Hair Science: Categorizing and explaining every Bulldog beard

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

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

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

Westin Graves: Constant

Westin Graves: Constant

Phylum: High

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phylum: Middle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phylum: Low

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DeAndre Ward: Disappears completely when he buckles his chinstrap.

DeAndre Ward: Disappears completely when he buckles his chinstrap.

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

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

Gabe Myles: I remember my first shave, too.

Gabe Myles: I remember my first shave, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dezmond Harris: Like the bottom of a strawberry.

Dezmond Harris: Like the bottom of a strawberry.

Torrey Dale: BE BRAVE USE YOUR POTENTIAL

Torrey Dale: BE BRAVE USE YOUR POTENTIAL

Hunter Bradley: BASIC

Hunter Bradley: BASIC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dontea Jones: Excellent for when needing to appear pensive.

Dontea Jones: Excellent for when needing to appear pensive.

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

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

Nick James: Upside-down angry troll doll.

Nick James: Upside-down angry troll doll.

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

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

Anfernee Mullins: The Acorn.

Anfernee Mullins: Acorn.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No shave ‘til January.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The start of Independence Day weekend last Friday marked the official end of the 2015-16 athletic year for Mississippi State and the rest of the NCAA, bringing to close a year beginning with soccer and volleyball in August and finishing with baseball and track in June, a dozen other sports sandwiched between.

Each year is special in its own ways, to be sure, just as no season stands completely alone, always forming a chapter in the greater story of its program and sport. As far as Bulldog athletics go, however, 2015-16 easily stands one of the best in MSU history, and by one measurement, ranks top-to-bottom as the greatest in the modern era for those wearing the Maroon and White. MSU finished 44th in the annual Learfield Director’s Cup, a ranking of every athletic department in the country based on factors such as postseason success, conference championships and final rankings. That was the best finish ever not just by MSU, but by any school in the history of the state of Mississippi.

The Director’s Cup uses up to 20 sports for the rankings, meaning a school like MSU will always be at disadvantage in terms of overall ranking. However, the success can be easily seen as MSU has finished 52nd or better for four-straight years, when just a decade ago the Bulldogs were regularly outside of the top 100.

QGIPCTSVJQEOEUL.20151231022914Of course, no numbers-based ranking can truly reflect the entirety of a year for any program. MSU’s football team winning nine games and going to a bowl for the sixth-straight year is measurable. But no algorithm can convey the leadership and inspiration provided by someone like Dak Prescott. Similarly, nothing on paper shows the heartache of loss when Keith Joseph, Sr. and Keith Joseph, Jr., were unexpectedly taken from their family of both the blood and collegiate types.

A first place finish for John Cohen’s baseball team helped MSU’s standing, but the dogpile when MSU won the SEC Championship in Starkville can only be weighed in pounds. Joy, elation and realized potential are not so quantifiable as to be measured by any rankings.

Quinndary Weatherspoon’s game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer against Vanderbilt in The Hump still only counted for three points on the scoreboard. That shot, however, was one of the highlights of a year deemed to be a great success, even if it never showed up in the standings.

Record crowds, new facilities, even occasional acoustics issues – none of those counted toward the rankings, either.

But the things that do count? Well, MSU had plenty of those, too. Eight of MSU’s sixteen teams advanced to the postseason. Seven of them finished the season ranked in the Top 25 of their sport, while a total of nine made an appearance at one point or another.

Eleven different players were named All-Americans in their sport for their achievement on the field, while three more were named Academic All-Americans for their achievement in the classroom.

The baseball team won the SEC Championship, while John Cohen was named the SEC Coach of the Year. In track and field, MSU had two individual National Championships and four SEC Championships.

Important to the rankings or not, three different teams set a program record for SEC wins in a season. Three teams posted or tied their highest postseason finish ever. Three teams were among the final sixteen in their sport still alive in their postseasons and two of them even earned the right to host in the NCAA Tournament.

And it wasn’t just the coaches and players. MSU’s fans set single-season or average attendance records in five different sports, an impressive feat given the great attendance history of Bulldog athletics at home.

In the last year, MSU has had first-round picks, first-place finishes and first-year coaches. But it was just as much about those undrafted, about the last-place finishes, about the underdogs, about the Bulldogs always building toward something better, never being satisfied, no matter how great or small the achievement.

You get one day to celebrate, coaches say. Then, tomorrow, it’s on to the next game, practice or season. If that’s the case, then consider this MSU’s day to celebrate a milestone year as it patiently prepares for the next one to come.

To review the success of the 2015-16 athletic year, Athletic Director Scott Stricklin sat down with HailStateBeat writer Bob Carskadon for the following question-and-answer session.

——————————————

Question: MSU earned its highest finish ever in the Director’s Cup this year. To ask the obvious question, what does a department-wide performance like that mean to you, the person in charge of it all?

Answer: It’s an indication we’ve had a lot of teams have significant postseason success. Seven teams finished in the Top 25, and on top of that, you have a football team that won nine games and went to its sixth-straight bowl game. There are a lot of people succeeding at a high level. Five teams finished in the Top 16 of their sports or postseason event. There have been years where that happening to one team was a pretty big deal. You look at the sports it’s happening in; it’s a mix of men’s and women’s, high profile and Olympic sports. To me, it’s exciting. It’s a great indication of the great things that are happening here. I think it also sends a strong message that we can continue to build on this and do even better things.

 

Q: You mention the variety of sports doing well. I imagine there has to be a parental feel to being the Athletic Director. It may be the big three that get the attention, but you’ve said before, you care just as much as about winning in any one sport compared to any other.

A: It kind of reaffirms we’ve got good people in the coaching positions, and they in turn have put together good staffs and they’ve gone out and recruited really talented young people. We want to be a broad-based athletic program that succeeds across the board. You’ve got to have good people in all those positions to do that, so that’s affirming.

Some of those sports that didn’t have postseason opportunities I think are poised to join that mix really soon. You look at Ben Howland and men’s basketball and the excitement he’s generating there. What he’s building follows a similar path to where some of these other sports have been. We had some sports that didn’t make postseason this year that have been there in recent years in women’s golf and softball, so you think, ‘Man, if they get back in there and these other sports continue to achieve at a high level, we’re zooming past where we are right now.’

 

Q: You had two new head coaches in their first season on the job this year, Ben Howland with men’s basketball and David McFatrich with volleyball. The volleyball program had its best season in nine years. Basketball saw a huge uptick in recruiting while the product on the court, I think most would agree, appeared very improved. What’s your review of those two hires after year one?

A: They’re both different. Fatch is obviously a very good coach, had a winning record and kind of came out of nowhere. What I love about Fatch is, when he speaks, he is like. E. F. Hutton with his players. When he speaks, those girls just really lock into him. He is leading. They are following his leadership. At the end of the day, that’s what coaching is. It’s teaching and leading. They are locked into him. I don’t know if we have another sport where the team locks into their coach like the volleyball team does with Fatch, and it’s a credit to his ability to lead. Obviously, based on his first year, there’s a lot of excitement. He’s done it before. He had a lot of success at Central Arkansas, so he’s a guy with a track record who is showing why he had that track record.

With Ben, what a veteran, experienced, good guy he is, who knows how to win. He’s competitive. You can see that he really understands his sport and what it takes to be good in his sport and I think he really appreciates the opportunity of being at Mississippi State and being able to build something back up here. With the recruiting class he’s got in here – and just the improvement we made during the course of the season last year. I think you combine those two, and there’s cause for great excitement.

