Cohen’s Appointment As A.D. The Realization Of Career-Long Dream

John Cohen has always been a little bit unique among baseball coaches. Now, certainly, his desire to win, his constant tracking of numbers and his background as a former player himself are standard for those in the profession. But Cohen has always had something else. Or more specifically, he’s been interested in something else.

To say that Cohen’s heart is big enough for more than one passion would be cheesy in the metaphoric sense and a serious medical condition when taken literally. His mind, however, that mine of baseball knowledge, has always sought knowledge and experience beyond just what he knows or works with already.

unnamedJust look at his time in college at Mississippi State when he was going to the World Series in the summer and taking classes for his English literature degree in the fall and spring. Conversations in his office are just as likely to reach the economy, linguistics, MSU’s football team or scientific discovery. Of course, the subjects of bat speed, marketing tactics, recruiting philosophies or pitching deliveries could easily come up, as well.

It was Cohen’s interest in all things, not just one thing, that helped lead to him being named MSU’s 17th Director of Athletics on Friday.

“I love writing things down. I love researching. I love listening to folks talk about things that really matter,” he shared near the end of his press conference.

For the last eight years at MSU, and for the last 20 at other stops along the way, Cohen has been doing that, finding a way to be involved with all things in the athletic departments and universities who have employed him. Baseball was, of course, his focus and passion, but his interests could never be narrowed to just one subject.

Over time, Cohen has become more and more of an active participator in the administrative side of college athletics, particularly at his alma mater. As far back as 2008, he was involved in the search and hiring process for current MSU football coach Dan Mullen, and he’s been involved in plenty more similar searches since.

University President Mark Keenum noted in his introduction of Cohen that when he was hired to lead the school eight years ago, he quickly became accustomed to Cohen’s presence in meetings regarding athletics, even if they had little-to-nothing to do with baseball. In the time that Scott Stricklin served as MSU’s 16th athletic director, Cohen served as one of his most trusted confidantes.

It should be a surprise to neither of them that their relationship took that turn.

Stricklin once shared a story with Cohen that the former never forgot and the latter only barely remembered. During a doubleheader in Cohen’s senior year on State’s baseball team, there was a short rain delay. At that time, a freshman media relations student came up to him to chat. That student was, of course, Stricklin.

Stricklin asked Cohen, “What’s next? What do you want to do when you’re done?

Baseball was the immediate plan, Cohen responded, as he hoped to make it to the big leagues eventually. However, Cohen had one more goal.

“I want to be an athletic director one day,” Cohen told Stricklin.

It certainly must have been a surreal moment for Cohen to share that story as he stood behind the podium from which he was introduced as the newest athletic director in the SEC.

unnamed-2That desire Cohen had even as a student stayed with him as throughout his career he was taken under the proverbial wings of the men tasked with running the departments at every coaching stop he made. He made connections and formed relationships and bonds with a great many people in the baseball world too, but professionally, at least a part of his focus always gravitated to those who, like him, had a curiosity and interest in all things.

“I just kept finding myself gravitating toward those athletic directors,” Cohen said. “I have to admit to you, I got hooked.”

Now, coming to the end of a decades-long career as a baseball coach, he has the opportunity to apply everything he learned from his mentors along the way. In fact, it would seem he’s already put much of that education-by-observation to use.

Cohen’s strengths as a baseball coach can often come across as more administrative than anything, though his reputation for working with hitters is celebrated across the college baseball landscape.

One of Cohen’s greatest assets has been his eye for personnel and talent. Multiple assistants hired under Cohen have gone on to become head coaches, including two in the SEC in the last year alone. The number of former Bulldogs making it to the big league increases by the week, while MSU has signed three-straight top-five recruiting classes. Cohen’s ability to evaluate and mark talented people is clear.

Academics have been a priority, and as such, the program has set multiple marks for record-high GPAs under Cohen’s supervision.

unnamed-1Cohen’s belief in a plan and process and his willingness to make unpopular decisions in the name of advancement have proven successful, showing a man with both a strong gut and a sharp mind, again in the non-literal senses.

Inside MSU’s baseball offices are binders laying out the complete program vision for the next several years. Projected rosters, numbers, analytics, personnel, facilities, the works – Cohen has not only built but executed a long-term vision for a championship program, winning the SEC Title this summer and taking MSU all the way to the championship series of the College World Series in 2013.

Even something as small as his idea to construct and decision to purchase the large, light-up M-S logo over the video board have shown a mind focused on more than RBI and ERA.

“I feel like my background is pretty linked in with what we’re going to try to do at Mississippi State,” he said.

Plus, perhaps above all, Cohen desperately wants to win.

“Mississippi State is going to win a National Championship in baseball,” Cohen declared. “And as President Keenum said, we are going to compete at the championship level in every sport on campus.”

His life’s dream – or one of them, anyway – starts now.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Football Bulldogs Share Time As Child Educators

It’s easy, and sort of understandable, to bypass the word student in the term student-athlete. Those on the outside only see these young men and women when they’re working on the athlete end of things. Games, practices, workouts, photo shoots, interviews – all athlete-centric activities, all seen or discussed publicly.

10-31-16 FB  Football players at the Child Development and Family Studies Center (the child-study laboratory for the School of Human Sciences) Photo by Kelly Price

The student side of it isn’t done in private, but very rarely is it seen or celebrated. And until schools build 50,000 seat stadiums to watch people learn geometry or take a Spanish quiz, it’s likely to remain that way. But that’s what these student-athletes are in school for. It’s their reward for playing sports – an education.

Mississippi State cornerback Cedric Jiles and defensive linemen A.J. Jefferson and Nelson Adams are names known well, all seniors and often starters on MSU’s football team. They’re known for size or strength or speed or skill.

They’re also known, to a few dozen 2-4 year olds, as the life of the party. Like many other student-athletes at MSU, Jiles, Jefferson and Adams have been interns since this summer at the Early Childhood Development Center on campus, a pre-school for area children.

