullen and Johnson observe

Certainly, that leadership and respect from teammates is part of what made Prescott so successful for so long at MSU. He’s a talented player, of course, but his teammates believed in him and they wanted to play for him. None of the current candidates will be Prescott, just as Prescott couldn’t be any of them. Each player has his own personality, his own brand of leadership. The key is having it recognized.

Beyond the intangibles, however, Mullen espoused tangible reasons for his belief that the summer is when strides will be made (or not made) in this quarterback battle.

Coaches are only allowed so much time to work with their players, watch film with them, work on the field with them. If those limited hours are the only time guys spend on becoming a better quarterback, they’ve got no shot. The reality of the situation, fair or not, is that they have to dedicate a great deal of personal time to become the quarterback Mullen and Johnson are looking for.

Basically, Mullen wants them dreaming about the playbook.

“You’ve gotta do something 10,000 times,” Mullen said. “You’ve got to be in the dorms at night taking footwork steps. There are so many things they can do, that they have to do, if they want to become great players.”

As for the candidates themselves, that’s their plan. Work as much as they can, watch as much film as they can, study both themselves and others. That’s part of Johnson’s teaching method, too. Watch your own film, yes, and see what you’re doing well and what you need to work on. But, also watch your teammates. Learn from their successes and mistakes.

Nick Tiano taking a snap in Saturday's scrimmage

Nick Tiano taking a snap in Saturday’s scrimmage

While competition can surely be frustrating, it also provides an opportunity for growth not often present when a battle stagnates and a starter is named. Iron sharpens iron, as it was written, and MSU has a large group of irons in the fire.

“You have to watch everybody else,” Fitzgerald told reporters after Saturday’s scrimmage, “because you don’t want to make the same mistake that someone else made. Make a mistake, that’s fine, but you can’t make the same mistake twice, and you definitely can’t make the same mistake someone else made that Coach already corrected them for.”

Fitzgerald played the most of any non-Prescott quarterback in 2015, and some might consider him to be the presumptive leader, but he knows it’s not that easy. Williams remains the most experienced of the group, with two years of experience, three years on campus and the benefit of being the only one to have started an actual game. Were it not for the injury requiring a redshirt, Williams would have played plenty in 2015. Same for Staley, who wasn’t truly healthy until near the end of the season. Then, of course, is Tiano, the youngest and least-experienced, but perhaps the most natural leader of the bunch.

“I want to lead by example,” Tiano said. “I want to show these guys when I play that I’m giving all that I’ve got, putting my heart on the field, and hopefully they follow. You’ve got to be patient, got to watch, got to learn, and when you get your chance, you’ve got to make the most of it.”

“With the competition being open all the way,” Fitzgerald offered, “all four of us have kind of come into our own leadership roles. We all have great chemistry. We’re still really good friends. We love each other to death. We’re always helping each other out. At the end of the day, I think all of us just want whoever is going to be the best for Mississippi State to play.”

“[Staley] is a hoss to bring down,” Fitzgerald continued when asked to break down the competition. “He has a cannon of an arm. He definitely has the best arm on the team. Damian is extremely smart. Really became a student of the game when he got to campus and has continued that. Tiano is young, but y’all saw today, he runs very physically. He’s not afraid to lower his shoulder and he’s also extremely smart. He’s going to be a good player.”

Damian Williams following through on a pass Saturday

Damian Williams following through on a pass Saturday

Each of them have their own strengths, and as senior running back and receiver Brandon Holloway noted, they’re very different players, though they are certainly all very large humans for the position. Holloway believes, like Mullen and Johnson, that the summer will go a long way in deciding who is ultimately named QB1 for the Bulldogs.

“This summer, coming up, that’s all we’re going to be working on is chemistry,” Holloway said.

Sitting now in mid-April, MSU’s coaches are excited to get to the other side of summer and see where their quarterback battle stands then.

“There’s a lot of time in there, especially at the quarterback position, for someone to go separate themselves between now and August 2,” Mullen said.

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Mississippi State’s Mullen preaches mental toughness in Boston Marathon preparation

Saturday morning, before most of Starkville had woken up, Dan Mullen had the day’s schedule churning through his head: load up at the Seal Complex, drive over to Davis Wade Stadium for the second of his team’s three spring scrimmages (where he hopes to find a replacement for Dak Prescott, break in an entirely new defensive staff and try to put together a team capable of competing in the brutal SEC West), drive back to Seal, meet with his staff, break down the film and get ready for more practice on the final week of spring. Then, if he’s lucky, he’ll be home before his kids are asleep, with enough time to watch Disney Channel or play in the yard.