 

Q: The spring semester had a good deal of historic achievement. Baseball winning the SEC, track having incredible performances by both men and women, women’s tennis having one of its best seasons. But then, women’s basketball may be the biggest story of the year, reaching the Sweet 16 and hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Obviously, you hoped for good things when you hired Vic Schaefer four years ago, but even he has said it sometimes seems like things have gotten ahead of schedule.

A: Yeah, Vic’s just really good. You talk about a guy that’s got some charisma about him. Great passion, great work ethic for what he does. There’s not an audience that Vic Schaefer could stand in front of that wouldn’t get excited about what he’s talking about. He’s just got that southern Baptist preacher thing going. He’s got folks fired up for women’s basketball. Part of that is because they’re winning, and part of that is because he makes it fun. Kids play hard. Coaches attract young people who fit their personality, and Vic’s done that. He’s got a lot of charismatic young ladies on that team that are a joy to be around.

He’s set up well. He had a young roster this year when he won 28 games, finished second in the SEC and made the Sweet 16. So, there’s a lot of optimism that it’s going to be able to be maintained. The hardest thing to do, the most important thing to do, is to be good consistently. Don’t be a one-hit wonder. Vic has, I think, got the makings of making us a women’s basketball power pretty consistently.

[men’s tennis success under second-year head coach Matt Roberts]

You know, the other great story is what Matt Roberts did with men’s tennis. A lot of turnover on the roster. Some guys just didn’t fit what he envisioned for his program, and some of those guys were really good players. It took a guy who really has a lot of faith and trust in his own ability to go out and find the right guys and put them together. To have four freshmen out there playing quite a bit and to get to the Round of 16 in men’s tennis is a huge credit to his abilities. Also, I’m so proud of him. He just did what he believed in. Sometimes if you do what you believe in, it takes a while for the payoff. I’m just so happy and proud that he got that payoff finishing fourth in the SEC and making the Round of 16 the first year that he does it. For a young coach, that takes a real belief in yourself. I think that was an amazing story this year.

 

Q: Over the last few years, it feels like track and field has been similar as far as underrated stories. It’s not a spectator sport, so it perhaps doesn’t get the attention it deserves, but there have been multiple National Champions and SEC Champions under head coach Steve Dudley, and around a half dozen of his players will be representing their countries in the Olympics next month.

A: Steve Dudley is a Bulldog in every sense of the word. Not only was he an athlete here, but just his personality, man, he is determined and fierce and tenacious. He’s a winner. We’ve been fortunate to have two incredible athletes from a career standpoint in Brandon McBride and Erica Bougard, but then we had Marta Freitas win the 1,500-meter. Second-straight year a Bulldog has won that event. Last year, it was Rhiann Price. So you have two straight years Mississippi State wins the same event with different athletes. That doesn’t happen very often. You’ve got a young guy like Curtis Thompson step up and win the javelin. A lot of that is a credit to our coaches in finding these young people and developing them and putting them in a position where they can succeed.

 

Q: Continuing with the theme of spring success, MSU won its first regular season SEC Baseball Championship in over 25 years. At a school with this much history and tradition in the sport, it must feel good to be back at the top.

A: [Laughs]

Q: Not that it’s been bad recently!

A: Yeah, I mean, we’ve been to Omaha five times in that interim, which is crazy. I don’t think anybody would’ve guessed that. In some ways, it’s harder to win the SEC than it is to get to Omaha. It’s good to add another number, another year to that total and to reacquaint ourselves with what that trophy feels like. To me, it’s a great example of why it’s important to be consistently good. If you’re good every year, you can maintain momentum, but then you do have opportunities like this. If our baseball team was not one that’s consistently good, it’s probably a lot harder to win the championship. As it was, we’ve been consistently good and it’s still a challenge. I think we’ll see it in some other sports going forward, the same kind of opportunity present itself, because we’ve been able to build sustained momentum and put ourselves in a position to bring some more trophies home.

 

Q: To that end, you see all these programs steadily rising. Several teams had their best finishes this year in their respective team histories. Does it feel like that elusive National Championship is becoming more and more possible, or even likely?

A: I keep saying, it’s not a question of if. It’s a matter of when. That’s gonna be a lot of fun when that happens. I don’t know which sport is going to be the first sport, but we’ve had a baseball team play for a National Championship. We’ve had a football team spend five weeks as the No. 1 team in the country. We’ve had a women’s basketball team and several others this year come a few games away from winning it. You can sense that we’re closing in. Our women’s golf team finished sixth in the country. Track team finished in the Top 10 two-straight years. That’s still a big step, but I think we’re progressing that way and we’re going to have a big-time celebration when it happens.

 

Q: Going back to the big picture here, MSU set records all over the place in attendance this year, both for single-game and full-season attendance. Certainly, a lot of that has to do with the facilities themselves expanding in some situations, but why do you think it is? Not that MSU fans have ever not been supportive, but over the last several years, that seems to have taken on an all new life.

A: Well, I think a lot of the credit goes to our marketing team and our ticket office and everyone else who interacts with our fans. They made it more than just about the game. They’ve added a lot of stuff. They’ve made people aware. They’ve found unique ways to bring the sports and the games to the consciousness of the public. As a department, we’re creating some pretty unique experiences, and that’s our goal. We always say that. We want to create unique experiences, and a big part of why you want to do that is you want people to come out. If it’s a great experience, they’re going to come back out again. If it’s just showing up for a game and you don’t worry about the other piece of it, you don’t worry about how clean and nice the facility is, you don’t worry about what the video board content is, you don’t worry about all the other things that go along with that, then they’re only going to come back if they really fall in love with that particular game. But, if you pay attention to all that other stuff, they may come back because of the game, but they may come back just because they had a great time in general.

We want to create that environment that’s fun and inviting. Our coaches have a lot to do with that. We’ve talked about hiring coaches who understand that they’re in the sales business, and they’re selling Mississippi State not only to recruits, but also to fans. So, when you go to a women’s basketball game or a softball game and the team comes into the stands after the game to take pictures and hug necks, that’s a pretty good form of marketing. When the baseball team shows up at your door with the season tickets that you bought, that’s a pretty good form of engagement. I don’t think there’s any one thing. I just think there’s an understanding that we’re going to make this fun and we’re going to connect with people.

 

Q: I know the numbers have grown from a measurables standpoint, but have you been able to sense that increased something among the fans in a less obvious way?

A: Yeah, I think there is a sense of momentum. I don’t think it’s new. I think it’s been building. Really, you go back probably to when Coach Mullen was hired. It kind of started in football and as other coaches have come in and plotted their own course, it’s kind of taken over campus. Our student body does a great job of supporting our sports. We got incredible student support at football and you see it in all the other sports. Let’s face it, Starkville has become a pretty key retirement community, and part of that is people coming here because they want to be able to go to sporting events. So, we’ve captured a lot of that market.

Most of the sports are priced really affordable for those on a budget, and in a lot of cases, we don’t charge anything. We’ve taken away as many impediments as we can to why you wouldn’t come out. I do think there’s a sense that our campus is a place to be and the sporting complexes are where things are happening.

 

Q: One of the things you always talk about being important to you and the coaches is the academic side of being a student-athlete. This year, MSU had three Academic All-Americans, some record highs in teams GPA, Scholar Athletes and similar accolades. I would imagine things like that are just as, and maybe in some ways, even more rewarding than many other achievements.