“The kids love them,” one staff member shared. “They’re full of life.”

All three football players are also human sciences majors, so the work is directly related to their studies. Twice each week, they go to the center for a few hours at a time to read to kids, play outside with them or even do some finger-painting, if time allows. On Monday, each of them arrived following their workout at the football facility, anxious to get started.

“We’re with the four-year-olds today?” Jefferson asked with a happy look on his face.

Jiles responded in the affirmative.

“YES,” Jefferson answered with a fist-pump.

Monday being Halloween, many of the kids were dressed up.

“So you’re Cinderella,” Jiles asked one girl in their classroom.

“Elsa” she replied.

“I like Anna,” Jiles told her.

“You like Anna?”

The outrage in her voice was clear. How could anyone like Anna over Elsa?

FootballAt the next table over, Jefferson and Adams were helping a young boy build a tower out of plastic blocks and hinges.

“What sports do you play,” Jefferson asked him.

“I play soccer,” the boy began, working through the list in his head. “I play baseball. I play kickball.”

Here the boy paused to review his athletic interests.

And I play catch.”

Catch is an important one. Fun, simple, classic.

The interactions are similar throughout the day. Within a few more minutes, several kids were seated around Jefferson in the reading corner as he shared a few passages from a book. Shortly after, Jefferson was allowing his hand to be painted blue so he could make a handprint several times larger than the four-year-old-sized handprints littering the arts and crafts table.

When the kids were taken outside to play, all three football players went. They raced, they messed around on the playset, they made attempts at various games and they had great success chasing each other in circles.

FootballCalls of Mr. A.J., Mr. Nelson and Mr. Cedric rang out consistently, someone different always wanting to play, always wanting a share of time with these gentle giants. In fact, the three football players rotate classrooms on each visit so that the staff can ensure all of the kids get to hangout with them.

“It’s really exciting,” Adams said. “They’re wild, man. Especially the four year olds.”

The view of these football players – all 800-some-odd pounds of them combined – is a bit different when taken at this level. Their time each week won’t earn them any awards or help them win any games, and that’s OK. That’s good. Maybe it isn’t glamorous, but each considers it a ton of fun. And certainly, it’s part of the deal – the student end of being a student-athlete.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On Scott Wetherbee, MSU’s New Interim Athletic Director

In Lexington, Kentucky 10 days ago, Scott Wetherbee found himself very suddenly to be the man in charge. Outgoing Mississippi State Athletic Director Scott Stricklin was still on the job, but he’d already transferred many of his duties to others in the department. Among the jobs doled out, Wetherbee began serving as the sport administrator for the football team. Budgets, contracts, grades, attendance, travel – anything the team did do, did not do or found itself in need of, Wetherbee was the person at MSU they were to go to.

image_handler-aspxOn that Saturday night at Kentucky’s football field – Wetherbee’s first game as the go-to guy – the responsibilities of the job became immediately and incredibly obvious. For most of the game, MSU’s Senior Associate A.D. for External Affairs and acting football administrator had just been standing on the sidelines watching the game and cheering along with everyone else.

Then tragedy very nearly struck when offensive lineman Darryl Williams dropped to the ground before a play even ended and stayed there seemingly motionless for nearly 20 minutes while the stadium waited in quiet nervousness for the doctors and trainers to asses the situation and figure out what to do. Williams was eventually moved onto a stretcher and taken to a local hospital, where tests came back negative and he was later released with very little lasting harm.

In the moments immediately following Williams’ injury, Wetherbee gained a far-too-real understanding of what the job entailed. He was no longer A Guy. He was The Guy, the one everyone was looking toward to have answers.

What hospital will he be taken to? Has anyone told his parents? Are they at the game or back home? Who should go with him to the hospital? What do they tell the team? What they do tell the media and the public? How will he get home? How can they get a plane to Lexington to make sure he gets to fly back in the morning?

Most importantly: is he OK?

Throughout it all, Wetherbee was trying to answer those questions while communicating with Williams’ family, with Dan and Megan Mullen, with team Director of Operations Jon Clark, with medical personnel and with university personnel. It was a lot, to be sure, but it was also the kind of thing he’s spent 20 years in college athletics preparing himself to handle.

“It was eye-opening that all of the sudden you realize, at that time, everybody is looking at you,” Wetherbee said. “That part was pretty interesting to have on my first road trip. At the end of the day, I think we handled it well. Luckily, he’s fine and we were able to get him home safe.”

Today, officially – but nearly a week ago, in reality – Wetherbee becomes The Guy for everything in MSU athletics. With Stricklin now fully off the job, Wetherbee has been named the interim Athletic Director while University President Mark Keenum conducts the search for the full-time new A.D.

It’s kind of a funny moment for Wetherbee who remembers a conversation he had with Stricklin when the two were driving around campus at the end of Wetherbee’s interview for his current position a little over three years ago. Discussing what they both envisioned for the job, Wetherbee told Stricklin he wanted to do such a good job that, after several years, he would make Stricklin look like the best athletic director in the country and Wetherbee would have the opportunity to be in his seat one day.

“I didn’t mean literally his seat,” Wetherbee joked. “I thought he’d always be here and I’d go be an A.D. somewhere else.”

But here he is. So, while the search continues and the interim takes over, perhaps the natural question for fans of MSU athletics for the moment is an easy one: who is Scott Wetherbee?

The last three years and change, his work with external affairs has primarily been about fan experience, taking charge of all outgoing media and communication. Wetherbee was tasked when he was hired with building a video department more or less from scratch, which he did, as MSU now employs a team of a half dozen full-time employees. He was also put in charge of preparing MSU for the launch of the SEC Network and all the production it entailed.

Wetherbee, center, with staff members in Boston for MSU's game against UMass

Wetherbee, center, with staff members in Boston for MSU’s game against UMass

Wetherbee is over the marketing and media relations departments, as well. And in fact, both of the groups won awards in 2015-16 for being the best in their field. Stricklin was even voted Athletic Director of the Year, leading him to joke that he felt bad for Wetherbee being the only one who didn’t win an award.

