The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Starkville

Emmanuel Lauwers had been to the United States before, but only on brief trips to San Francisco and New York City. They were great cities, certainly, but he didn’t feel like he’d really had the full American experience. So for his next trip, Lauwers flew from his home in Liege, Belgium to the starting point of his American adventure in Dallas, Texas. The plan was straightforward: hitchhike through the country all the way to Chicago where he would take a bus to Toronto and fly home out of Canada.

The journey was going smoothly for a while. From Dallas he made his way to Houston, and after his visit there he managed to get to New Orleans with little trouble. From New Orleans, Lauwers was headed to Memphis. The rides he was able to catch took him through Jackson, Mississippi and got him onto I-55, leaving him with a straight shot to Memphis.

And then his last ride dropped him off at a tiny gas station on a stretch of 55 between Jackson and Winona that was surely the inspiration for the term middle of nowhere. That’s when Lauwers’s always-present optimism began to wane. It’s not that he was worried people wouldn’t want to pick him up. He was worried there wouldn’t be any people to pick him up.

Meanwhile, Mississippi native Hays Stephens was on his way from Yazoo City back to Starkville, Mississippi. A Mississippi State fan his whole life, he was trying to get to town in time to catch the baseball game between his Bulldogs and the Florida Gators, the opening game of the last home series of the season. Somewhere in the empty stretch of highway between Jackson and Winona, Stephens pulled over at a tiny gas station to grab a few things from the convenience store.

That’s when he saw Lauwers.

“He had a sign that said, ‘I’m from Belgium. I’m hitchhiking across America,’” Stephens later recalled. “I said, ‘Man, c’mon. Get in the car and let’s go.’”

The two young men picked up a steady conversation as they drove along, and it didn’t take long for Stephens to feel sure he was safe. He hadn’t picked up a dangerous man – just a curious one.

Lauwers went on to tell him that his goal was to see the real America, not just the big cities “where all the people go and the tourists take pictures.” Halfway through the ride, Stephens had an idea.

“Man, if you really want to see real America,” Stephens said to Lauwers, “come with me to Starkville and we’ll go to this baseball game. If you’re not in a big hurry to get to Memphis, just stay with me in Starkville tonight and I’ll take you to Memphis in the morning.”

An hour later, Emmanuel Lauwers was hanging out in the Left Field Lounge eating sausage, making friends and watching a school he’d never even heard of beat the No. 1 team in the country, helped by a home run that landed just a few feet away from Lauwers himself.

Unsurprisingly, Lauwers was surrounded the entire night once people started hearing his story. At one point Stephens even apologized for introducing him to so many people.

“No,” Lauwers said, “I just went from a homeless guy to a famous guy. No one even wanted to pick me up. This is great.”

Wherever he went, Lauwers was being given food and drinks or getting offers to arrange rides and places to stay along the way. Everyone wanted to meet him and hear his story first hand, while nearly all of the new friends he made tried to convince him to stay another couple days for the rest of the series. If you think this is fun, he was constantly told, you should see what it’s going to be like on Saturday.

“People here,” someone said to Lauwers when he remarked on the kindness he’d been shown in Starkville, “people in the south, regardless of any perceptions, care about people.”

“It’s so unexpected,” Lauwers said. “It is definitely a community which makes it more easy to talk to everyone and meet everyone. It’s been really fun.”

Starkville was never the plan, though Thursday night at Dudy Noble Field was, in a certain way, always the goal. He got to see a piece of the country that most certainly was not on his itinerary and have an American experience he was quite thrilled to stumble on, a surprise look into a classic college town.

“It’s really cool,” he said. “It’s really the picture you make yourself of an American campus. There’s this stadium and all of these people running by the water and people waving their colors. It’s very cool.”

Plus, he got to see a good baseball game.

“I don’t know much about the rules,” he confessed, “but I got that we won. So that’s good.”

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Road Dawgs: A Day On The Bus With Joe Moorhead

While most of us were in the back end of the tour bus watching Beverly Hills Cop and re-runs of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Joe Moorhead sat at a table in the front of the bus right next to a window, behind the driver, and underneath a 32-inch TV screen. I don’t know if they were recruits, signees or current players he was on the phone with, but after getting into his spot, Moorhead made a round of phone calls to multiple someones to congratulate them on their good grades and offer encouragement as he reminded them of their GPA goals for the upcoming semesters.

Then he settled in to watch the History Channel. Hours and hours of the History Channel. From Starkville to Tupelo, from Tupelo to Memphis, and during the full afternoon layover in Memphis before his final Road Dawgs event of the day, Moorhead’s TV never changed.

The first time I met Moorhead, he told me one of his family’s favorite pastimes is watching the History Channel, so I shouldn’t have been surprised as the front of the bus rotated through re-runs of American Pickers and a bevy of other popular shows, as well as a few programs of the actually-historic variety. I also shouldn’t have been surprised that Moorhead’s speech at each stop of Mississippi State’s annual tour of Mississippi and the southeast included quotes from famous men of history.

Moorhead managed to quote both JFK (“The best time to build a roof is when the sun is shining.”) and Ben Franklin (“Better well-done than well-said.”) in a short speech about MSU football. Between that and his cable TV loyalties, it seemed clear that MSU’s new football coach had an appreciation for the past.

“I’m starting to get the impression you’re a history buff,” I mentioned to him on the bus to Memphis.