A: Coach Mullen says being a champion is not a sometimes thing, it’s got to be in every part of your life. The academic piece is a big part of why the student-athletes are here. We had 340 scholarship athletes on our campus this semester and 182 of them – well over half – had a 3.0 GPA or better. You look at the number of graduates. A bunch of kids with 4.0s. [Assistant Athletic Director of Academics] Christine Jackson and our academic staff do a tremendous job of supporting them and our coaches make it a priority. Our coaches support those efforts. It takes everybody understanding the role that plays. There’s going to be a time for all of our athletes when the ball stops bouncing and they’re going to have to use that degree. For some, it’ll happen earlier than others, but it’s going to happen for all of them at some point. We stress that to them. Obviously, they take that to heart.

 

Q: On the facilities end, you’re not going to expand the football stadium every year, but you still had a lot of big projects finished or getting closer to starting this year. How do you evaluate the year and those projects?

A: You know, I never look at that as a year-to-year thing. To me, the facility thing is just ongoing. It never stops. It’s not like you close a fiscal year and just say, ‘Well, we’re done with facilities for the year.’ We’re always in progress. We’re putting some new coats of paint up at Davis Wade. There’s always maintenance and things you’re doing in addition to the more noticeable or impactful things like Nusz Park or the golf facility or the new soccer field house that’s going up right now. As soon as you finish one, you’re already working on the other, you’re going down the road.

Baseball is the next big one, but we’re also going to start some pre-planning on the future of The Hump and Davis Wade. We need to do an indoor tennis facility. There’s always a place you can improve yourself when it comes to facilities.

 

Q: Finishing up here. A lot of your professional history has been on the external side of athletics with marketing and media relations. After you won Athletic Director of the Year, your marketing staff and media relations staff both won team of the year honors. What did that mean to you?

A: I think it’s really cool. [Senior Associate Director of Athletics for External Affairs] Scott Wetherbee has put together a really wonderful external team. Scott’s an unsung hero of our department. He’s the one who got squeezed out of this deal. His boss gets an award, the two groups that report up to him win an award, and he’s just standing there. I guess he can bask in their reflected glory. I think his first hire was [marketing director] Leah Beasley after we hired Scott three years ago, and Leah has been phenomenal. She’s a superstar. Shortly thereafter, he brought [media relations director] Bill Martin on, and Bill’s just got such a bright future and is so good at what he does. You’ve got some really young, talented people there, and they’ve put together some really young, talented staffs around them. It’s just kind of neat to see them get rewarded in that way. It speaks very highly of our whole department, I think. Those groups would be the first to tell you, they get a lot of help from people outside their immediate units.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know if they do an award for every part of athletics, but I’d put our business office, our compliance staff, our training room, our equipment staff – I’d put them all up against anybody. I just think we’re really blessed to have special people. Our field maintenance team won turf management group of the year. We’ve just got good people from top to bottom.

Sometimes we lose people and I think what you’re seeing now is we’re launching a lot of careers. People see Mississippi State as a place where they can come, they can get their foot in the door and they can have opportunities after that. Our marketing team is a great example. They’ve lost a number of young interns or entry-level positions to other jobs that are promotions, because people are recognizing the talent that’s coming through here. For us to be a good athletic department, we have to have really talented people who work really hard and are passionate about what they do. Those awards are just an example that we’ve been able to do that.

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Current associate AD, former MSU tight end Duncan McKenzie retiring after 28 years

To many, Duncan McKenzie is Mississippi State’s second-highest ranking official in the athletic department, the Executive Associate Athletic Director who runs (among many other things) State’s growing budget. To others, he’s a former MSU tight end, playing for the Bulldogs from 1974-77. Similarly, many in these parts know him as the Starkville native who starred at running back for the Starkville Academy Volunteers in the years preceding his college career.

McKenzie_Duncan1Most of that ends next week, though. Duncan McKenzie, after 28-plus years in MSU’s athletic department and several more as a student-athlete, is retiring to live full-time as what he’s known to only a handful of people: a husband and a father.

“It’s been great here,” he said. “I’ve been extremely blessed. I work with great people. The people in my office are just the most wonderful people in the world. It just came to a point where I want to spend more time with my family.”

Namely, he wants to spend more time with his wife Tinna. His two sons, Matthew and Johnathan, are out of the house, both having graduated from MSU with engineering degrees. A man who always knew how to work a budget, McKenzie is certainly prepared for retirement in the financial sense, too.

Parts of retirement, however, are harder to measure and far more important to him. The primary goal of his professional life has been maintaining the health of MSU’s athletic budget, a job he’s done very well, helping MSU perform at a high level despite having one of the SEC’s smallest budgets to work with. In personal life, however, his pillars are faith and family. In all he does, he will happily share, he wants to be a beacon of his beliefs, an example of his faith. All work put in over decades of accounting and number-crunching were with his family in mind.

That’s the man I grew up knowing, “Mr. Duncan” to me. His son Matthew and I were in the same kindergarten class, the same graduating class and the same freshman class at MSU the next year. My most specific memories from elementary school field trips aren’t the places we visited, but the mother – Tinna McKenzie – who signed up as a chaperone to help with every single one, snapping pictures and taking video along the way.

Mr. Duncan and Mrs. Tinna were my Sunday school teachers one year, and they had all of us on the soccer, basketball or whatever-sport teams over to the house on free weekend afternoons every year. We’re technically co-workers now, but the person I grew up seeing, Mr. Duncan, is the person McKenzie is retiring to permanently become.

“Tinna and I, we prayed about this for a while,” he explained. “You plan for it in a lot of different ways. The time away from your family, especially your wife – I’m so blessed with a wonderful wife. It just got to the point where I’m tired of giving that up and wanted to spend more time with her and maybe do something different.”

Duncan with, from left to right, Tinna, Duncan, daughter-in-law Nikki and Matthew

Duncan with, from left to right, Tinna, Johnathan, daughter-in-law Nikki and Matthew

That’s not to say he hasn’t fully enjoyed the work side of things the last three decades, though. He has, in fact, had a great deal of fun performing one of the toughest jobs in the department and in the conference as MSU’s CFO. His ability to stretch one of the SEC’s smallest budgets enough to keep MSU at or near the top of the conference in seemingly every category has been equals parts valuable and impressive as so much growth has occurred in recent years. New facilities, new staff positions, ever-growing coaching salaries and always-expanding sport budgets have all been handled quietly and intelligently in McKenzie’s office.

“The thing that’s kind of interesting at Mississippi State, and what I really enjoyed, is trying to compete in this league with not as many resources as everyone else,” he said. “Stretch the dollars as far as we can. I’ve enjoyed that part. It’s stressful at times when you’re saying no a lot, but at the same time, that’s been a fun part of it.

You’re doing it to protect the university, to protect the athletic director, to protect our coaches. While it’s sports and it’s entertainment, it’s still a business, and it’s a big business, so I’ve tried to approach it from that side. It’s neat being a former athlete and being able to do that.”

His confession to often having to be the person to say ‘No’ is something of a running joke among his colleagues, and one they say he always takes in stride. It’s one of the harder parts of the job, certainly, but it is absolutely necessary, as Athletic Director Scott Stricklin explained.