This was all running through his mind as Mullen himself was literally running through Starkville. Mississippi State’s head football coach woke up at dawn and ran 13 miles around town last Saturday, entering the final week of his training before he attempts the Boston Marathon next Monday.

“Maybe you’ve taken a step forward when you run 13 miles then go run a scrimmage afterward,” Mullen observed. “You’ve gotten into running a little bit more.”

“He even got another little workout in after the scrimmage,” his wife Megan shared.

Mullen running on MSU's campus last week

Mullen running on MSU’s campus last week

To be “more” into running than Mullen was previously wouldn’t take much, if he’s being honest. As long as he’s been at MSU, the head coach has made attempts to jog when he can, but his regimen then was akin to eating one salad per week and hoping it would balance out the burgers, steaks and potatoes of the other 20 meals.

Mullen has always had his tradition of running around campus on Fridays before home games. And over the years, he’s been known to hit the treadmill after practice when time allows. However, as he confessed, he was lucky to be getting two or three miles in those somewhat-sporadic instances.

But then inspiration hit last summer. While visiting with Adidas representatives, one man told Mullen about his wife who had recently run the Boston Marathon. She was roughly 500 feet from the finish line two years ago when she saw the bombs go off in the near distance.

Mullen's progress in the Boston Marathon on Monday can be tracked using his bib number, #29394

Mullen’s progress in the Boston Marathon on Monday can be tracked using his bib number, #29394

Mullen, a native of the New England area, was inspired upon hearing the story and recounting the strength of the Boston people in the face of tragedy and the determination of an entire country to help them back on their feet. Though he was a novice runner, at best, completing such a race had always been a dream for Mullen, particularly one so close to home. The opportunity to do something tangible about the emotions he felt combined with the chance to realize a dream was enough to convince the SEC football coach that he was going to run a marathon.

“Growing up in New England, if you’re gonna run a marathon, it’s going to be the Boston Marathon,” he said. “I talked to the people at Adidas and they said, ‘We have a waiver to get you in.’ I said, ‘If you’re gonna do that, I better start training.’”

So, last summer, the training began. Slowly, at first, but Mullen was determined. He wanted to run the race, and he wanted to finish it. Not only do that, but he wanted to do some good for the world around him by accomplishing that goal. He wanted to support the people of Boston, and most importantly to him, he wanted to support the people of Mississippi. In lieu of a charity dinner or other such exercise, the Mullens have made the running of the Boston Marathon their primary fundraising event this year for the Mullen Family 36 Foundation, their charity supporting 36 children’s charities across the state of Mississippi.

Lucky for Mullen, his two brothers-in-law John and Wally happened to be the perfect teachers. John ran the New York City Marathon last fall, while Wally has competed in everything from marathons and ultra-marathons to the Iron Man competition. The three of them will be running together in Boston on Monday after nearly a full year of hard training for their football-coaching brother-in-law.

“Once you get into it, though,” Mullen said, “you really start having fun. I really enjoy running. I went from every once in a while trying to get 2-3 mile runs in, to now, most mornings I’m going at least six miles, and I try to get some longer runs in on the weekend.”

“It’s changed his life,” Megan observed.

The training has changed his habits, for one, as he gets up even earlier than he did before, the morning being the one place he can carve out extra time for running. The training has also changed his body, as Megan has watched her husband drop 25 pounds from his frame. And finally, the training has developed what Mullen already considered one of the most important parts of his job: mental toughness.


Mullen at the Belk Bowl in December 2015


Mullen during MSU’s season-opener in August 2014

Relentless effort is the mantra he preaches to his team, and by training for the Boston Marathon, he has visibly put action to his words, showing his players what he means.

“I don’t know that any of them would volunteer to run with me,” he joked, “but I think it’s one of the things we always talk about. It’s building a mental toughness, I think, the opportunity to go run a marathon, or go finish a marathon – we’re gonna find out. I’ve heard once you get to Heartbreak Hill around mile 21, it really tests your mental toughness and what you’re made of.”

Asked the blunt question, if her husband would be able to finish all 26.2 miles, Megan replied, “Oh, absolutely.” She’s seen him train, and seen the ease with which he ran half the distance and then went on to coach a practice in the mid-day spring sun without even getting tired.