“I wouldn’t say ‘buff,’” he replied. “But if I had time to cultivate a hobby, that’s what it would be.

“Well,” he amended, “that and more fishing. And by that I mean doing any fishing at all.”

But even without more time to dedicate to his interests – the Civil War and the Knights Templar are two of the subjects he’d like to delve deeper into – history has found a way to wind itself into Moorhead’s daily life. Those who follow him on Twitter will regularly see him tweet pictures with a quote included, often coming from a famous leader of the past or present.

That’s nothing unusual for a football coach, of course. What makes it unique in Moorhead’s case is that is wasn’t a quote picked at random by someone on his recruiting or graphic design staff. It wasn’t a nice saying he found by Googling “quotes about leadership” or Asking Jeeves for something inspirational.

The quotes are handpicked, literally, by Moorhead himself. Sitting on a shelf in his office right now, there is a binder full of catalogued quotes that he has been assembling for years, adding to it whenever he reads or comes across a quote he likes. The binder is nearly encyclopedic in its organization, sorted by categories so he can flip right to something relevant whenever he needs it.

A picture of the notebook he showed me included the heading at the top of the page, “Little Things.” Presumably, quotes in that section are about getting the details right. Precision, Moorhead has often said, is the difference between good and great.

“My dad always said, ‘Measure twice, cut once.’”

In a day on the road with him, witnessing three variations of the same general speech, I learned Moorhead doesn’t just appreciate history’s great leaders; he emulates them.

People don’t follow leaders because they’re told to; or if they do, there’s little loyalty involved. The best leaders, the ones people will follow anywhere on their own volition, engage, then inspire.

————————

Joe Moorhead took an interesting tact in speaking to Mississippi State alumni across the southeast this week. He told the truth.

“Let’s be honest here,” he said. “Let’s get some things out in the open. I know y’all had some questions about me. You were worried a guy from the north wasn’t prepared for the SEC. Hey, I know y’all said it, but don’t worry, it’s OK.”

At this point he typically received a few relieved laughs.

“We’re family now. We can talk about this stuff.”

From there, Moorhead’s speech went on to outline his beliefs that good football coaches are just that – good football coaches. Good recruiters are good recruiters. And likewise, bad coaches and bad recruiters are going to be bad, no matter where they are or aren’t from.

Moorhead also opened up about the transition to the south on a personal level, joking about the “language barrier” as he’s learned the difference between “you guys” and “y’all,” “going to” and “fixin’ to,” and the more subtle difference of having a picture “made” instead of “taken.”

“Y’all are going to be proud of me,” he told the crowd. “I managed to use all three at once when I was meeting some people before one of these stops. I sound like a real southerner now.

“I asked them, ‘Y’all fixin’ to get your picture made?””

Laughter and applause tended to ensue after that one.

And truly, Moorhead said, the welcome he and his family have received has been overwhelming in its kindness.

“The term southern hospitality isn’t a concept,” he said. “It’s a reality.”

Of course, there was more to discuss with MSU fans than his personal transition. More than anything, Moorhead knew, they wanted to hear about the football team. Perhaps no question is more frequent than, “How we lookin’, Coach?

So MSU’s head coach shared his timeline for how he’s building the team ahead of his first season. The approach, he said, is much like a building a house.

Phase I is laying the foundation, and that came January through March under strength coach Anthony Piroli. It involved building strength, obviously, but with an emphasis on functional football movements. More importantly, that was the time when the culture of toughness was established.

Phase II: putting the walls up. This phase was spring football practice when an identity was developed, confidence was built, competitiveness was cultivated and the drive to dominate situational football was learned.

Phase III begins in a couple weeks – putting the roof on. From the beginning of June to the end of July, the players are on their own for summer workouts. This is when team leadership steps up. Championship teams, Moorhead has learned, must have strong leadership in the locker room.

Phase IV may seem unimportant, but to Moorhead it’s the difference between a good team and a great one: interior decorating. In preseason camp in August, the pictures will be hung. The furniture will be arranged. Fall camp is all about getting the details right and mastering the precision required to win SEC football games.

Phase V is simple: the season itself. Move-in day. Once the season begins, you live in the house you built, and that’s why preparation is so important.

And such was Moorhead’s build-up to the final point of his speech, the last annual goal he set for the team: win the Southeastern Conference. Take home the conference championship.

Certainly, that’s the goal of all 14 SEC football teams when the season begins. But how many truly think they can do it? According to Moorhead, MSU does.

“I know we have the requisite talent,” he said.

The key will be culture and belief, he said, and to emphasize that, he asked the audience to repeat after him.

“We can win the SEC,” he said.

“We can win the SEC,” they repeated back to him.

“Not good enough,” he replied. “I need you louder. I need you to believe it. Let’s try it again: we can win the SEC!”

“We can win the SEC!” the crowd roared, followed by raucous applause and cheering.

“There we go, that’s it!” Moorhead encouraged them.

“I hope y’all believe that, because I do,” Moorhead continued as his voice began to rise. “We can and we will win the SEC here. It’s gonna happen. We are no longer the Little Engine That Could. We’re past moral victories. Moral victories are for losers.”

A behind-the-scenes note illustrates Moorhead’s dedication to the idea of expecting the best. A minor hiccup in the Road Dawgs Tour came as a result of the table set up at each stop where a few trophies from the world of MSU athletics were displayed – the Governor’s Cup from the baseball team’s victory over Ole Miss, the SEC Championship trophy won by the women’s basketball team, and the Taxslayer Bowl trophy from the football team’s bowl win back in December.