Stricklin knows that, despite what he would prefer, people don’t like telling the athletic director bad news or things he doesn’t want to hear. He is their boss, after all. Stricklin finds that McKenzie’s willingness to be honest, along with his tact in delivering those messages, is among his greatest assets, one of many reasons he will miss having McKenzie around.

“Duncan has always loved Mississippi State and this community. You see that in how he goes about what he does. More than anything, Duncan’s just a great person. Not a good person. A great person,” Stricklin said. “There are few people I trust, if anyone, more than Duncan McKenzie. He’s honest. He’s not going to blur any lines or cross any lines. His integrity is impeccable.

“I happy for he and Tinna, but selfishly, I’m going to be sad not seeing him down the hall anymore,” Stricklin continued. “Mississippi State’s not in the position we’re in financially if it’s not for Duncan McKenzie … It’s not easy being responsible for a budget the size we have. I’m going to miss having them there because I have so much trust and faith in him.”

McKenzie will miss being down the hall, too. But for any bittersweet emotions he feels about leaving his office of 28-and-a-half years, he knows that what waits on the other side is better than anything he leaves behind. His relationships with co-workers, with former teammates, with current student-athletes and with all people who crossed his path at MSU will be valued for the rest of what he hopes will be a long life of retirement.

Now, however, he gets to go full-time with his most cherished relationship. He couldn’t be more excited to spend the rest of his days with Mrs. Tinna.

“She’s my best friend,” he said. “Some people say they’re scared of retirement. To me, the most exciting part of it is just being able to spend time with her. We like to camp, so we’re going to go camping. Since both boys have moved out, we’ve just gotten closer. I’m just really looking forward to spending more time with her.”

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Celebrating Mississippi State dads on Father’s Day

One of the weirder things about this job is the interaction with parents of the athletes I write about. Fans, friends, coaches, teammates, even my bosses – I know they will all be more or less fine with what I write, whether they love it, hate it or forget about it within minutes. But the parents, that’s what makes me nervous.

Mississippi State pitcher Kale Breaux with his father, posted on twitter: "Thank you for the many opportunities and the lessons you've given me!"

Mississippi State pitcher Kale Breaux with his father, posted on twitter: “Thank you for the many opportunities and the lessons you’ve given me!”

Last weekend at Mississippi State’s Super Regional in Starkville, I heard someone call my name as I was walking to the press box. I turned around and it was Tim Sexton, father of MSU pitcher Austin Sexton. A million things ran through my mind, like a kid called to the principal’s office trying to remember what he had done wrong. In the half-second I had to think, I wondered, “Did he say ‘Bob’ in a mad way? Did I say something bad about Austin on Twitter? I’m pretty sure he’s on Twitter. Maybe I wrote something? Maybe he’s mad because I haven’t written enough!”

Tim Sexton, near as I can tell, anyway, is not an angry person. In fact, he’s been nothing but kind to me in the instances I’ve been around him and has appeared overwhelmingly supportive in the sacrifices he has made for his son to have reached the point he is now, having just signed an MLB contract this weekend. Parents of the players I cover just make me nervous.

They’re the ones who know the subject the best and the ones who will be the first to notice if something is wrong or some sleight has been made. They are the ones to whom the stories often mean the most, the ones who used to put school pictures and report cards on the fridge, who built shelves for little league trophies and went on visits all over the country before a choice was made to go to MSU.

All of this running through my head in the split second I stopped and held out my hand to shake his, scared of what he was about to say.

“I just wanted to say thank you for the story you wrote on Austin last week,” he said. “That really meant a lot to us.”

Dads are so proud of their kids. I can’t imagine the stress of someone like Tim standing along the wall of the concourse behind home plate and watching his son pitch in front of 15,000. Likewise, I surely have no concept of the joy fathers like him get from watching their children perform and perform well on some of the country’s biggest stages in the SEC.

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Assistant volleyball coach Brittany Newberry with her dad, shared on Twitter

An all-conference, All-American or Player of the Week honor is just another fact for most of us, something to tweet about or slip into a line of a story. For those dads, though, it’s another trophy on the shelf, a picture in the newspaper framed in their office, a call to grandma to tell her what great thing her grandchild did this week. It’s validation that their child is every bit as special as they always believed them to be.

Dads are everywhere in sports, and not just in the memories of teaching their kids to throw a baseball in the yard or shoot on a hoop in the driveway. Dads are motivation for some. Dads made the sacrifices for others. Many of the athletes are dads themselves, their children serving as an inspiration for every rep in the gym and every minute in their fields of play. Dads raise athletes, they raise fans, they raise those who become coaches and surrogate fathers to athletes of their own one day.

John Cohen, for instance, is very much the man and coach he is today because of the law-professor father he had growing up in Tuscaloosa. Vann Stuedeman’s dad couldn’t be prouder of the softball coaches his children have turned out to be. Bob Mullen stays away from the spotlight his son Dan so often commands, happy to watch from the stands like so many other dads.

Dads come in all varieties. Some were athletes just like their kids, while some never had an athletic bone in their fatherly bodies. Some dads are present, some are not. Some dads are stepdads. Some dads are moms. Some dads are coaches. The case could be made that all coaches are dads, at a certain level.

Preston Smith with his daughter

Preston Smith with his daughter Lauren Marie, posted to Twitter

In this space, I’ve written about the day Preston Smith became a father, the morning of the 2013 Liberty Bowl, a day sparking a run that took him from his junior year at MSU to a career in the NFL. He sat on the phone in his hotel room in Memphis while family members told him all about his daughter, Lauren Marie Smith, who looked just like him. Father’s Day, to him, was New Year’s Eve, not a Sunday in June.

Last summer, when MSU hosted the SEC Outdoor Track Championships, State’s Zach Taylor beat every personal record he had as he placed second in the decathlon and qualified for the NCAA Championships, fulfilling a promise made to the father he recently lost. Tears of both joy and grief welled up in his proudest moment.

This spring, nearing the conclusion of an unlikely college career of both the basketball and educational type, Travis Daniels wondered what life would have been like if he had ever known his father. He also shared how bleak the outlook certainly would have been were it not for the foster parents he later found.

Last fall, tragedy struck when Keith Joseph, Sr,. and Keith Joseph, Jr., were lost to a car accident, father and son, both Bulldogs, leaving the world together. Both were known for their smile, for their talent and for the fact that they were very much father and son.

After being faced with the difficult task of writing a story that could accurately capture the life of a legend, it was Jack Cristil’s daughter who was among the first to reach out to me, thanking MSU for the tribute to her daddy.

Just last semester, Cam Lawrence returned to school and finished his degree because he knew that, more than his NFL career or any other venture, would make his dad the proudest.

Dads have made Mississippi State what it is now, both through their own work and through supporting their children.

Hall of Famer Bailey Howell did it once as a player, and does it again now as father of Anne Stricklin, father-in-law of Scott Stricklin. Peggy Prescott did it for years, often playing the role of both mother and father to Dak and his brothers. Like so many other Maroon-and-White-clad fathers, Ryan Sparks does it, too, the backwards-hat-wearing dad of the most famous five-year-old fan MSU has seen, the curly-haired and always-visible Reed Sparks.

Father's Day picture posted by MSU defensive lineman Jonathan Calvin with his family and Dan Mullen

Father’s Day picture posted to Instagram by MSU defensive lineman Jonathan Calvin with his family and Dan Mullen, thanking all for the support and opportunity

The stands at softball games, the areas outside locker room doors after football games, the courtside seats following basketball games – they’re all filled with dads.