She confessed, though, she had to push him a little, thanks to his confidence in his mental toughness.

“He likes to think that because he’s a football coach he’s got the mental edge on everyone,” she said with a laugh. “And I agree, but I told him, that’s still pretty tough.”

“I want to get the picture of me crossing the finish line,” Mullen later said. “I’ll get my bib framed. I’ll put my time on there. And I’ll put it on my checklist of goals accomplished in life.”

It’s always been a dream for Mullen, and after so many years of life, he spent the last one making it possible. He’s still got the race to run (and finish), but already, he feels like he’s accomplished a great deal.

“I’m living one of my dreams and raising money to help young people in Mississippi go out and live their dreams,” he said. “I think it’s a special opportunity.”

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MSU debuts new projections on back of Davis Wade Stadium video board

If Commissioner Gordon’s bat signal was standard definition, then Mississippi State’s newest projection into the sky is the switch to HD. The most recent addition to the campus skyline isn’t a building, but a 70-by-125-foot HD video feed projected onto the back of the massive video board sitting atop Davis Wade Stadium’s north endzone.

Cc_PpzoUAAAXU9V.jpg-largeEvery night, when the sun goes down, the feed is fired up for the biggest screen in town, with videos, graphics and assorted Bulldog-related items shining over the campus. Visible from the highways and roads on the way into Starkville and MSU’s campus, the projection is the newest piece of the expansion of Davis Wade. When the $75 million expansion and renovation project began, the possibility of this board quickly became a pet idea of MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin.

Based on the design of the stadium, Stricklin knew the back of the video board would provide a very large surface for, well, something. The question was what? A big M-State logo? Perhaps a vinyl cover like the back of the video board over at the baseball stadium. Maybe just a script ‘Mississippi State’ would be good.

Before long, however, Stricklin asked, “What if we left it open and projected onto it?”

“He knew we were going to have this big scoreboard standing out,” said Scott Wetherbee, MSU’s senior associate A.D. for external affairs and the man charged with making Stricklin’s vision a reality. “We were thinking, this thing is going to be so big, it’s kind of like a drive-in movie theater screen. So that’s when we said, let’s see if we can project on it.”

So, as construction continued, Stricklin asked that board be painted a plain white, leaving the possibility open down the line. The video board itself debuted in the fall of 2014, and it was following that season when Wetherbee began working in earnest to make the project a reality.

The front of MSU's video board

The front of MSU’s video board

In the spring of 2015, Wetherbee started looking at the options, searching for companies who did similar things and making calls to price such a project. It was a difficult challenge, as more entities in recent years have projected things onto basketball courts and hockey rinks, but something like what MSU had in mind hadn’t exactly been done before.

By the summer, groups were flying to Starkville to perform demos for MSU.

“I got in a car and drove out on the highway to see where you could start to see it,” Wetherbee recalled. “We were showing ‘Thunder and Lightning’ and I could just sit there and watch it. You could see people pulled off on the side of the road wondering what was going on.”

So, it turned out, it could be done. By the end of the 2015 football season, MSU had reached an agreement with Quince Imaging – they were going to build a system that would allow the athletic department to have the biggest screen in the state.

CfY3m7kXIAEOVDQ.jpg-largeThrough multiple visits – and several bouts of creativity – Quince (who had caught Wetherbee’s eye for their work on NBA courts and NHL rinks) and MSU made it happen. Using nearby Memorial Hall as a base, Quince found a way to build a cage that is now drilled onto the top of the building’s chimney, with a swiveling base capable of not only projecting onto the back of the video board, but anywhere nearby. (One of the engineers on the trip even suggested the possibility of having a rocket take off using the adjacent water tower, using the base and all.)

And that’s where the fun (and work) comes in for Wetherbee – figuring out what to do now that they have it. Currently, everything has to be loaded directly onto the server located in the stadium, but soon, MSU will have a new control room in Davis Wade that will be capable of live-streaming anything at any time.

After football games this fall, fans driving home will see highlights of the game on the back of the board. They’ll see video of post-game press conferences. There are even plans of creating a short-range radio signal and having a radio station those in cars could tune to for audio to go along with the video.