That last one is what gave Moorhead pause. He doesn’t like showcasing that trophy. It’s not that he isn’t proud of the players who won it, and he certainly harbors no animosity or ill will toward those who coached the team. He just thinks the program should have its expectations higher than bowl wins. He wants to win championships. He expects to win the SEC.

“Don’t be scared to talk about it,” he said. “We talk about it with our team every day. Attitude reflects leadership. If we want them to believe it, we have to believe it, too.”

In fact, Road Dawgs wasn’t the first time Moorhead had given the brief Little Engine That Could speech. On the last day of spring practice, in the locker room after the Maroon-White Spring Game, Moorhead said the exact same thing to the team. As he announced the team captains, he sent them into Phase III where the culture required to win an SEC Championship would be established, and he did so by reminding them what they should expect to accomplish.

Instead of a quote from the depths of history, Moorhead chose a more modern exhortation as he explained to MSU fans at each stop why they need the type of confidence he wants them to have.

“Scared money don’t make money.”

Though he also shared the more traditional, “It’s not what you wish for. It’s what you work for.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he reminded the crowd before adding a personal caveat. “But I wasn’t the foreman on that job.”

At each stop, nearly all of them with crowds at or over capacity, Moorhead received a standing ovation. In the span of 20 minutes, he not only connected with those in the room, but he inspired them. If he hadn’t yet seemed like “their” coach before, he certainly did after they heard him speak.

For all the quotes in his binder, it was a simple one from a young MSU alumnus that summed up the reaction to Moorhead. Walking through the parking lot after hearing Moorhead’s speech in Memphis, he turned to a friend to express his feelings on the night.

“That guy is awesome.”

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Memories Made On Road Dawgs Tour 2018

A Memphis native and a 2014 Mississippi State graduate now in her fourth year of veterinary school, Ashley Reeves, pictured above with head football coach Joe Moorhead and athletic director John Cohen, was scheduled for open heart surgery this afternoon, the third such procedure she’s had to undergo in her life. With her alma mater’s annual Road Dawgs tour in town the day of her operation, her friends had planned to get a football signed by Moorhead after he spoke so that they could take it to her and surprise her with it as soon she came out of surgery.

But at the last minute, Ashley got a call. A newborn at the hospital was in immediate need of surgery, and her time slot was the one they needed. The delay to her own surgery was unexpected, but she quickly and happily agreed to postpone her procedure until Wednesday in favor of the newborn baby.

Later, an hour before the Road Dawgs event was scheduled to begin, Moorhead was sitting on MSU’s tour bus outside the Memphis botanic gardens when his communication director got a text message from someone in the alumni association asking if he could bring a few people onto the bus to meet Moorhead.

“Sure,” Moorhead responded. “Bring ’em on.”

Five minutes later, the head coach held out his hand to introduce himself to the second of three people to step on the bus.

“Hi,” he said. “Joe Moorhead.”

Taking his hand, she looked up at MSU’s new coach and replied, “Ashley. Great to meet you.”

Instead of a signed football, she got to meet the real person behind it and take a picture with the new man leading her Bulldogs. Ashley is still in good health as she pursues her career, and no complications are expected with her procedure, making the timing of the delayed surgery all the more serendipitous.

“It was so cool,” she said later while waiting to hear him speak at the event. “He’s really tall! And he’s so nice. Just so nice and sweet.”

Moorhead had no idea what was happening in Ashley’s life until after he met her, and she had no idea she was going to meet Moorhead before she was unexpectedly taken to the bus. Now that they’ve met, each of them has a new fan. She’ll be cheering for him this fall, and he’ll be cheering for her this Wednesday.

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Former All-American Jackson Returns To Walk Graduation Stage

In a deal that made him the third-highest paid offensive guard in the NFL, Gabe Jackson signed a $56 million contract late last summer to stay with the Oakland Raiders, the team that first drafted him in 2014. The approaching season was all he had time to focus his energy on at the moment, but he knew that with his future guaranteed and a quiet offseason to come following the 2017 campaign, he would finally have the means to surprise his mother with the gift she had been asking for since the day he finished his career at Mississippi State University.

Today, Jackson will exchange helmet and pads for cap and gown as he makes his way to his graduation ceremony at Humphrey Coliseum and receives his degree from MSU. Watching from the stands, no one will be happier to see Jackson walk across the stage than the mother who got the surprise phone call several weeks ago telling her she would be needed in Starkville to watch her son fulfill one more dream.

“My mom, she always wanted me to go back and finish. That’s been a big thing for her,” Jackson said. “I wanted her to see me do that.”

Although, Jackson didn’t technically have to “go” anywhere to earn his degree. A new program at MSU, Complete 2 Compete, works with former students of all backgrounds who are years removed from school but only a handful of credit hours away from being able to graduate, and sometimes even less than that. Jackson, as he knew, only had one class missing. The issue was, it was a difficult subject that had given him trouble more than once while he was in school during his playing days at MSU. With the job responsibilities of an elite NFL offensive lineman, he was worried he didn’t the time or energy to devote to homework, studying and test-taking in a difficult course. For a long time, he didn’t.

This year, with a quiet offseason and time to prepare, the time was perfect, and through a C2C program helping dozens to graduate each semester, Jackson found an online class that fit the criteria and devoted the spare hours of his spring to finally accomplishing the one remaining goal from his college years.