I’m occasionally nervous, sure, but I’m grateful to the dads, to my own dad. I’m thankful for the work put in, the sacrifices made, the hours and dollars spent, all so they could share their kids with the rest of us. The most stressed among us at any game as they watch their sons and daughters play, they are also responsible for the best among us at any moment, the proudest of any achievement no matter how great or small.

I wouldn’t be who I am without my dad.

Mississippi State wouldn’t be what it is without its dads.

Thank you and happy Father’s Day to them all.

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SEC Championship season comes to hard end at home for MSU

When unexpected, finality is devastating. Finality is crushing. Finality not only takes the breath out of the lungs, but swirls emotions, halts words in throats and unleashes torrents of tears fueled by love and regret alike.

CABQLBLGSBMBYUD.20160612040500In sports, the end of the season is the hardest part not because it’s the end, but because you didn’t know that was when the end was coming. Competitive flames burning year-round are snuffed out in a single moment, the belief that tomorrow would always be there upended with one swing of a bat.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Mississippi State’s baseball team, they thought. Not this year. Not this group. They were special, they believed. And they were right, which only made the end that much harder.

When John Cohen arrived at the press conference podium following his team’s elimination at home in the Starkville Super Regional, he did so as someone who has been through decades of competitive baseball. He did so as someone who has seen more seasons come to an end than his starting lineup combined. Experience doesn’t soften the blow, but it does prepare you for the pain.

His players, however, weren’t prepared. Brent Rooker and Austin Sexton, representing their teammates as they took the podium next to Cohen, had faces that looked as if they had seen death for the first time. In an allegorical sense, they sort of had. It was the death of a season, and it was one that came unexpectedly. That, again, is when things are most difficult.

Not knowing then that his comments were foreshadowing a hard ending, Cohen reminisced on his days as a player the night MSU won the 2016 regular season SEC Championship. When you’re a player on the team, he said, you think things like that are going to happen every year. Freshmen do it once and think it will happen every season they’re on campus. Juniors and seniors always believe, this is their year, no matter what year it is.

As a coach, Cohen said that night, you realize how rare those experiences are, how hard it is to accomplish such feats. The awareness of their rarity makes appreciation for big wins even greater.

CQWNKESNRVARTMI.20160612040501Such victories, however, seem to demand or even require the assumed invincibility of youth. The rigid belief that they are the best, that no one will beat them, is absolutely necessary to becoming the best and to ensuring one is never beat.

And that’s why the struggle with finality is so difficult for players to handle, the end such hard a concept to grasp.

Every single player on the bench believed they were going to win game two Saturday night, that they would win then win game three on Sunday and that this time next weekend they’d be in Omaha for the College World Series. In the first inning, ninth inning and 11th inning, the belief never wavered.

All year long, even when loss seemed immediately upon them, the expectation was always that the next pitch, the next inning or the next game would bring redemption, would bring victory. More times than not, they were right, and they had no reason to feel differently Saturday night in Starkville.

“At no point in the game did I think we were going to lose,” Sexton said.

You could see it on his face, hear it in his voice. He wasn’t offering what he thought were the right words for reporters. He was sharing what he genuinely felt. His firm belief that MSU was going to win was being disproved by the cold fact of the moment. They lost.

State’s players thought they were going to win a National Championship, and that dream being dashed is certainly part of why the loss was so hard. However, the most difficult thing, players will almost always say, is realizing two truths at the same time. First, that the journey was far more meaningful than the destination the whole time. Second, that the journey is over.

“It is disappointing that we came this far and weren’t able to finish it,” Rooker began as the tears came, the words getting stuck somewhere between heart and mouth. “But the biggest disappointment to me is that I don’t get to be around this group of guys anymore. This is a special group and that’s what hurts the most, having to leave these guys.”

VJNOEKJQYOFAUVV.20160612040501Rooker may be back, that’s a decision he’ll have to make after being drafted on Saturday. A lot of his teammates will be off to play pro ball. Some will just graduate. And plenty more, Rooker perhaps among them, will return and work to ensure they don’t have to feel this way again. But it won’t be the same team. Might be better, might be worse. But it will definitely be different.

That’s what Cohen remembers about the end of seasons as a player, and it’s the words of his former coach at MSU, Ron Polk, that he shared with the team in their final moments after the game. The same hard message Polk delivered then, Cohen had to repeat for his own club.

This, he said, is the last time this group will ever be together. Sitting in their lockers and trying to come to terms with their new reality, it was the final experience for those 27 players together, the last minutes for that exact group to exist as it was. It’s a hard truth, but a necessary one. The finality is a bitter pill that has to be swallowed.

The most important thing in those final moments, Cohen said, is to appreciate what they had, what they did together. One loss at the end does not define a season of wins, a year of training and four months of life lived and games played together at home and on the road. What they did was special, and what they accomplished will be remembered within that locker room forever.

“They are champions,” Cohen said. “They can hold their heads up and know they were a great Mississippi State baseball team. Looking at the tradition of our program, that’s saying a lot.”

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MSU’s Kruger a dominant leader on the diamond, passionate learner in life

Jack Kruger is a nerd.

GJHGRVCQZMMDLHA.20160605034846He’s a 6’1”, standout catcher who has started 52 games for Mississippi State’s SEC Champion baseball team. He bats .350, owns a slugging percentage of .562 and has forearms that could earn him a lifetime gig in Hollywood playing a mob henchman. He’s got 71 hits, zero errors, and after spending an entire game squatting as a catcher in the middle of a hot, Mississippi day last Friday, he managed to hit an inside-the-park home run in the eighth inning to ensure his Bulldogs won game one of their Regional.

And he’s a big ol’ nerd.

“I just love learning,” Kruger spouted with a smile when asked what he does in his free time.

That question came, on a hunch, about seven minutes into a group interview that really should’ve ended at about the five-minute mark, and turned out to continue for another 30.

A few days in advance of MSU hosting the Starkville Regional last weekend, the dozen or so reporters who typically cover the team were gathered to talk to MSU’s players about the baseball games to come. Whatever some of our lengthy stories may indicate to the contrary, previewing games is not a subject on which that many questions can be asked and get any kind of different answer.

That’s why I say the interview probably should’ve ended within five minutes, once all the baseball questions had been asked, some more than once, each answered in suitable fashion. And that’s why, remembering something his teammate Dakota Hudson had said in another baseball-centric interview a week prior, I took a flier on a question about Kruger’s hobbies once all the ‘How excited are you to play in a Regional?’ questions had been exhausted.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever talked to him,” Hudson, the All-American pitcher, said with a knowing look and sneaky smile last week, “but Jack is extremely smart. I feel like he’s on another wavelength sometimes.”

When I told head coach John Cohen I was working on a story about Kruger, the response was similar.

“He’s exceptionally bright, isn’t he?” Cohen asked, checking for agreement. “He’s intellectual. He’s so bright. He’s so inquisitive about everything that’s going on in the world around him.”

Not only is he exceptionally bright, but he’s exceptionally interesting and exceptionally interested in everything that crosses his path. So finally, as the other reporters slowly turned off their recorders and walked away when they sensed I was about to go on a run of questions whose answers they didn’t care to hear or write about, Kruger got to talk about, well, everything.

“These are the kinds of interviews I was always hoping I would have,” he told me after about 15 minutes as I apologized for keeping him there with questions about chess, documentaries, drummers and George Orwell. “[Reporters] can ask, ‘How did it feel to hit a home run?’