Even now, the opportunities are many. After MSU’s baseball team beat Ole Miss two weeks ago, for example, fans leaving the baseball stadium were treated to a “Bulldogs win!” video package playing in the skyline. During the week, infographics are shown with times and information for various athletic events over the course of the week. Highlights and hype videos for MSU’s teams are broadcast through the night.

CcrC3jxUMAAs4nT.jpg-largeIn the future, Wetherbee has hopes of doing something that integrates the Starkville community on a regular basis, too, possibly having movie nights during the summer, for instance.

“If we want to have a Star Wars night,” he said, “we can watch Star Wars. It’s going to be endless, and we’ll be able to feed things very quickly.”

For a school with conference ties to the Worldwide Leader in Sports, that quick feed is helpful, as MSU can, with the flick of a switch once the new control room is finished, pop up ESPN or the SEC Network on the back of the board so tailgaters can watch whatever is on before MSU plays.

This project, Wetherbee believes, is just another example of the aggressive nature of MSU’s athletic department and Stricklin’s desire to be innovative in their world of college athletics.

“Scott wants to be the first to stuff,” Wetherbee said. “We don’t know anyone else on a college campus projecting on the back of their video board.”

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The untold history of Mississippi State baseball’s uniforms

Mississippi State’s uniforms are among the most classic in college baseball, a collection of seemingly timeless looks. In the millions spent on the design, production and implementation of uniforms on a yearly basis across the country, the maroon and white (and black and gray) garb worn by the Bulldogs came about in a decidedly Mississippi State way.

baseball letter_Page_430 years ago in the fall of 1986, a recent MSU graduate and insurance agent by the name of John Marchetti drew them up with a charcoal pencil in his spare time and mailed them to then-head coach Ron Polk, all because he didn’t really like the ones the team had been wearing lately.unnamed-2

“Maybe I’m just weird, but I’ve always had a real interest in sports uniforms,” Marchetti, a student at MSU from 1979-83, now says. “Of course, being a Mississippi State guy, I always had a real interest in Mississippi State’s.”

He had an interest, sure, but he had almost no connection or reason to be the original designer of the mainstays of his favorite school’s uniform lineup. He didn’t know Polk. He wasn’t a designer. He didn’t even think he’d get a response, if he’s being honest.

“I just got this wild hair,” Marchetti recalls, “and I’ve got some artistic ability, so I thought, I’m just going to draw some uniforms the way I think they ought to look and I’m going to send them to Coach Polk, who doesn’t know me from Adam.”

Included in his sketches – created with nothing but a charcoal pencil and an eraser on a sketch pad – were three uniforms. One was an updated version of the pinstripes MSU hadn’t used since the 1960s, based on what the New York Yankees wore. Most notably, Marchetti suggested taking the logo on the hat (the letter M laid on top of the letter S) and putting it on the chest of the jersey.

“I said, in my opinion, the M-over-S is the best looking logo Mississippi State has in any sport. You’ve got it on your hat. You ought to put it on your chest.”

baseball letter_Page_6Marchetti also suggested what he called the Detroit Tigers look, a white uniform with a maroon collar, as well as an all-gray uniform to be worn on the road with names on the back and a cursive ‘Mississippi State’ across the front. Marchetti even made what was then something of an insane suggestion: black uniforms.

Photo by Michael Bishop

Photo by Michael Bishop

All these designs, notes and the letter typed out by Marchetti’s secretary were sealed in an envelope and mailed to MSU’s baseball office, where Polk may or may not look at it and may or may not care at all. Marchetti told his wife Linda and his good friend John about the designs, and didn’t mention a thing to anyone else.

A week later, the phone in his office rang. He picked it up, not knowing who was calling.

“Is this John Marchetti?” the voice on the other end asked.


“This is Ron Polk, and I’d like to talk to you about these baseball uniforms that you drew and sent to me.”

Now, years later, Marchetti recalls his confusion: “Well, I thought it was John playing a joke on me. So I said, ‘Come on, John.’

“To which Coach Polk said, ‘Uh, what?’

“Then I realized, oh my gosh, it’s him.”

baseball letter_Page_2Polk then asked if he could put Marchetti on speakerphone so assistant coach Pat McMahon could join the conversation, too. Both coaches told Marchetti how much they liked the designs, asking him questions about some of the details and explaining their thoughts on the entire situation. Polk in particular, Marchetti says, was impressed with the quality of the sketches.unnamed-1

“These uniforms are great,” Marchetti remembers Polk saying, “but what’s really impressive to me are these baseball figures. Where’d you learn to draw like that?”