“It sounds so cliché when everybody says it’s one thing nobody can take away from you,” Jackson acknowledged, “but it’s true. Nobody can take your degree away from you. If I want to do something with it later on, now I can.”

And to earn that degree at MSU, the place that helped mold and shape him as he went from an overlooked high school recruit to a two-time collegiate All-American and on to one of the NFL’s best young stars, means even more to the Mississippi native.

“It means everything,” Jackson said. “A place that I’ve put a lot of hard work into, literal blood and tears into. Everybody – the coaches, the academic advisors that helped me out and put me in position to succeed – it’s like a reward for me and for them.”

The new chapter comes at an appropriate time for Jackson and the teams he’s associated with, as he’s welcomed a new head coach of his own with Jon Gruden in Oakland, and his alma mater has just begun a new era with the hiring of Joe Moorhead as head coach of the Bulldogs.

Gruden, Jackson says, has brought an infectious energy to the Raiders.

“It’s great,” Jackson said. “He brings a lot of enthusiasm to the game, a lot of passion. He’s a real smart guy. He knows what he’s talking about. And he just brings a lot of energy. There’s so much positive energy around. I’m excited to play for him.”

Jackson was also able to meet with Moorhead while in town this spring. In fact, the new man leading MSU football asked Jackson to serve as an honorary captain in the annual Maroon-White spring football game, an invitation Jackson quickly accepted.

“Real nice guy,” Jackson said. “I didn’t know much about him. Heard he was a real smart coach. I haven’t been able to talk to him as much yet, but I can tell he’s a great guy and the players love him.”

Standing on the sidelines of the scrimmage, watching his former team, Jackson had a moment to reflect on all he had accomplished at Mississippi State. With all the workouts endured, games played and classwork now finally completed, the only task left for Jackson before today was to find a graduation robe that fits, as pointed out when someone jokingly asked him if he’d found an XXL gown yet.

“I don’t know about 2X,” the 6’4”, 340-pound offensive lineman said with a laugh. “It might be a full 5X.”

Regardless of size, it was never a question for Jackson if he was going to need the cap and gown. After all these years, there was no question he’s going to celebrate his achievement.

“Oh yeah,” he said when asked if he was coming back to town for the commencement ceremony. “I’m walking.”

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The Kind-Of Guide To Jackson For MSU Fans

An old man seated on a chair at the front of the room, wearing a beat up hat and playing lead guitar, smiled at me when he caught me bouncing my shoulders and snapping my fingers to the tune he was picking between songs. As I smiled back and walked in to find a place to watch the show, the melody changed and the woman standing at the microphone next to him began singing an upbeat, bluesy version of one of my favorites, the Ben E. King classic Stand By Me.

My smile grew as I meandered to an open space in the rear of the room and came to a very clear realization.

I have made a huge mistake.

Not by going to Blue Monday at Hal Mal’s, I don’t mean. Attending the blues-fueled open mic night was, in fact, an opportunity to rectify the mistake I have made over and over for the better part of this decade.

I travel to Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, at least half a dozen times per year. And nearly every single time, I go in for a single event, then come straight back home to Starkville. In doing this, I have now learned, I erred greatly.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to make of Jackson’s new slogan, The City With Soul, but after an intensive dive into Jackson’s past, present and future, the picture is a bit clearer. Jackson doesn’t just have soul of its own. It has the soul of Mississippi, the soul of one of the most overlooked and underappreciated parts of the country. Though I suppose being overlooked isn’t always a bad thing – it keeps the wait for a table at the restaurants shorter.

But Jackson is home to so many things that make Mississippi and her people what they are. That certainly starts with great food, music and art, but it goes deeper than the obvious. Jackson is a convergence of and a memorial to the history, the successes, the hardships, the many rights and the many wrongs of the state.

At the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, there is no blind eye turned to the heartbreaking past the city was home to, and just as importantly, it celebrates the inspiring moments and achievements of the civil rights movement, something our state was at the very heart of. No Mississippian could make that visit and be unmoved.

For that alone, I should have spent more time exploring my capital city, but beyond all the history, man – Jackson is just fun. I’m there all the time for Mississippi State-related events, be it basketball games, the Central Mississippi Extravaganza, the Conerly Trophy, Ferriss Trophy, Howell trophy or Gillom Trophy – shoutout to four-time winner Victoria Vivians. This week, I’ll be there again for the Governor’s Cup, pitting MSU vs Ole Miss at Trustmark Park with nothing but pride on the line in the annual non-conference matchup.

And all this time, I could have been having a ball by coming early or staying late, or perhaps even both. I’ve missed out on life – and stomach – altering milkshakes at Fine and Dandy. I’ve missed out on chocolate croissants and macchiatos at La Brioche. I’ve missed out on shopping in Fondren, strawberry cheesecake popsicles at Deep South Pops, crawfish boils and yard games at Cathead Distillery, and crab meat-stuffed peppers at Ironhorse Grill, home to a Mexican-southern menu where the Rio Grande meets the Mighty Mississippi.

I could have been having chicken and waffles on the red-checkered tablecloths at Sugar’s Place. I could have been taking in pre-game meals at Manship, a wood-fire kitchen that’s everything a bustling downtown restaurant should be, with the added benefit of house-made pimento cheese. I could have been throwing pitches, recording my own version of famous radio calls and learning about the last legal heavyweight bare-knuckle boxing match in American history, all by wandering the halls of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

And I could have had easy access to all of it by staying at The Westin downtown.