However, Wetherbee’s reach goes far beyond communication as his duties have steadily grown the last few years as he’s proved himself capable and deserving of new roles. He’s also the point of contact for Adidas (he had just received an example of a potential new basketball uniform at the time of being interviewed.) He’s in charge of licensing. Recently, he was given the responsibility of having the entire facilities department report to him, roughly doubling the amount of staff he’s responsible for.

Wetherbee is the liaison for Learfield, the sport administrator for baseball and volleyball and the point person for game operations. He works with the Bulldog Club, the ticket office and the business office. He’s been going to SEC meetings, on-campus VP meetings and university-wide communication meetings.

Very quickly, Wetherbee found himself at a point where he had his hand in just about everything. Certainly, that’s part of why he was asked to serve in the interim role.

“I feel like I have a pretty good pulse on things,” he said. “So, when Dr. Keenum called me, I thought it would be a good fit and I’d be able to help.”

It was also something of a dream come true, a career-long vision dating back to when Wetherbee was still in school as a graduate assistant in the Ball State ticket office. In fact, it was as an undergraduate on the Ferris State University baseball team that he realized he wanted to be a part of athletics no matter what he did.

When he was a sophomore, the school announced in the fall that the following baseball season would be their last. Because of Title IX restrictions, they were cutting the baseball program.

“I got frustrated by that,” Wetherbee said. “That was a turning point for me. Title IX wasn’t meant to cut opportunities for men. It was meant to give opportunities to women. Unfortunately, a lot of people ended up cutting sports.”

He remembered thinking at the time that if he were in a position to do so, he would have fought as hard as he could to keep programs from being cut and keep student-athletes from losing opportunities. Of course, there was little he could do then, but it worked out well for him as he transferred to Ball State and gained connections and experience that blossomed into a long and fruitful career in college athletics.

Near the end of school, a fellow BSU grad called and offered him his first full-time job at Fresno State University. The same person later brought him to San Diego State University as the Assistant A.D. for Ticket Operations. Before long, Wetherbee was hired as the Assistant A.D. for Marketing and Ticket Operations at East Carolina University.

10 years later, he was hired at MSU, and three years later, here he is.

“I have to pinch myself a little bit,” he joked. “I’ve always been a leader in things that I do. I was always captain of the team and people always looked up to me and I really enjoyed that part of it. I love leading people and putting them in places to succeed, so I feel like I’ve got the right mindset to do that.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the 275 student-athletes and trying to help them. I knew this was a way for me to serve,” he continued. “That’s what we’re here for.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Howland Expecting Youthful Mistakes, But Optimistic For Quick Growth

Ben Howland’s team is young. Like, really, really young. By one published measure, the fourth-youngest team in America. Super-duper young.

And that’s not something Howland has in common with them. With a résumé` like his, he’s one of the most experienced and successful coaches in the country. He’s also a little past his own playing days, but that’s unrelated.

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-11-46-20-amWhat’s important for him, and what will make the biggest of differences as he tries to coach such an inexperienced group, is that Howland has very quickly built a team that looks like him. Rather, he has a roster of young men whose strengths reflect his.

This Mississippi State team, other than being so youthful, is particularly intelligent.

“They have very high basketball IQs,” sophomore All-SEC guard Quinndary Weatherspoon explained.

It’s not surprising if one examines the roster a little more closely, Howland believes. To begin with, in I.J. Ready, he’s got a starting senior point guard – the only upperclassman on the team – who is the son of a basketball coach. Howland also has freshman guard Tyson Carter, the son of former MSU great Greg Carter who is possibly more well-known around Starkville for, you guessed it, being the immensely successful head basketball coach at Starkville High School.

Those two grew up around the game, were raised to understand basketball and to play it not just well, but intelligently.

Then Howland’s freshman class enters ahead of many others across the country not just because of talent – they were part of the best-ranked signing class in MSU history – but because of how well developed they are.

“You have kids who come from good programs,” Howland went on. “For example, [freshman forward] Mario Kegler played at Oak Hill last year for Steve Smith, one of the best high school coaches in the history of high school basketball. He’s further ahead in his understanding than a lot of kids because of who he played for in the program he was in.”

Freshman forward Mario Kegler

Freshman forward Mario Kegler

That’s not just Howland bragging on his team. The players see it, too. It’s a team full of high-quality players from high-quality programs. They’re developed, they’re smart and they know basketball.

“I can say that’s very accurate,” sophomore forward Aric Holman confirmed. “We’ve all been on that same level of competition before we came to college, so everybody knows what’s expected to get to the next level.”

A four-star forward out high school and the former Kentucky Mr. Basketball, Holman was a state champ his senior year, an accomplishment he has in common with many of his teammates. Ready, Weatherspoon and freshman forward Schnider Herard have eight state championships between them. Carter and freshman forward Joe Strugg both won state titles. Kegler and fellow freshman forward Abdul Ado went so far as to win National Championships.

Beyond just being smart, it’s a team full of guys who know how to win. They’re talented, too. The one knock on them is that they’re young. They’re inexperienced. Only three people on this roster – one senior and two sophomores – have even worn an MSU uniform in a game, and Holman only did it for about half a season after an injury delayed his debut last year.

So yes, they’re going to have some growing pains. Or as Howland put it more succinctly, “We’re gonna make a lot of mistakes this year.”

But the upside for Howland, a man who prides himself on basketball’s nuances, on developing talent and on coaching and preparation, is that his team does reflect some of his greatest qualities – his intelligence and his desire to learn. It’s certainly no accident that he’s built the team this way.

“It makes practice way better,” Weatherspoon said, “because we don’t have to stay on one thing a whole lot of time. They pick it up so fast that we can move on because we’ve got so much to cover and so little time.”