Here, he paused for a laugh.

“’Awful,’” he sarcastically pretended to answer the fake question. “’It was really bad. I hated it.’ I mean, I can answer those questions, but those are one-dimensional questions that are going to get one-dimensional answers.”

And Kruger is anything but one-dimensional.

KVUWZBZEVULPROM.20160605034846He plays the piano, the guitar and the ukulele – the latter of which simply because a friend once bet him he couldn’t.

He’s an accomplished juggler.

His Netflix and cable habits run from things like The Office and Lance Armstrong documentaries to crime dramas about subtle lie detecting and features on the world’s best drummers.

“Do you watch Lie To Me,” he asked.

I don’t, I replied.

“It’s based on a true story of a professor who went to Papua New Guinea and started studying micro expressions and facial expressions to tell when people are lying,” he explained. “He reads people. I think that’s fascinating. I try to do it and I’m wrong all the time. But it’s really fun.”

Just 18 or so hours before this interview, Kruger had ordered a mess of poker books online, intrigued after reading about people making millions off a card game. He’s not so much interested in the money, but the idea of keeping track of cards and odds and possibilities appeals to his often-analytical mind.

That’s part of why he spends countless hours playing online chess, too. It’s the same reason he up and drove to a Toys-R-Us one day for the express purpose of buying a Rubik’s Cube.

It’s also – back to the game – a large part of why he’s so good at baseball, and it’s one of the main reasons Cohen wanted him on the team in the first place.

“The other thing we look for in our catchers is the ability to make decisions on their own with what they’re seeing,” Cohen explained. “’Can we go fastball in on this guy? Does that guy have his stuff? What pitch is he able to locate on that day?’ To give that responsibility to somebody, they really have to be wise beyond their years. In the recruiting process, I was convinced that he was going to be one of those guys.”

Hudson confirmed, “He’s got a great baseball mind.”

HTWBLRVQNFRWEPS.20160606061202It’s in those interactions and decisions that Kruger really shows his worth. He only has concrete numbers to back up his value as a hitter – and those are great numbers, obviously – but the subtleties of his relationships with pitchers, his ability to read them and communicate with them, is a significant piece of what’s made MSU’s pitching staff so effective in 2016 and what’s made Kruger so important to the team.

Not only is he sizing up batters and calling pitches, but he’s playing in-game psychologist to help his pitchers maintain focus and lengthen appearances.

“You can’t always take a mound visit and light into a guy,” Kruger said. “Different guys respond differently. That is all learned off the field. That’s all learned when you hang out together, or you go out to lunch. There’s so much that people don’t see, and that’s getting to know your pitchers and saying the right things when you go out. A mound visit can be extremely helpful, and it can be extremely detrimental, and you have to take those with care.

“Leadership is a lot about trust and a lot about serving.” He continued. “Being a catcher, especially, serving your pitcher first … If you’re a leader, you want to be feared or loved. I love The Office. [Michael Scott] says, ‘I want people to fear how much they love me.’ To be honest, I’d rather be feared. They can love you all they want, but if they respect and trust you, it’s kind of like a parent-type thing … I’d rather be feared and have them take seriously what I have to say.”

Part Two:

Under the Knife, Onto the Page

“I remember telling him, ‘This anesthesia is going to wear off. Make sure you have a get-sick bag.’ And, I mean, like, eight seconds later, he was throwing up.”

Last fall, during an off weekend when the entire team, training staff and assorted members of MSU’s baseball program were out of town, Kruger had his first surgery. With his family in California, his roommate at home for the weekend and his team trainer on a honeymoon, Kruger had no one to watch after him as he recovered. No one except for Cohen and his wife Nelle, that is, who took him into their home for the weekend.

His memories may be fuzzy, and theirs entertaining, but the Cohen house was a perfect escape for Kruger. That weekend was an example of why MSU was such a natural fit for him, and why he’s loved so much being in Starkville for the past year, the last stop of a collegiate journey that’s taken him from Oregon to junior college and now here.

YOLJCJLUVNHZATJ.20160603225814In John Cohen, Jack Kruger has a kindred spirit. Nelle Cohen sees the similarities as she remembers her husband at the same age so many years ago. They are anything but aloof, and neither necessarily in their own world, but each can be hard to read as their wheels are always turning, their synapses always firing, connections being made across various universes of experience and knowledge. In both, an obsession with baseball is complemented by a love affair with the world around them.

“I like talking to [Cohen]. He’s similar in that he likes just talking about the phone book,” Kruger said. “[Nelle] is awesome. At their house for surgery, I got to spend time with her. It’s really fun to talk to them because they both love talking about everything. They know at least a little bit about everything. It’s not one-dimensional, which I love. I love talking to people who aren’t one-dimensional.”

“You could tell he was exceptionally bright,” Cohen said. “He’s so well-read. Most kids his age don’t read the way he reads. He sat in my office one day and said he tries to read a book every week or so. I was like, ‘OK, wow.’”

It’s because of conversations like those that Cohen now expects more from Kruger not just in baseball, but in all topics covered. The head coach often calls out his junior catcher in team meetings when, the Socratic-styled teacher he can often be, he’s looking for someone to answer a question.

Kruger shared an example.

“He’ll be like, ‘In 1901 at the World’s Fair in New York, does anyone know who the President was?’ And for some reason,” Kruger said with his usual grin, “he always looks at me, like, ‘You must know the answer because you enjoy reading.’”

And Kruger really does enjoy reading. He loves it, mowing down books like his pitchers mow down batters. His biggest gripe about college is being so far away from his personal library at home. The entire last half of our “interview” – more of an off-the-rails conversation by that point – was about reading.

Kruger, a devout Christian, reads a lot of faith-based books and authors. Books about hobbies pique his interest, too. He loves fiction as well as biographies, reading up on Nelson Mandela and the Navy SEALs in the same weeks he devours books about astronauts on Mars and wizards attending schools of magical learning. Although, despite an affinity for dystopian future stories (George Orwell’s classic 1984 is among his favorites), he avoids most science fiction and fantasy novels.

“The only truly sci-fi book that I’ve truly loved is The Martian,” he said.

“Dude,” I responded professionally, “I love The Martian. It is technically sci-fi in that it is fiction, and it is based on science, but it’s just a good book. His character is hilarious.”

“So funny,” he confirmed. “I haven’t read it recently. I’m getting our trainer to read it. I’m going to re-read it after him. I love that book. I don’t know what it is. I liked the movie. It was an entertaining movie, but the book – it doesn’t compare. It never does. And people who aren’t readers will never understand that.”

Maybe we’ll start a book club. It’s the kind of thing Kruger would do. He’s always finding new projects, new interests that spark his curiosity and engage his desire to learn everything he can.

A great deal of his waking hours are taken up by baseball, naturally, but he believes the greatest mistake people can make is to not use whatever free time they have to try new things and explore fresh avenues of experience.

“I’ve found, a lot of times, the best things in my life have come from pursuing something that I impulsively had a desire for. I think a lot of people miss out on so many great opportunities.

“How many people have said, ‘Oh, I want to learn to play the guitar,’ and then they never do it? I learned to play the guitar because I was in a shop getting piano books and I told my mom I wanted to play the guitar, and so we impulsively bought a guitar. I play the ukulele because a friend told me I couldn’t … Got a Rubik’s Cube because, as soon as I saw someone do it, I drove to Toys-R-Us and I bought a Rubik’s Cube. I mean, everything. Even poker. I saw someone made a lot of money off of it, and it’s not something I want to make a lot of money from, but I thought, ‘Hey, that sounds really cool.’ So, I bought poker books last night online.”