And all of that came on only barely two days of exploring, hardly managing to make a dent in the list of places I wanted to visit. With each stop came the realization that there was much more happening than I first knew or expected.

Perhaps my favorite was the Cathead Distillery, and not for the obvious reasons. I enjoyed learning the stories behind Mississippi’s first legal distillery. I had no idea where the name even came from, which meant I had never heard of the at-once popular and obscure artist James “Son” Thomas, an old Mississippi blues musician and sculptor who designed and created items he called “Cat Heads,” named for the original blues musicians who used to refer to each other in friendly terms as “cats.”

He’s worth a Google.

Similarly, Cathead – like the city in which it resides – is worth a visit.

I started this venture with the goal of just finding things and places I could recommend to Mississippi State fans when they’re in town for any of the many events happening each year, and I do believe that much has been accomplished. But very quickly, I discovered that a city bustling with life, brimming with history and practically bursting at the seams of my now-expanding waistline with great food and drinks, has been waiting for me this whole time.

The look in the old man’s eye when he caught me dancing was a kind one, letting me know that not only was it OK to have a little fun, it was encouraged. The soul of his city is a welcoming one. I stand by Jackson.

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Fitzgerald, Green Elected Team Captains For Moorhead’s First Season

As Nick Fitzgerald left the gameday locker room for the last time until September, he passed Joe Moorhead who was on his way back in. Minutes before, the head coach had called his senior quarterback to the front of the locker room where Fitzgerald was announced as one of Mississippi State’s two team captains for 2018 elected by their teammates.

Inside the locker room, Moorhead had spoken about Fitzgerald’s leadership and the importance of having strong captains if they’re going to win championships. Outside the locker room, Moorhead stopped his quarterback for a quick personal note.

“Congratulations,” Moorhead said. “That’s awesome. I was a senior captain quarterback. It’s a heck of a deal.”

And it’s a deal that neither Fitzgerald – the offensive captain – or senior linebacker Gerri Green – the defensive captain – take lightly.

“It’s a great, great honor,” Green said. “Seeing all the captains that came before me, big time guys on and off the field, to be able to follow in their footsteps, that means a great deal. I thank my teammates, especially all those guys that have been with me since my freshman year. Us fifth-year seniors going into our last season, it’s a big deal for us to make sure we close out our careers on a high note.”

“Honestly, a lot of people probably thought I shouldn’t even be here to start with,” Fitzgerald said. “To come up, earn a starting job, enter my senior year coming off an injury and still be able to earn enough respect from your teammates to be voted captain, that’s huge. I’m excited. It’s a lot of responsibility on and off the field. I’m ready to get to it.”

Astute listeners will notice that Green and Fitzgerald both made an important distinction in their roles as leaders: it must happen on and off the field. Moorhead himself said it several times when introducing Green and Fitzgerald as captains in the locker room, and it’s clear he’s put an emphasis in his program on character, behavior and performance away from football, giving honors each week not just to players who practice well, but players who do well in classes or with charitable services.

It applies, as well, to workouts, conditioning, film study and all the other parts of the game that take place outside the lines of the field. That, he noted, is why captains are so important. They are the driving force in those moments, and during a long offseason where coaches aren’t able to spend time on the field, it’s imperative that the players themselves make sure the work gets done.

“The best teams I’ve been around are player-driven teams, not coach-driven teams,” Moorhead said. “We elected our captains and we’re passing the team over to them.”

To hear Moorhead explain it, there is no surprise in Green and Fitzgerald being the elected captains, voted into the role by their teammates. The vote wasn’t even close, he told the team, and even confessed, “you know who it is,” before making the introductions. As fifth-year seniors, both of them, they’ve got long resumes of work and reputation to back up their new roles.

That Fitzgerald was elected as the senior quarterback is no shocker, and as he explains it, the same holds true for Green, one of the most respected players in the locker room regardless of position.

“He’s the perfect teammate, honestly,” Fitzgerald said. “Off the field he’s never had issues. On the field he plays his heart out. He’s always voted the hardest worker in the weight room. The best guy. He’s always a first one in, last one out kind of guy. He’s definitely the perfect captain for the defense.”

“He’s one of those guys that’s been with me the whole time,” Green said of Fitzgerald. “I’ve watched him grow. He’s grown as I’ve grown. Both of us came in as freshmen, and to see where we are now speaks highly of how much we’ve been through.”

Applause and cheers were loud and long for both as Green and Fitzgerald took turns stepping to the front of the locker room and addressing their teammates, promising to be the leaders they’re expected to be, to guide their team on the field and off. Now, with practice over and the offseason underway, it’s their time to take over.

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New Systems Installed, Moorhead Reviews Spring Football

We can delve into features on individual players, we can project depth charts based on what we see, and we can break down strengths and weaknesses of the roster all day and night. But with a new coaching staff, with an experienced team and with a new scheme on both sides of the ball, the biggest question around Mississippi State football this spring is a pretty basic one: how’s practice going?

After all, this is the first look at the Joe Moorhead Era, a sneak peek at the laying of the foundation, offering a preview of what’s to come not just this fall but for years to come. Naturally, the level of anticipation is high, and certainly, MSU fans hope for a good answer to the question of how exactly things are going out there now that the intros are over, the contracts are signed and real football things are happening.