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-11-48-28-amAlready, Weatherspoon shared, the newest members of the team have learned where he’s going to be. They’re learning quickly where they’re supposed to be too. They’re getting a hang of the plays, remembering what means what.

“They can hear it and they see it,” Weatherspoon elaborated. “We’re gonna be good, but it’s gonna be tough for us in the non-conference just as they learn to play. When we get into conference play, I think we’re going to be a very good team.”

Weatherspoon and Howland have watched as young pups improve. Kegler has made strides in help defense and coming off screens. Freshman Lamar Peters, Howland said, is learning what it means to be a point guard and how to value possession of the ball. All members of the team are figuring how to shape, hydrate and fuel their bodies.

Improvements are absolutely needed, all will be quick to say, but they are also quick to say the improvements are steadily coming with each passing practice.

Xavian Stapleton is a Mississippi native who once played on the state’s No.1 ranked high school team, and he’s a transfer from Louisiana Tech where he was twice named the conference’s Freshman of the Week. Last year, he sat out for MSU under the NCAA’s transfer eligibility rules. To only be entering his sophomore season, he’s seen a lot of basketball. Because of that, as well as his outgoing personality, he’s quickly become one of the primary leaders on the team, and as he continues his rehab from injury, he’s spent a lot of time observing the young talent.

Stapleton is as impressed as anyone with the new crop of players and how quickly they’re improving, even if he does know there will be some hiccups along the way.

“We’re young, but these young guys can play some basketball,” he said. “They’re smart. They’re real smart. Most of them are advanced. You wouldn’t think they’re freshmen, how they play … They do play intelligent, they do play smart, but again, they’re young.”

But they’re young,’ is likely to be a common refrain when the season begins next month. But, the other side of the coin says, they may not always play like it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Schaefer Displays Competitive Fire At SEC Tipoff

“I’m critical of my kids,” he prefaced, “but he’s absolutely the best thing on that guitar I’ve ever heard. When he plays Johnny Cash – he does two of them. Starkville City Jail and, there’s another, what’s the other big one?”

“Walk the Line?” someone offered.

“Folsom?”

“That’s the one,” Vic Schaefer remembered, looking from person to person as he waited outside the room in which he was about to be interviewed. “Folsom Prison Blues. He plays those two songs, and you’d think it was really Johnny Cash up on that stage.”

Mississippi State’s head coach is really proud of his guitar-picking son Logan. He’s proud of his daughter Blair too, of course, a guard on his team at State. In fact, he listed the day she signed with MSU as one of the two best basketball memories of his life. But even as a doting father, Schaefer is competitive on behalf of his kids.

He believes Blair to be a great basketball player, but no one is more critical of her game than the man standing on the sidelines who raised her. He thinks Logan is a talented musician, but even when he’s standing on the front row during his son’s shows, he’s still breaking down the performance, both good and bad.

unnamed

Schaefer and Victoria Vivians boarding the plane for SEC Tipoff

Schaefer can’t help it. He’s too inherently competitive, too naturally wired to want to be the best, too convinced that improvements can always be made.

At SEC Tipoff – the league’s preseason media extravaganza – Schaefer was asked a basic question, the same one every other coach who came through was asked.

“What makes your mascot the best in the SEC?”

“Bully? That dude is a bulldog,” Schaefer replied, stating more than just the obvious. “He represents toughness.”

In the next room, Schaefer was asked several questions about legendary former Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt. He was then handed a pack of stapled pieces of paper, all of which were covered with typed out quotes from Summitt over the years. He was then asked to pick which one resonated most with him. It took Schaefer several minutes, reading through all of them, re-reading a few, then conferring in his own head as to the appropriate answer. He did, finally, settle on one.

“Here’s how I’m going to beat you,” he said, reading the quote out loud. “I’m going to outwork you. That’s it. That’s all there is.”

“That’s always been my approach,” Schaefer followed up.

He knew even when he was a basketball player himself that he was rarely the most talented player on the court. But regardless of natural ability, he knew he could still beat his opponents in at least two things: preparation and effort.

That revelation was unsurprising, considering just moments before he was heard to share with one reporter, “I love to compete.” And that’s how he got to where he is now.

The fact he did so this quickly was the subject of at least a few questions from reporters in Nashville, and Schaefer himself concedes that few expected it to happen this fast. Texas A&M still has a player on its team this year that Schaefer helped recruit and sign as an assistant for the Aggies before he took over at MSU. He hasn’t been in Starkville that long, yet just this spring, The Hump was home to the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and Schaefer’s Bulldogs advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. The last two years – his third and fourth with MSU – the Bulldogs have won 55 games.

It’s been great, he said. Technically, it hasn’t just been great – it’s been record-breaking. It’s been, by dozens of standards, the absolute best, at least in terms of institutional history and success. But the best, pardon the quote, is yet to come. At least in Schaefer’s mind.

Schaefer wants to win championships.

“I didn’t need a job when I took this one,” he said Thursday. “I had a good one.”

But that goal, that idea of winning championships, was something he thought was possible at MSU. He was so convinced of the idea that he did, finally, after many other offers over the years, leave the great job he had so he could win championships with a program that has never reached that pinnacle.

He wanted the challenge. He wanted to do the work. He knew it would be a years-long process, and that possibility excited him. He was genuinely thrilled to join a conference full of Hall of Fame coaches and players, stuffed with the greatest athletes and best facilities and backing in the country.

“The best thing about coaching in the SEC is just knowing that we chose to live in this fishbowl,” he said. “We get to go up against the best every night.”

Get to. That’s how he views it. Challenge, in his mind, is also opportunity. And with his team picked No. 2 in the SEC in this week’s preseason media poll, opportunity has arrived.

“We want to be competing for SEC Championships,” he said in reply to a question about his expectations. “I think that’s where we are right now.”