With so many interests, it’s easy to wonder what it is Kruger actually plans to do with his life. Unlike Michael Scott (and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James), Kruger will have a business school degree, so that’s a good starting point. His baseball career is quite promising, as well, and the odds of him continuing his career on the diamond in some fashion are quite high.

If that doesn’t work out, Kruger loves the idea of working in the non-profit world, as well. Perhaps, he mentioned, doing something with the International Justice Mission, which fights slavery, sex trafficking and other human rights violations around the globe. Perhaps, he joked, he’ll be an astronaut. Who knows what world might permanently lay hold of his time and devotion.

Even politics, MSU pitching coach Wes Johnson remarked, could be an option, if he so chose.

“I call him President Kruger,” Johnson said, “because he’s got the makeup and the mindset that he may be President of this country one day, if he wants to be.”

His 21 years of life so far are only the first chapters of a book that is far from finished and whose ending none have yet determined.

In the meantime, Kruger will continue playing baseball. He’s got a Super Regional this weekend, something he’s determined to win and will use all of his wits and experience to accomplish. If things go right, Kruger and MSU have the College World Series after that. Books, movies and music are fun, but baseball is his passion, the constant in his life.

The emphasis on learning and education formed a natural tie between Kruger and Cohen, but the head coach said it is his catcher’s desire to be part of something special with this baseball team that impresses him the most. The fact that his variety interests often translate to the game only makes his presence that much more enjoyable for Cohen.

And if he can master the ukulele along the way, even better.

“We’re not here for that long,” Kruger observed. “We’re just renting time and it’s fun to learn new stuff.”

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National Championship, not Regional, on MSU’s mind after sweeping Starkville Regional

As Sunday’s game was nearing its end, Mississippi State coach John Cohen turned to his assistant coaches with a question on his mind, a thought that had just struck him for the first time. He didn’t want to jinx anything, but his team had the lead on Louisiana Tech and appeared to be closing in on a Regional Championship.

How, he asked the rest of his staff, would the players respond if they held on and won?

RSDXYXVXNGKJCZU.20160606061202Would they dogpile on the mound? Would they empty their Gatorade bottles on each other? Would they jump up and down, yell and cheer or hug and high-five in celebration? After all, the coaches give them no instruction. Players are told what to do all game long. When it’s over, the choice is theirs on how to react. Go with wherever the moment takes you.

Cohen’s curiosity dissipated momentarily as his team finished out the game, but once the final out was recorded and MSU won the Starkville Regional to advance to the Supers, Cohen was surprised by what he saw.

Mississippi State’s entire roster walked onto the field, formed an orderly line, shook hands with Tech’s players and coaches, shook hands with each other, then went straight back to the dugout to collect their things and head to the locker room.

The celebration, if one could call it that, was no more exuberant than if the Bulldogs had won a non-conference series in the beginning of the regular season.

“Our goal wasn’t to win a Regional,” junior outfielder and Starkville Regional Most Outstanding Player Brent Rooker explained. “Our goal is to win a National Championship and we haven’t accomplished that yet. When we accomplish that, we’ll celebrate.”

“The way they responded was pretty business-like,” Cohen observed afterward. “I have to admit, I was very impressed with our kids.”

It was something Rooker and his teammates talked about in the locker room following the game. It’s an understood mindset. As loose, laid-back and generally carefree and emotive as this team is, the players have a very clear understanding of their goals, paired with a very deep and proud devotion to not only restoring their good names, but establishing themselves as great.

WKGNJKZBZZHQSYN.20160606061203Rooker was on the team last year when MSU finished last in the SEC. Two years removed from Omaha and the deepest postseason run the program had ever seen, he and many others were part of a group that didn’t even make the SEC Tournament, let alone the NCAA Tournament. Zac Houston, the junior who started Sundays championship game and put on a career performance, was on that team, too.

So were many others who calmly shook hands instead of excitedly celebrating in Starkville on Sunday night. Several more are new to the club, but have quickly learned what it is they’re fighting for – respect and redemption.

“We have a core of guys who still do have a chip on their shoulder,” Cohen said. “They want to show the world they’re better than what happened a year ago.”

“We know what it feels like to not succeed,” Rooker shared, “and that helps us succeed even more. That makes it even sweeter.”

The duality in personality of the club is unique in its nature and dangerous in its application, as Cohen himself said Saturday – mid-regional – that he couldn’t imagine a team being any more loose than his, whether in the postseason or regular season. Within the antics, however, they have a vendetta, MSU’s players. They want revenge, not against any other team, but against their own ghosts, their own failures and disappointments. There’s something to be said about a team that stages celebrations and skits in foul territory between innings, but does no more than handshakes and high fives after sweeping a Regional for the first time in the school’s history.

QDRVLEIFFFFRBXK.20160606061202Like any great hero, it is loss that drives them. And for a group which has already seen the bottom, there is nothing left to lose. And therein lies their danger, their greatest weapon. In short turnaround, these Bulldogs have found themselves to be one of the most talented teams in the country. As each opponent crosses their path, MSU displays the strength of an odds-on favorite with the determination and drive of an underdog given the longest of shots.

When MSU won four-straight series to start its SEC slate, some wondered if they had peaked too early. When they won the overall SEC Championship on the final day of the regular season, perhaps then, some might have considered, they had done enough. The calendar reads June 6 as this is written. In games that mattered, games with something on the line, MSU hasn’t lost since April 30. They are 14-0 in the span between, excluding the SEC Tournament in Hoover.

But none of it – the conference title, the Regional sweep or even the record crowds and shelves full of awards – is enough.

Asked by coaches after Sunday’s late-night win if they wanted to practice in the morning or afternoon on Monday, the team quickly voted for the morning. They couldn’t wait to get back to work.

These Bulldogs want more.

“When you have a nucleus of guys that has a chip on their shoulder, that got punched in the mouth a year ago, that’s a dangerous bunch because they want this bad,” Cohen said. “This is a team with a lot of goals and it’s fun to watch them accomplish them.”

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Sexton battles as MSU advances in Starkville Regional

A modern day warrior

Mean, mean stride

Today’s Tom Sawyer

Mean, mean pride

Though his mind is not for rent

Don’t put him down as arrogant

His reserve, a quiet defense

Riding out the day’s events

– Rush, Tom Sawyer

——————-

QZWQPWAGTEHHOEA.20160605034846Before Austin Sexton had even taken a step toward the dugout, the crowd was on its feet to give the junior pitcher a standing ovation. Often praised for being among the more baseball-savvy fans around, the 10,000-plus cheering for the Bulldogs stood as one as soon as the reliever – Blake Smith – trotted out of the bullpen.

The crowd on hand knew what it had just seen, understood the fight in every single one of Sexton’s 93 pitches. His line was impressive, certainly, only allowing four hits and one run through 28 batters faced as he notched another win. But more worthy of awe was, as his head coach described it, the battle of every inning, every batter and every pitch on a sticky Saturday night in Starkville.

A Saturday night so hot, a humidity so oppressive that Sexton had to retreat indoors between innings to cool off and keep his body in peak condition to continue fighting a strong, determined and crafty Cal State Fullerton lineup pitch after pitch. MSU head coach John Cohen admitted his star pitcher “battled through some adversity,” some of his own and some as a result of occasional defensive mistakes behind him.