Entering the final days of practice ahead of the Maroon-White Spring Game on Super Bulldog Weekend, Moorhead was asked just that.

“With a week to go,” a reporter asked Moorhead after Saturday afternoon’s practice, “are you pleased with how they’ve retained everything and where you are right now?”

Deep breath, the answer is coming.

“Very much so,” he began.

Deep exhale, and the explanation builds.

“I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna and come in here every day and tell you it’s sunshine and rainbows,” Moorhead continued, “but they’re taking the information from the meeting room and going out and playing hard. We’re seeing the precision improve every practice. From that standpoint, there hasn’t been a day where you look at the film and say, ‘Man, we didn’t get better today.’ It hasn’t been by leaps and bounds, but we’ve been improving every practice.”

Nothing against “sunshine” or “rainbows,” but the key word in Moorhead’s explanation is “precision.” The base schemes are completely installed as of Saturday, though they’ll add more to them in fall camp and in the season. It’s for that reason that Moorhead says the challenge for his players at this point is more mental than physical.

Within literal minutes of his plane landing in Starkville for the first time, Moorhead greeted a handful of players and told them they would need to learn their ring sizes for the championships they were about to win. Having strength and size and endurance are all important factors in being a good football team. But to be a great team that wins said championships, Moorhead believes, one must have that all-important quality: precision. That, as you would imagine, is what MSU is working on now.

“We talk a lot about the effort we give, but football is a game of precision,” he said. “Right now, I like to say we’re in the right church but the wrong pew. We’re doing the right thing, but we’re not doing it with enough precision that we’re going to win the SEC. We’ve got a long way to go. We don’t need to be [now] where we’re going to be September 1. We’ve just got to improve every practice and keep stacking good days on top of each other.”

And that’s why these final days are about fundamentals and techniques. They are about not just doing the right things, but doing them the right way and knowing why they do them.

Senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald offered a review similar to that of his coach, saying he’s both pleased with the progress and intent on improvement. With the offense fully installed, he knows where the responsibility now lies.

“It’s just on the rest of us to really master it,” he said. “It’s going well. We hear him talk every day that you’d be surprised this team is running these installs and these plays for the very first time. For the most part, our people are doing really well. We’re running fast, playing hard. I think it just has to do with everyone buying into it.

“We kind of know what to do,” Fitzgerald continued, “now we need to know why we do it and how to do it effectively. That’s the big thing. We all have to be in the playbooks.”

And the good news, Moorhead says, is that it’s an approach embraced by the whole of the team. As individuals improve, so do entire position units, entire sides of the ball and the entire team itself. After their last scrimmage before the spring game, Moorhead noted he was most pleased not with individual performances or dominating play by the defense or offense. Instead, he was thrilled to see a competitive back and forth battle between the two sides, an example of how practice has gone all spring.

“As the head coach, you want to see a good give and take throughout practice; offense making plays, defense making plays. I think we did that,” he said. “I think it’s a great battle. I think it’s a microcosm of what we see every day in practice. I tell our guys, if one side is constantly kicking the other side’s butt throughout the course of practice, you’re in for a long season. We want our practices to be like a 15-round heavyweight bout that goes to the card. That’s how it’s been, either by period or by day. Guys have been competing and getting after each other, but ultimately realizing it’s more about the team than it is about one side of the ball or the individual.”

If the competition continues well, Moorhead’s Bulldogs expect to be ready for their next string of heavyweight bouts when the 2018 season begins.

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Loss Meets History In National Title Match

That one hurt.

It didn’t sting. It doesn’t ache.

It hurts, all the way down.

This was supposed to be the time it finally happened. This was the team of destiny, the team of fate. This was the night Mississippi State was going to win its first National Championship. This was supposed to be MSU’s history, MSU’s moment in the sun on top of the college basketball world.

For years, it’s felt like the water was rising and the pressure was building – eventually, the dam would burst and after over a century of drought, Mississippi State would win its first ever National Title in any team sport, the crowning achievement in the school’s long history.

This felt like the year, the moment, that the last drop would fall, the dam would crumble and history would flow forth in wave upon wave.

For more than 130 years, MSU never even played for a National Championship, let alone won one. Now, in the last five years, the school has three appearances in the final game of the season. The water is rising. The floodgates are ready to fall, and there’s a sense that, when they do, the victories will erupt, starting with a drop, then a trickle, then waves of wins crashing into a once-barren valley.

There’s nothing wrong with being part of the buildup. Every drop that falls hopes it will be the one to break through wall, but even so, every drop counts. Every win counts. Every practice in the gym, every session in the weight room, every hour in the film room and every day spent recovering in the training room – they all count.

By any standard, Mississippi State women’s basketball just completed the greatest season in school history for all sports. It’s not just that they played for a National Championship, like only two teams before them had. It’s that they won the SEC. It’s that they ran the conference gauntlet and secured the first undefeated regular season in the SEC in decades.

It sounds vague and almost dispassionate to merely say that records were set, but it would take pages and pages, hours and hours to list all the records recorded by this team, this program, this coach. Wins, rebounds, points, double-doubles; the list goes on and on. The honors, too, fill a seemingly bottomless bucket of praise. All-Conference, All-American – heck, this is the team that had a Hall of Famer on its active roster.

And none of that gives any credit to or properly describes the amount of personality this team has or the Moments, capital M, it has provided.