The list of reasons MSU is there is long. The head coach is at the top, of course, but it’s also due to a staff of assistants he praises at every turn. It’s due to the players who believed in his vision, who signed with MSU and who perform on the court each game and every practice. It’s due to the support of fans, the backing of the athletic department and the facilities on hand in Starkville.

But certainly, so much of MSU’s success comes from the natural desire of the man in charge to be the best and to prove it in every way.

“I love to compete,” Schaefer confirmed.

And it shows.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

From SEC Tipoff 2017: Quinndary Weatherspoon Primed For Breakout Sophomore Campaign

During an interview midway through Mississippi State’s trip through Italy, I was asking head coach Ben Howland about the apparent improvement of sophomore Quinndary Weatherspoon (an assessment he agreed with), and I mentioned how much more confident the talented guard appeared than last year.

That was an assessment he disagreed with.

quinndary_vandyWeatherspoon, Howland corrected me, started gaining that confidence before the 2016 season ended. In Nashville for SEC Tipoff, the conference’s preseason media event, it seemed many agreed. Specifically, it seemed that every other question from reporters to Weatherspoon, as well as senior point guard I.J. Ready, was about the game-winning buzzer-beater Weatherspoon hit against Vanderbilt at The Hump last spring.

“One of the most hype memories I have in college right there,” Ready said.

The implication was that the made shot, as well as the 17-point comeback win it capped, was a confidence booster for Weatherspoon. The talented guard was voted SEC All-Freshman at the end of the season, and that shot was the big play not just in MSU basketball highlight reels, but in the entire year-long video recap of MSU athletics in 2015-16.

As those in the college basketball world look ahead to the next season for the Bulldogs, that moment seems to be one they believe MSU can build on. Or maybe it’s just the only big one they can remember. But more specifically, they see that as a career-changing moment for Weatherspoon.

So, I asked him if that was true. Maybe we’re all reading too much into something that was ultimately just one shot, I said, but I’ve seen how much more confident you are. Is that where it started?

“It wasn’t,” he said.

Oh.

“It was just getting shots in games,” he continued, “and getting more and more shots toward the end of the season.”

Coaches always say experience is the best teacher, and we usually roll our eyes at the cliché. But, for Weatherspoon at least, it’s true. By the time that ball sank through the bottom of the net, the work had already been done and the progress already made.

He’s not confident because he made the shot. He made the shot because he was confident. The shot only proved to the public what was already known in private.

Not to say he didn’t enjoy the moment, of course.

“I wanted to cry,” admitted Weatherspoon, also sharing that it was the first game-winning buzzer-beater of his life.

But he was already confident before he made the shot. That’s why he got to take it in the first place. Who knows what would have happened, but just a split second before, Ready was the one who had the ball at the top of the key with time winding down.

“I was about to shoot it,” Ready confessed.

Then he heard someone to the left yell out his name: “I.J.!”

“I didn’t even have to look at him – I knew who it was,” Ready said. “So I passed it to him … I just knew he was going to knock it down.”

unnamed-1Those of us on the outside saw the shot as the beginning of something. Those inside the locker room already knew the truth. It had quietly become Weatherspoon’s team. He wanted the shot and his teammates wanted to give it to him. That he made it was a surprise to none.

Even opposing coaches know who’s getting the rock when MSU comes to town this year.

Alabama coach Avery Johnson was walking through a waiting room when he saw Ready, who he recognized, and came up to give him a handshake and a hug. After a quick hello, Johnson started to walk away and pointed to the guy on the other side of the table from Ready.

He looked at Weatherspoon as he said, “He wants the ball.”

On a team full of seniors last year, and with one other freshman who overshadowed the rest, perhaps Weatherspoon didn’t get the attention he deserved. Even today in Nashville at SEC Tipoff, Weatherspoon’s interview table had a surprisingly sparse crowd, one or two reporters stopping by to ask questions in between discussions with others from around the conference.

Maybe I’m biased from having watched Weatherspoon in Italy, or perhaps I’m just more aware of his development and potential because of conversations had with Howland in the time since, but I walked into the arena thinking it would be the preseason coronation of one of the SEC’s big new stars-to-be. I thought the attention would be the basketball version of what I watched with Dak Prescott at the 2014 preseason SEC Media Days.

Once again, my assessment was off.

But I suppose reporters around the conference weren’t really tracking that Weatherspoon dropped 70 points in his first two games in Italy. The game wasn’t on ESPN, of course. They haven’t been around him enough in the offseason, either, to see the vast improvements he’s made not only to his game and leadership, but to his body, as well.

unnamedIn just seven months, Weatherspoon has increased his already impressive vertical jump by three inches. It’s not at all exaggeration to share that his calves barely fit in the legs of the warm-up pants he wore in Nashville.

Howland has repeated often that the biggest improvement in a player comes between his freshman and sophomore seasons. In Weatherspoon, who was already All-Freshman to begin with, he appears to have a perfect example.

The star shooter already had the confidence and raw talent. Now, he’s got refined skills, a matured physique and a smile that over the course of one short offseason became the face of the program.

Weatherspoon is still young, to be certain, and he’s on a team that’s even younger than him, as he’s one of only three returning players with any game experience under Howland. But the development apparent to his team, which began long before The Shot was made, seems primed to take the big stage in his sophomore season.

Ready was asked what comes to mind when he thinks of Weatherspoon. His answer: “Shot maker.

Weatherspoon himself was asked what goes through his mind before three-point shots.

“That hopefully they pass me the ball,” he replied, “because I know I’m going to make it.”

He’s proved it already. Now it’s just time for everybody else to believe.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In Rare Conversation, Mullen Shares Blueprint For Program

A little over two years ago, I remember Athletic Director Scott Stricklin leading a tour of Mississippi State’s newly-finished expansion and renovation of its football stadium, a $75 million dollar project he’d been working on since he took over and was thrilled to finally unveil to the public.