But Sexton, who confidently claimed after the game that he never wore down mentally, never conceded defeat. Every blow he took glanced off his shoulders, the shoulders carrying the hopes of an entire team and 10,000 fans hoping and praying he would hold on. And hold on he did.

CSF coach Rick Vanderhook couldn’t hide his respect for the junior pitcher when speaking in the post-game press conference.

“I thought Sexton pitched good, but better than that, he made pitches when he had to,” Vanderhook said. “I thought we had him on the ropes multiple times, and he worked his way out of it. Our philosophy is, if you put a pitcher on the ropes three times, he’s gonna break once. He didn’t break.”

QGADVUWDFQPLWQW.20160605034846Much of that resilience is Sexton’s mental toughness, as well as the physical stamina to last through such a draining game. Much of it, too, is more direct and simple – Sexton’s change-up was working for him, and when that happens, he’s hard to stop.

Cohen, multiple times, has remarked that it’s a pitch an opposing batter can be told is coming and he still won’t be able to hit the ball. And there were plenty of times when Titans’ batters thought they knew what was coming. Plenty more when, whether they knew what was coming or not, they did manage to hit the ball.

But of the 12 batters to put the ball into play, only one managed to score. 11 of the 12, Vanderhook noted with great lament, were left on base. Potential heroes rendered casualties of Sexton’s assault from the mound.

In such tense moments, in high stakes baseball situations, Sexton was the model of cool-under-pressure, even if sweat from the Mississippi heat was constantly soaking into the brim of his hat. With little room for mistakes, he ensured there were none.

“Every single pitch Austin threw tonight had a purpose,” said freshman outfielder Jake Mangum, the person with perhaps the best view of his teammate’s performance. “Every pitch, the crowd was into it. Every pitch, the crowd was behind us. It really did change the game.”

“He’s such a mature kid,” Cohen observed. “He can do anything … He just doesn’t make two bad pitches in a row. That’s a great quality to have at this level.”

Ask Sexton, however, and the explanation is a bit more simple, far less outwardly proud. Whatever factors played a part, whatever talents made it possible are only pieces of his singular goal.

“I needed to come out here and give my team a chance to win,” he said.

As he so often wills himself to do, Sexton got what he wanted. When he left the mound, MSU had the lead. When he left the stadium, they had the win.

Exit the warrior
Today’s Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the energy you trade
He gets right on to the friction of the day

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Rooker, Brown pull off clutch performances as MSU advances to winner’s bracket

Finishing his approach to first base, Brent Rooker’s eyes darted downward to make sure he stepped on the bag as he rounded first and continued what seemed like a fruitless jog to second base. The ball he had crushed to centerfield was, like so many before it, about to fall just short of its target, the gap between glory and defeat merely a few inches of leather glove.

QYUXTEXFIQRKOMJ.20160603225814The centerfielder for Southeast Missouri State had easily jogged back to the fence where his arm was outstretched and his gloved hand waited on the high-hit ball to fall into the sweet spot. In that moment, Rooker knew he had the same thing coming that had plagued him all year. To be sure, the junior outfielder has hit his fair share of home runs. But no one on this Mississippi State team has had as many robbed at the last second as Rooker.

The hit, he thought as he approached first base, was just like one he’d had against Texas A&M on Super Bulldog Weekend, the last time such a large crowd had come to watch he and his Bulldogs play. A high line drive to centerfield that weekend, with 15,000 watching, looked like it was going to leave the park. And most parks, it would have. But Dudy Noble isn’t most parks. With a light breeze blowing infield, that ball, too, fell just short. Robbed then, and robbed now, it appeared.

The gods of baseball, Rooker may have thought as he stepped on first, surely had something against him.

But then, he looked back up. In the same moment his eyes rose to the outfield, the volume around him rose, as well. The crowd was on their feet, cheers were carried to him from the stands and that ball, finally, mercifully, somehow, had landed among the grills and seats beyond the outfield fence in the Left Field Lounge.

The gods of baseball, it turns out, just have a keen sense of irony.

“I was pretty excited when I realized it was a home run,” Rooker told reporters after MSU’s 9-5 win over SEMO. “It was a big moment in the game. Any time you can come up with a big hit, it makes you happy.”

CMMGRMDTFSSTEYS.20160603225814Of those nine runs MSU scored, Rooker was directly responsible for each one of the first four State recorded. When SEMO took a 2-0 lead in the top of the second, Rooker responded with his first home run in the bottom of the inning, cutting the lead in half. When the Redhawks extended the lead to 4-1 in the next inning and it appeared Rooker’s first longshot wasn’t enough, he hit another, his deep jack to centerfield with two on and two outs tying the game at 4-4.

Speedy centerfielders and finicky wind patterns be darned, Rooker was going to find a way to make sure his Bulldogs won.

“He just took great swings today when we really needed him the most,” head coach John Cohen said. “He’s got so much bat speed, it’s ridiculous.”

Indeed, MSU uses technology in practice that tracks bat speed, and Rooker regularly has balls coming off his barrel at 115 miles per hour. In other words, a Corvette couldn’t beat his home runs to the other side of the fence.

But back to the timely hitting, and really, the production of the whole lineup. Rooker took the headlines Friday as MSU won game one of the Starkville Regional, but spots 1-9 in the order are all deserving of praise. Jake Mangum, for one, who was constantly a nuisance to the Redhawks and a source of production for the Bulldogs. Or Jack Kruger, perhaps, the catcher who spent three hours doing squats behind the plate, only to pull off an impressive inside-the-park home run in MSU’s last at-bat in the bottom of the eighth. The two runs scored then gave Cohen’s club the insurance it needed.

“We got down early and they just never thought they were going to lose that game,” Cohen said.

IOXWCAHZOUCBCYD.20160603225814When MSU was behind, it always found a way to bounce back, quite literally. Every single time SEMO scored, batting in the top of each inning, MSU responded with runs of their own in the bottom of those innings. SEMO scored twice in the second, MSU once. SEMO plated two more in the third, Rooker ensured that his Bulldogs plated three. When the Redhawks had one runner cross the plate in the sixth, State answered with three of their own. Those last two through Kruger in the eighth were just garnish for a little style and flair.

“We’ve done that all year,” Rooker said. “That’s one of our strengths as a team.”

Said SEMO coach Steve Bieser, “They took it to us all throughout this game and it was tough on our pitching staff … There’s no soft spots in that lineup. I think it wears on pitching staffs.”

AXGLSXPAEHPJDAK.20160603225813As Rooker said, that who MSU is. They do it on the mound, too, where junior pitcher Daniel Brown pitched the final 3.1 innings in shut-down fashion, allowing no runs and no hits as he cruised through the final frames in only 37 pitches, 26 of them strikes. His performance, like so many others for MSU Friday, was indicative of who the Bulldogs are as a team.

When something is required, someone provides.

“He really got us on a roll at a time when we needed him to,” Cohen said. “His breaking ball when he’s commanding it and hitting in the zone, it’s a high, high professional level pitch.”

“Daniel,” Rooker added, “did an unbelievable job.”

Friday, it turns out, was chocked full of hard-to-believe moments. And in this instance, Rooker is happy to see, they turned out in MSU’s favor. Next time, he may not find it so hard to believe.

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