Whether its Teaira blocking the shots of her opponents or photo-bombing the interviews of her teammates, it was always a Very Tea Moment.

Victoria Vivians, the queen of all courts, is one of the best scorers basketball has ever seen, and she’s also one of the most graceful Homecoming Queens the student body has ever elected.

And there’s Mo, Itty Bitty, Morgan William, the smallest Bulldog who hit the biggest shot. The quietest voice with the loudest performances.

There’s Ro and Blair, Jordan and Jazz, on and on – an entire roster full of loved people, memories and Moments.

And where would it all be without Vic Schaefer? Two-thirds of the National Championship appearances in Mississippi State history are under his guidance. Forget Coach of the Year – he’s made a case for Coach of All-Time at MSU.

He made a promise when he arrived in Starkville. He laid out the standard he held for himself and his program, and in the six years since, he’s brought his vision to life, whether or not anyone outside of his locker room thought it could be done.

But these recent years have proved just that – it can be done. Not only that, but it can be done in a proper fashion. Mississippi State can win a championship in a way that reflects its values, its fans, its culture.

There are some who prefer not to use the nickname ‘The People’s University,’ but at a certain level, that’s what MSU is. More specifically, that’s what Schaefer’s program is and what it represents. It represents the people not just because of the name on the jersey, but because of the way it acts and carries itself.

There is no program in the country where postgame interviews run as late as at MSU, and that’s not just because Schaefer is so verbose and forthcoming with the media. It’s because he and his players go not to the locker room after a game, but straight to the stands to meet their fans.

The currency of MSU women’s basketball is handshakes, high fives, hugs and selfies. The fans are there, win or lose. And so are the Bulldogs they’re there to see.

Schaefer has said it himself many times over, but people don’t cheer for this team just because they win games. They cheer for this team because of the way they play, because of the way they act, because of they way they speak, and because of the way they carry themselves on and off the court.

This team wasn’t the one that broke the dam. They weren’t the Bulldogs to finally break through. What they were, however, and what they still are, is incredibly special. This team, and in particular this class of seniors, can now make their claim as the greatest to ever wear the Maroon and White.

When the last drop falls, this team will know it helped show the way.

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Swagger And Skill Set – Schaefer Leads Bulldogs Back To Final Four

Vic Schaefer is a really quotable guy. Part of that is just sheer volume because he’s asked so many questions at press conferences, on radio shows, during television broadcasts and in the interviews following the many, many wins he’s racked up over the years at Mississippi State.

Part of that is also because he’s got such a natural cadence and creative candor to his answers once he gets going that those who don’t know him might mistake him for a Texas high school football coach straight off the set of Friday Night Lights. The accent helps with that one, of course.

I’ve either been present for or listening to just about every one of those interviews he’s had the last six years as the head coach of MSU women’s basketball, and I’ve recorded enough Vic Schaefer-isms that I could probably write a book if he were interested. But yesterday, the day before MSU was slated to start it’s second Final Four in a row, Schaefer casually dropped what might be my favorite of all his quotable quotes.

“Look,” he began, “it’s hard to have swagger if you don’t have a skill set.”

It felt like a hand-to-chest, mouth-agape, eyes-wide moment for any doubters, fakers or haters who have tried to stand in his way, an arrow of truth shot directly into the heart of the target.

The full quote itself came in response to a question about senior point guard Morgan William, who Schaefer was defending for some of the things that had been written about her since last year’s National Championship Game. Much of the press has been positive, of course, after she hit The Shot to beat UConn, but a surprising amount of negative words were written after about her lack of follow-up production, the amount of time she spent on the bench and a few other similar subjects that Schaefer found equally ridiculous.

While the quote – the final sentence in a lengthy answer – was about William specifically, it felt like it applied to Schaefer’s whole team, his entire program. That statement right there explained the confidence this team has. It explained why Victoria Vivians was on a raised stage in front of a packed room full of media from across the country and offered to sing a song for them while they waited on the Final Four press conference to begin. How else could someone be so loose before such a big moment?

That quote explained how MSU ran the table in the regular season, the first SEC team to do so in decades. It explained a 36-1 record, a No. 1 seed and a second-straight Final Four appearance. It explained a team that won games by an average of 26 points this season, scoring 82 points per game and holding opponents to a mere 56. It explained a team that has outscored opponents by a total of 90 points in four NCAA Tournament games so far.

It explained Vivians and William. It explains Teaira McCowan dominating the post, Blair Schaefer lighting up the scoreboard, Roshunda Johnson scoring and stopping from any part of the court.

These Bulldogs have swagger because they have a skill set, and it’s one that gets better when all their individual talents and drives are combined into one team.

“I’ve marveled at and been amazed by this group, this team, but when you really step back and look at the kids, these seniors in particular, you understand how we’ve gotten it done,” Schaefer said. “This year has been unfinished business. I think this team has tried to embrace that and done a great job with that. We have not run from the target on our back all year.”

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A few hours after that quote, Hail State Productions released its hype video for the Final Four, which you can watch at the top of this page. Below is the full script from the video, should you be interested in reading such a thing.

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This didn’t start with our first game of the year. It didn’t start with the first practice of the offseason. It didn’t even start when we had to watch the confetti fall for someone else in Dallas, though we certainly haven’t forgotten that feeling.