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-6-30-56-pmJust a short while later, MSU’s head coach unveiled the big project he’d been working on, one that was almost six years in the making – Dan Mullen’s breakout 2014 team that made college football’s fastest ascent to No. 1 on the backs of a veteran offensive line surrounded by playmakers at the skill positions and a defense loaded with soon-to-be NFL players.

Stadiums don’t last forever, but they certainly have a shelf life longer than most people, something easily seen at the second-oldest on-campus stadium in college football. Stadiums may be more visibly impressive, but perhaps that’s what makes the results of a great team so much more rewarding.

Concrete, rebar, bricks and mortar – these things are solid, permanent and easily managed, at least for those who know how. In football, however, the people and players and rules and strategies are always changing, always shifting – appearing, disappearing and morphing without notice or reason.

To nail those things down, if even just for a few months at a time, is tricky work. To collect and assemble and seemingly control so many variables is equal parts rare and invigorating. That much is showing now, two years later, as Davis Wade Stadium stands as strong and impressive as it did in 2014, yet the football team on the field finds itself at 2-4 and in a battle to bring back the glory it so recently had.

Mullen has shown off the finished product before, winning nine games in back-to-back seasons, taking MSU to six-straight bowl games and helping fuel the excitement that led to a need for expanding that stadium in the first place.

On Monday, however, Mullen revealed something he’s never quite shared before. The conversation probably took him as much by surprise as it did those of us who joined him in it, but after his formal press conference Monday afternoon, Mullen hung back with reporters to speak very candidly not about the finished product, but about the blueprint he uses to build it.

The conversation was informal and no reporters had their recorders on for the chat, so to share too much here might even be a violation of the trust Mullen showed in discussing his philosophies and tactics so openly and honestly. However, a summary still gives an idea of where Mullen is with his program.

A follow-up question about explosive plays on offense (12 yards or more, he says) came after Mullen walked away from the podium. That led to a discussion about sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald which led to a discussion about Dak Prescott which led to a discussion about not just developing quarterbacks but developing all players and what’s important and necessary in building a program and being able to show it off like he did just two years ago.

Mullen talked about how many “fantastic” plays Fitzgerald made in the loss to BYU Friday night; not just the leaping touchdown run, but third and fourth down passes, overtime throws and the like. Mullen also talked about the times when potentially fantastic plays were missed, be it because of a read, a drop, an overthrow or missed timing.

When Prescott walked up to the line of scrimmage at the end of his career, he did so as someone who had no hesitation in changing the play call, someone who could quickly read defenses and someone who had not just full confidence in but full command of the offense. That took time, though. Even in 2014 Prescott wasn’t all the way there yet. Mullen said it was 2015 when that finally clicked. As a junior, Prescott was still relying largely on making plays with his legs.

As a sophomore in 2013 that was certainly the case, much as it is now for Fitzgerald. It takes time. It takes reps. It takes understanding. And really, it takes some nuance. Mullen gave the example of how young players learn.

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-6-34-21-pmSay, for instance, that an inexperienced quarterback runs an option play in which the right read would have been to keep the ball, but instead, he passed the ball over to the running back. Mullen will, of course, discuss that with his quarterback. He will explain why he should have kept the ball.

Almost without fail, Mullen said, the next time they run option, the quarterback will keep the ball, even if there are three defenders bearing down on him. Not because he’s a bad decision-maker, but because it was in his head. It’s a natural reaction, if not an occasionally frustrating one. But over time, with enough repetitions, the lesson sinks in and the sight and understanding arrive.

The same applies for reading safeties in the deep passing game, MSU’s head coach offered. Mullen may call for the quarterback to take a shot down the field. For Prescott, it wasn’t until his senior year that he had the confidence and vision to see that sometimes his deep options weren’t good, so he would check down instead. As a young quarterback, he didn’t have that vision and the thought in his head was something along the lines of, ‘Well, Coach wants us to take a shot, so I guess I’m gonna take this shot regardless.’

The quarterback position is just an example, of course. It applies to every position, to the whole team. It all takes time, and on a team this inexperienced, they haven’t had much of it. Mullen made that point in both the formal and informal setting Monday. They’re building that as they go. They’re learning with every rep.

It certainly hasn’t helped that after losing two players to early NFL entry in his first five years, he then lost five in just two offseasons. Add in injuries to two starting senior corners, an injury to the starting senior tight end and an unexpected dismissal of a presumed starting senior receiver, and MSU found itself with a team full of players mostly at the foundational level.

With Prescott and the crew of guys like Taveze Calhoun, Ben Beckwith, Jay Hughes, Preston Smith, Malcolm Johnson and the like, the air-conditioned mansion of MSU football was fully established.

On Monday, Mullen wasn’t making excuses for the state of the house – he was just sharing the blueprint for how he’s going to build it back up, and the plans don’t look too different from the ones he had behind closed doors in 2014.

“We’ll get ‘em there,” Mullen said, his final words as he left the room and went back to work.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Graveman, Renfroe Return To Starkville

As Mississippi State is putting up billboards across the country for former Bulldogs now in the pros – “Wherever you go, we go with you,” they read – the number of said athletes representing MSU in various professional organizations is growing almost literally by the day.

Hunter Renfroe, left, and Kendall Graven, right, on the field for MSU's football game against Auburn

Hunter Renfroe, left, and Kendall Graven, right, on the field for MSU’s football game against Auburn

Particularly so for MSU’s baseball program, which can’t seem to go more than a week without some getting called up or a big story coming out about someone, whether it’s pitchers like Jonathan Holder and Brandon Woodruff breaking records and fighting through tragedy, or guys like Mitch Moreland and Adam Frazier consistently hitting balls out of the park (one of them surprisingly so).

Two of those big stories have come from a pair of teammates who helped guide MSU to the finals of the College World Series in 2013 – Hunter Renfroe and Kendall Graveman.

Graveman has become a fixture in the pitching rotation for the Oakland Athletics, starting 31 games for the A’s in 2016, including a 16-game span over the course of the summer when he compiled a 9-2 record. In that stretch he recorded his first career complete game shutout, allowing just two hits and no walks. All told, he made 16 quality starts this season and finished with a 4.11 ERA.