As the conversation continued, Polk explained that when he took the job, MSU’s retail provider had just sent him boxes of jerseys and told him, basically, “These are your uniforms for the year.” That was about as much thought as had been put into what the Bulldogs wore every week. Well, as much thought as the team had put into it, anyway. Marchetti had certainly been spending a good deal of time with his own imaginations and creations.

And there he was, in that moment, on the phone with the head coach of his favorite team, explaining those ideas to him in detail.

“It’s this surreal conversation,” Marchetti says, “and it wraps up and Coach Polk says, ‘Well, tell you what, Pat and I have already agreed we’re going to do all this. If it’s OK with you, we’re just going to give our equipment manager Phil Silva these drawings and tell him to order them.’

“Well sure,” Marchetti replied, “it’s OK.”

And then they never called Marchetti again.

“I never heard back,” he says now with a laugh. “Isn’t that great?”

baseball letter_Page_5In fact, the first he heard about anything actually happening with his designs was at church in Jackson one Sunday a couple months later. Twin boys from the area were freshmen on the team and had come home for the weekend. At church, everyone was asking what it was like playing baseball at Mississippi State. Among the stories they told was a short anecdote from one of the twins on a recent team meeting in which Polk had unveiled the new uniforms they were going to wear that spring.

“It made me real proud,” Marchetti said.

Later that year, as MSU opened up the 1987 season, Marchetti drove up to Starkville and saw his ideas in person for the first time. The Bulldogs were wearing his Detroit Tigers concept.

“I was so pumped, because he ordered them exactly the way I drew them,” Marchetti remembered. “That really made me pleased.”

To this day, Marchetti’s name has been the forgotten one among the prestige of State’s uniforms. Adidas, MSU’s apparel provider now, has often asked where the school got the original designs for the uniforms Adidas now produces for the team, and no one at MSU had known what to tell them. They weren’t sure, either; just knew they showed up one day.

“My kids always ask me what I got out of it,” Marchetti says with another laugh. “I didn’t even get a jersey.”

Not that he ever wanted anything for it. He got his wish when the team wore the uniforms he designed. The pinstripes weren’t used until McMahon became the head coach some time later, but even those are a staple of the collection now (and the ones Marchetti considers to be the best uniform MSU has).

These days, Marchetti drives up to Starkville from Jackson as often as he can for games, and more times than not, he arrives to find his Bulldogs in his uniforms. And little else could make him happier, all of it coming from his suggestion just a few years after graduation that, perhaps, MSU ought to try out something new.

“And they did it.”

baseball letter_Page_1

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Mullen named to NCAA oversight committee

As a head football coach in the Southeastern Conference, a call from the Commissioner either means something very good has happened, or something very bad has happened. 

For Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen this week, the call was for good news. 

“There is an opening on the NCAA Football Oversight Committee for a current head coach,” Mullen recalled SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey telling him over the phone. “We’re going to nominate someone from the conference, and we’d like it to be you, if you’re interested.” 

“It would be a great honor,” Mullen replied.

Shortly after, the committee accepted the nomination, making Mullen the only current head coach in the group. For Mullen, entering his eighth year in Starkville, it’s a natural fit. Throughout his coaching career, and particularly during his tenure with the Bulldogs, he has been vocal about rules, legislation and proposals relating to college football, its coaches and its student-athletes. 

As the NCAA explains it, part of the job of the committee is to “enhance the development of the sport and make recommendations related to regular season and postseason football. The committee will prioritize the enhancement of the student-athlete educational experience (academically and athletically) and in doing so, promote student-athletes’ personal growth and leadership development.” 

“It’s a great responsibility,” Mullen said. “You’re on a committee that’s helping guide the future of college football. I think one of the most important things, being on a committee like that, is looking at the big picture of what’s best for college football overall. As a coach, you’re competitive in everything you do, and you have to set your program aside; not look at things as what might be best for Mississippi State, but what might be best for the game of college football. I think that is such a tremendous responsibility for people involved in those types of committees.”

Additionally, Mullen recognizes the importance of his position as the only active head coach on the committee. As the voice for his peers, he hopes to communicate the reality of issues important to coaches, their programs and their student-athletes. 

“We’re the ones that are dealing with everything every day,” Mullen said of his fellow coaches. “We have to make sure we’re representing the reality. I think there’s always perception and reality out there in the world, and we’re living that reality every day. We have to make sure the other people on the committee understand where we’re coming from and some of the things happening behind the scenes that coaches are having to deal with.”