No. The first steps on this journey were taken six years ago, when a new era of Bulldog basketball was born. It started when our new leader was introduced, when Coach – OUR coach – spoke to us in the desert and vowed that he would take us to the promised land, that together we would see his vision come to life.

In the time since, we’ve gone from crowds of hundreds to winning games in the hundreds. Setting records by the hundreds, and packing out every arena from Starkville to the four corners of the country by the thousands.

We have become a family of winners and of champions, and we have done it by sacrifice. By time. Work. Resiliency. And with patience this new era has dawned – the age of effort, the tenure of tenacity, the halcyon days of hustle and heart and the period of punishment for those who once who pushed us around.

We are Mississippi State and we have made. Our. Name. known.

We’ve worked more than just months for this. We have worked for YEARS to reach this moment. And what we started then, we aim to finish now.

You can love us or hate us, but best believe you will you know us. We will out-work you, out-smart you, and in the deepest reaches of our ever-beating hearts, we will out-believe you.

Immovable defense, unstoppable offense. No matter what poison you pick, we’ll make you pay. We scrape and claw. We dive. We hustle. Up by 30 or down by 10, we don’t quit. We don’t give up. We. don’t. stop.

No challenge is too great, no summit too high. We’re used to the target on our back, and any foe who arises to strike it will have to go through the thousands of fans behind us to reach it.

Our strength does not lie in jerseys or names, honors or awards.

We are family strong and we fear no one. We don’t care about All-American, All-Conference or even All-State. We’re all Bulldog, and that’s all that matters. We are blue-collared, red-blooded and wrapped in maroon and white.

History is written by the winners, and this story has yet to reach its final page.

Praise the Lord and go Dawgs, this our moment! THIS … is our … time.

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Bulldogs Chasing History In NIT Semifinal At The Garden

Nearly two years before Mississippi State’s men’s basketball team advanced to the NIT Final Four, the then-young group of men who barely knew each other walked the streets of Rome the day before they were to play in their first game together, a preseason international exhibition. MSU was coming off consecutive losing seasons, and the nucleus of sophomores and newly-signed freshmen were supposed to be the crew that would bring Bulldog Basketball back.

The journey they started then hasn’t reached its final step, and more pieces have been added along the way, but the 20 months that have passed since then have taken this team from the greatest city of the ancient world in Rome, to the greatest city of modern day in New York City. It was the legends of the past who entertained the masses in the Coliseum, and it is the greats of today who put on sport’s greatest exhibitions in Madison Square Garden.

This team’s story has yet to come full circle, but the production and potential of the present day have begun to catch up to the program’s storied past. That these Bulldogs – win or lose – will finish their season in MSG, in New York, on the most famous stage basketball has to offer, is a fitting finale for a program on the precipice of stardom.

“The greatest players of the history of the game all have one thing in common: every one of them played in Madison Square Garden,” MSU head coach Ben Howland said. “To be able to say, ‘I played in The Garden’ is a really special thing.”

And he’s right. All the legends, all the greats, all the heroes of basketball have stepped onto the court in The Garden.

Quinndary Weatherspoon’s favorite player, LeBron James, twice scored over 50 points at MSG.

Xavian Stapleton has pulled for Kobe Bryant since he was a kid, the Lakers star who famously racked up 61 points at Madison Square Garden in February of 2009.

In fitting form, Allen Iverson – favorite player of point guard Lamar Peters – had one of his best games in The Garden not as an NBA player, but in college when he scored 23 points for Georgetown to help the Hoyas win the NIT semi-final 1995.

That State’s players will get to add themselves to that list is no meaningless experience.

“Country boy to The Garden – it feels like I’m in the movies,” forward Abdul Ado said.

Said guard Nick Weatherspoon, “it’s pretty special.”

“I’m very excited,” forward Aric Holman said. “This is something I can tell my nieces and nephews about, or my kids one day.”

As it turns out, one person with the team in New York is already on the list of legends to play at Madison Square Garden, and he’s on it multiple times over. When MSU loaded the bus in Starkville to head for the airport, players walking back to their seats likely didn’t look twice at the gray-haired gentleman and his wife sitting near the front of the bus, but as they slid by him, they were quite literally having brushes with greatness.

Bailey Howell is a legend, a Hall of Famer, and perhaps the best player ever to wear the maroon and white jersey, and that’s why he’s making yet another visit to The Garden, this time as a spectator.

“Bailey came by to congratulate us [after beating Louisville in the quarterfinal],” Howland said, “and I was like, ‘you’ve got to come with us.’ It’s just wonderful for us to have him here. He’s such a classy person that really embodies everything Mississippi State is about. He was an unbelievable player when you think about what he accomplished at Mississippi State and in the NBA.

“I was talking wit him last night at our dinner,” Howland continued. “He had 32 rebounds twice in different NBA games, one of them against Wilt Chamberlain. He had 34 once in a college game. He averaged 17 rebounds a game for three years in college. Just incredible what he was able to do.”

Howell had a career so long and so successful that he actually played in the current Madison Square Garden and the old Madison Square Garden.

Riding the bus, traveling with the team and watching from the stands in MSG, Howell is a living symbol from the past of not only what this program has done before, but what more it can do in the future. These players, this season and this program are far from satisfied, but if history repeats itself, then the future is growing brighter by the day.

“Next year and in the years to come,” NIT commentator Fran Frischilla began as he introduced Ben Howland, “you are going to hear about the Mississippi State Bulldogs.”

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