Renfroe’s call to the big leagues came later than expected as the season was winding down, but even with limited time, the slugger made his impact felt. After being named the Pacific Coast League MVP in AAA (he hit 30 home runs and racked up 105 RBI while batting .306 for the El Paso Chihuahuas), the San Diego Padres called him up on September 20.

It turned out, they were right to do so. In 11 games, Renfroe hit .371 with a .800 slugging percentage as he hit four home runs and gathered 14 RBI. In fact, in a game against the Dodgers, he was responsible for all seven of the runs the Padres scored, racking up seven RBI on two home runs, then following it up with four more RBI and a home run the very next night. For his efforts, he was named the National League Player of the Week.

unnamed-1This Saturday, as MSU’s football team hosted Auburn, Graveman and Renfroe returned to the place where so much of their success stories began. Each was honored on the field in between the first and second quarters, welcomed with loud applause. I caught up with both of them at halftime to talk about why they came back to Starkville and what MSU means to them.

Highlights of those question and answer sessions are below.

————————-

Hail State Beat: With all the success you’re having professionally in California, what makes you want to come back to Starkville for events like these?

Graveman: I was telling someone earlier, it’s the family atmosphere. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today, baseball wise, if it weren’t for this place. This is one of the many reasons to my success. Mississippi State kind of molded me into who I was when I left my parents. And hats off to them, they did a great job raising me. I couldn’t ask for any better parents, but you get away from them and you come to a place like Starkville with a small town feel. It’s not just on the baseball field. I’ve seen all the guys on the baseball field since I’ve been here, but people outside of baseball that just live in the community and work and go to school here. That’s a blessing too, to be able to see some of those people. All those reasons come to mind for why I want to come back for a weekend and try to come back for a few weekends during the offseason.

Renfroe: I mean, I love this place. It’s just my second home. I’ve spent a lot of time here and, obviously, lived here for three-plus years. I enjoyed every second of it. I always say I want to come back in the offseason and see everybody that helped me through college and see some of my old teachers and see my host parents that helped me in baseball, then just see Coach Cohen and the guys.

HSB: Hunter, after they showed highlights of your record home run and you walked out onto the field, that might have been the loudest cheer anyone got all day. What was that feeling like?

Renfroe: That tells me that they actually did love me here. That’s honestly what I appreciate the most. They support us 100 percent. Once we leave this place, they still watch and support us and follow us. That’s very special to me and we’re very blessed to be a part of a Major League Baseball team and live out a lot of people’s dreams that nobody gets to do. So few people get to do it. God has blessed us tremendously.

HSB: People around Starkville and MSU always talk about how special baseball here is and how unique the bond is between the team and its fans. You’ve both been around guys from all over the country since leaving State. Is it really different at MSU or is that just sort of living in a bubble down here?

unnamed-3Graveman: I’ve been with guys from other teams and it’s not the same. I’ll be like, ‘Hey, are you going back to any games?’ And it’s not the same passion. It’s not the same welcoming home. That’s what’s special here. It does feel like a family. I’m blessed enough to be able to step out on the football field during a timeout. The ovation you get, you feel like you’re really welcomed here. Yeah, you play with other guys, but then you play against guys, like Mitch Moreland. I talked to him and we always talk sports. Or Buck Showalter and I catch up on football, or how’s the baseball team going to be? It’s always fun to talk with those guys that share a similar bond in Mississippi State, even if you didn’t play with them and our time was not shared here. Those guys are still Maroon and White and we bleed that.

Renfroe: I think it has a lot to do with the SEC. I think the SEC supports baseball far more than a lot of other places. Especially at Mississippi State. Something we’ve always looked forward to doing is going out in the Left Field Lounge and having a great time out there cooking and eating and watching the Bulldogs play.

That’s one thing I thought about when I was thinking about colleges to go to. I thought, even if I wasn’t a baseball player, that’s where I wanted to be – in the Left Field Lounge out there having a blast, watching some baseball and relaxing. I think, here, it’s just kind of more of a social event at a football game. You’re always having fun, but I think baseball is a different environment. It’s very special. You get to interact with the players. I think it’s different, and obviously, the fans here are wonderful and the best in the country.

HSB: I know you were busy with your own season, but as you watched MSU win the SEC Championship this year, what did that mean to you?

Renfroe: I think it was very special. Obviously, John Cohen is an unbelievable coach and I think the fans love him, as well. If you ask any of his players, we loved him. He was obviously hard, but he was hard the right way. He pushed us because he knew what he could get out of us. It was very special, the team we had in 2013. We had a lot of talent and he was trying to milk us for all it was worth. He’s got a great team coming up this year. We always cheer them on and wish them the best. We try to come up there and help out and be around those guys as much as possible.

HSB: Talking to you two about everything you’ve done in the pros, then looking at how many of your teammates have made it or are close to doing so, as well, is it weird to look back at the 2013 College World Series team and realize just how many MLB guys were in that group?

Renfroe: I don’t think that’s a very big surprise to the guys that were on that team. So many people might have thought, ‘Oh, he may make it.’ No, we knew, hey, we’ve got MLB quality people right here, right now, especially with Kendall and the arms we had.

I think it’s gonna be an eye-opening experience when it’s all said and done and we all get there. That’s something you look back on and say, that’s one of the best teams that Mississippi State ever had, honestly. It kind of speaks for itself that we made it to finals, the championship game. That has a lot of luck to do with it, as well. You can’t get there by talent alone. I think we had a brotherhood there, as well. We did phenomenal together. We lived together. We had hangouts together. We went to football games together. That’s one of the big aspects of what we did with what we had. We had a lot of fun.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dan Mullen Press Conference Live Thread – BYU Week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen will meet with reporters for his weekly press conference. Mississippi State plays at BYU on Friday night at 9:15 central.