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Bulldog golf coaches show off MSU’s new facility ahead of Old Waverly Championship


In the 1930s, West Point, Mississippi was home to, among other things, a local dairy farm on the outskirts of town, complete with a large, wooden and newly-erected barn to serve the land. 80 years later in the same spot, a similarly quaint but far more technologically advanced facility stands in its place. Today, the area is home to Mississippi State’s golf programs and the new $2.4 million practice facility the teams just moved into as part of the nationally-renowned Old Waverly Golf Club across the street.

Never forgetting their roots, however, the new home of Bulldog golf has been nicknamed The Barn, built partially with reclaimed wood from the original dairy barn whose place it took in grasses of West point.

unnamed-5With over 8,700 square feet of indoor space, including locker rooms, four hitting bays, an indoor putting studio, coaches’ offices and players lounges, the facility also has one of college golf’s premiere outdoor training areas, a space conceived by Hanse Golf Course Design, the same group commissioned to design the host course for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics. The team clubhouse, driving range, three short-game greens and 18,000-square foot putting green in the shape of the state of Mississippi all find themselves nestled between Old Waverly Golf Course and the soon-to-open Mossy Oak Golf Club.

This week, the new facility makes its competitive debut, as MSU hosts the Old Waverly Collegiate Championship.

“We’re really excited to show this facility off to our peers,” head men’s golf coach Clay Homan told reporters as he helped lead a tour of the new facility last week.

“Word is starting to get out. The excitement is building,” women’s coach Ginger Brown-Lemm added. “For the first time, we’re not catching up to anyone else in facilities. We’re leading now.”

Not just around the south or even around the country, people around the world are taking notice, the two head coaches agreed. Elite players from across the globe are now calling Homan and Brown-Lemm, instead of the other way around, wanting to come play and train at MSU’s facility. Future Bulldogs in the high school ranks and former Bulldogs in the pros have each found a new favorite place to perfect their game.

unnamed-3It’s easy to do there, of course, where the three short-game greens are all set up with various situations and challenges, the hitting bays are equipped with Trackman swing and ball flight analysis systems and the clubhouse includes an indoor putting center complete with a Sam PuttLab training system.

All of that, plus access to two of the best golf courses in the country right outside their porch.

“We’ve got something that can challenge us in every way.” Brown-Lemm said of the teaching and development capabilities of their new home.

“Nowhere,” Homan said, “are you going to find something like this … Anybody can build a nice driving range. We have two top-tier courses and a facility in the middle of it.”

That facility includes much more than just a place to golf, of course. The training room has golf-specific workouts and rehabilitation programs. The high-ceilinged and aged-wood locker room offers space, outlets and even the flag of each player’s home country emblazoned beneath their names on the plaques adorning their lockers. Two separate lounges – one with couches and TV, another with a ping-pong table and already a few curiously paddle-shaped scuff marks on the wall – offer a place for the college students to unwind and relax. The conference room, the extra storage and even baskets of chex-mix in seemingly every corner have a purpose.

“When we were planning this building,” Homan said, “we tried to come up with every possible thing they could ever want or need.”

“We visited at least 10 other golf facilities across the country,” Brown-Lemm said. “Now, we have people calling us to find out what we did.”

The facility's original rendering

The facility’s original rendering

Some of the more important calls, however, involve future players. As great as the facility has been for the current teams, the future teams may benefit the most. Never, each coach said, has recruiting been so easy.

“This facility has been a game-changer for us,” Homan said. “We bring kids in from all over the world and just wow them.

“We wouldn’t have had a chance with these kids a couple years ago,” Homan confessed. “They want to be pros … They know they’re not going to be able to go anywhere and have better facilities than this.”

For Brown-Lemm, The Barn, Mossy Oak and Old Waverly pair perfectly with Mississippi State, a place with charms she said it seems so few recruits are aware of.

“Really,” she said, “it’s in line with our beautiful campus. People come and say they had no idea that it was so warm, welcoming and beautiful.”

unnamedNow that the teams have moved in, and especially this week as the men host their annual tournament, it’s the realization of a dream for the people behind Mississippi State golf, the product of all their wildest visions and everything they hoped for.

“It’s better,” Brown-Lemm corrected.

Fair enough.

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