Live updates to follow.


And he’s here. Mullen opens discussing the short week and long trip, added in with a late night kick.

“A different style of challenge for our guys,” he said.

He expects a lot of different looks and a blitz-heavy scheme from BYU’s defense. Offensively, Mullen calls BYU QB Taysom Hill “a great winner, a great competitor” and compares him a little to Tim Tebow as a physical runner. “He’s got that ‘It Factor.”

Says BYU has a great tailback and some tough matchups at receiver, as well.

“We’ve got to execute at a high level” to win, Mullen said.

In preparation, MSU is practicing later at night this week.

As for MSU’s team, Mullen discussing how to work through highs and lows.

“The best way I know how to get through adversity is to get back to work,” he said.

Having built a program on the idea of relentless effort, Mullen says there’s a bit of a learning curve for young guys to understand what that means. He says the transition from high school where they are usually the best player on the field to being in the SEC and around serious talent often takes some time.

“There’s a strain level that you have to hit,” Mullen says, “And guys have to learn to do that every snap.”

In practice yesterday, Mullen says players responded fairly well. “I thought our attitude was good.” Said it was just weird with the difference in schedule this week.

On the injury front, Mullen says “we’ll see” on senior safety Kivon Coman, who suffered an injury in the first half last week and didn’t play in the second half. Mullen didn’t rule him out for Friday, will see how he does in practice this week.

Also, a couple kickers still recovering as Logan Cooke’s knee is still healing and he didn’t do kickoffs this week. Westin Graves has had back issues and actually didn’t practice the last couple weeks because of it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Radio Highlights, Maroon Memories And A Photogenic Dog

Watching highlights of big moments and plays in sports is, obviously, a popular thing. It’s why shows like SportsCenter on ESPN are so popular, why 10 second clips spread like wildfire on Twitter and why two minute videos showing a game’s best plays are more popular than a 15 minute feature on the life of a player or coach.

Highlights are fun, and they’re either confirmation that what you just witnessed was really that impressive, or they’re confirmation that what you didn’t see really was as impressive as everyone made it out to be.

picture-with-jakBut my favorite way to watch a highlight isn’t with fancy edits or dramatic songs. When done right, when the play is great and the call is good, there is no other way I’d rather watch a play than with the radio call behind it. How many years did I spend in Mississippi seeing every play through the lens of Jack Cristil’s voice?

“Bulldogs recover! Bulldogs recover!”

I was asked if I would be interested in writing a story about Maroon Memories, a program Mississippi State started a couple years ago and is now making an emphasis to expand. The point of the program is to offer unique experiences to MSU fans surrounding the MSU events they attend. I’m fully aware of the program and its existence (and I actually grew up with its director, who I will quote later in the story), but I asked them to send me some more information on the types of things they have done, as well as the types of things they are going to do.

And all of that brought me to my favorite way to watch a highlight – with the voice of the radio announcers calling the play behind it. It brought me there because that’s one of the experiences the previously mentioned director included in the list she sent me. It’s probably not the one she wanted me to single out (the option where fans can stand down on the field for the pre-game ceremonies and be by the tunnel high-fiving the team as they come out is likely the one she’d have preferred for me to highlight). But it’s the one that stood out to me. For a full quarter, a few fans on Saturday for MSU’s game against Auburn (and at other games in the future) will be able to sit in the press box with Jim Ellis and Matt Wyatt as they call the plays.

Imagine if that had been possible in this game two years ago, when MSU, then the No. 3 team in the country, jumped out to a 21-point lead against Auburn, then the No. 2 team in the country? The result, of course, was possibly the biggest win in the history of MSU football as Dak Prescott and Dan Mullen and the entire team lifted the program to No. 1 in the country.

That would have been quite the experience, and that’s what MSU is trying to create here.

“The point of Maroon Memories is to give fans an experience that they wouldn’t get just by standing in the stadium,” said Hannah Smith, childhood friend, and director of Maroon Memories. “This is something we can offer them that no one else will get to experience.”

spirit-memoryThis is the part where I share that, yeah, MSU is offering exactly that: things you can do now, that you couldn’t do before, and most will never get to do. Some of them likely sound cool to everyone – the pre-game access to the tunnel certainly makes the list – while others – like the option to spend all of pre-game with MSU’s marketing director and get a tour of the control room, be taken to the field, get a walk-through of the press box and a free meal – may appeal more specifically to those interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of a college football game. There is, surprisingly or not, a lot more happening at games than two teams trying to get the ball into each other’s endzones.

(If you do happen to redeem the behind-the-scenes memory this weekend – it costs $100 and there are two spots open – feel free to come say hi on the sideline or in the press box. I could always use a friend.)

There are all kinds of options though. You can take pictures with the live Bully, named Jak, on the field during the game. You could be taken to the sideline in in the south end zone before the start of the fourth quarter when the stadium sings Don’t Stop Believin’. If you’ve got a child who wants to be a cheerleader or pom squad dancer or a mascot one day, you can get pictures of them with the spirit squads on the sideline. Or maybe you just want a picture for yourself. Whatever you like.

The games themselves are a good time, particularly one like this weekend against an SEC opponent when it’s the first home game in nearly a month. Saturday will be fun either way, and Friday with Bulldog Bash should be plenty enjoyable on its own. But these really are some pretty neat things MSU is doing. I’m sure, at this point, they’d like me to say you can visit www.hailstate.com/memories if you have more interest, and they’re right. That is how you can do that, and the experiences will continue for the rest of this season and will go even further as basketball, baseball, softball and so many of MSU’s sports begin over the course of the year. So, yeah, check it out, if you like.

I think what I like about watching highlights with the radio call is that you hear the reaction and description in real time. You see the play as it happens, and you hear the reaction at the exact same time. There’s no talking head who had a few hours or days to think about it. There’s no music to add fake drama. It’s real, and it’s memorable.

And that’s what MSU is trying to create.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment