MSU Video Department Makes History With SEC Network Broadcast

In technical terms, Mississippi State’s video department had its landmark first linear broadcast on Wednesday.

 Photo by Kelly Price


Photo by Kelly Price

In every-man speak, MSU’s video department made history through the magic of fiber and expensive equipment on Wednesday night when the MSU-Ole Miss volleyball game was broadcast nationwide on the SEC Network using only the resources on campus already.

To break that down a bit further, ESPN showed up with nothing but the on-air play-by-play announcers for the game and some of their own personnel to supervise this first national broadcast coming straight out of Starkville. There was no TV truck – previously the only way such a broadcast could be done – no extra equipment, no anything. And any cable or satellite subscriber across America could turn on their television and see a thrilling come-from-behind win for MSU’s volleyball team over its in-state rival.

Broadcasts like this were one of the long-term dreams when the SEC Network was conceived a few years ago, though the realistic expectation was that few schools would have the resources necessary to accomplish these goals. The advantages for ESPN are obvious – they save money by not having to send a truck, not having to send teams of cameramen, producers and the like. Their talent can just show up while MSU takes care of the rest

The boost for MSU – beyond the national exposure for its various programs – is the opportunity to make money as ESPN pays the school for some of the savings they get in the deal. Additionally, it gives students the opportunity to work on big-time broadcasts and get incredible experience without leaving their campus.

Plus, it’s really cool.

 Photo by Kelly Price


Photo by Kelly Price

Nights like Wednesday were possible for MSU because of the deep investment the athletic department made in its video and broadcast capabilities when planning for the SEC Network. This eventuality was one that those in charge, like Senior Associate A.D. Scott Wetherbee, knew was a possibility early on. In the preliminary stages, MSU’s staff decided to make it a goal.

When that decision was made, MSU’s control room for such broadcasts was still a slightly upgraded version of the room they built to run the Sony Jumbotron at the football stadium when it was installed decades ago. When that initial control room was built, it wasn’t even HD, though it of course got the HD upgrade when the new video boards were built at Davis Wade Stadium.

Now, in the bowels of the expanded north endzone of the stadium, MSU has fleshed out an immensely impressive broadcast hub complete with control room, engineering room and even a replay room, with a second control room on the way soon.

 Photo by Kelly Price


Photo by Kelly Price

Bennie Ashford is the Assistant A.D. for Video Operations, and this new facility is very much his baby. An expensive, high definition and technologically advanced baby, sure, but a baby nonetheless. His smile Wednesday night was evidence of not only the work put in, but the quality of the product going through fiber from MSU’s volleyball court to Davis Wade Stadium to SEC Network headquarters in Charlotte and then out into the world, with not even a second of visible delay.

“I’m a Mississippi State guy, and I know that we don’t always have the financial resources that some do,” Ashford said. “But this is on par with the absolute best.”

Excitement for the night in the control room, while much quieter than the crowd for the game they were broadcasting, was still palpable. MSU staff and ESPN staff shared in the anticipation, running myriad machines and screens and cameras as the countdown began. ESPN sent one of their best producers down to run the show as a means of marking the occasion. With seconds left on the clock before the show began, she happily offered encouragement to the entire team of students and professionals about to make quiet history in a dark room in MSU’s football stadium.

“Have a good show everybody – have fun!”

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Looking Back Through A Career Of Highs and Emotions For MSU’s 19 Seniors

Belief is an immensely powerful thing. Specifically, the acts of being believed in and of believing in someone else can be the most influential of catalysts for change, for good, for redemption and for success.

If hope is a dangerous thing to lose, then it is an incredible thing to gain. Four and five years ago, Mississippi State had begun to build some hope, had started to convince others that they were worthy of being believed in. But it had been a struggle, and at the time, some who believed were starting to lose faith.

unnamedThe majority of the 19 seniors who will play their last football game on Scott Field Saturday signed on to play for MSU during that time, before the team had ever been ranked No. 1 in the country, before the stadium had been expanded, before anyone outside of Starkville, Mississippi and Haughton, Louisiana knew who Dak Prescott was. For most of those young men, the recruiting pitch from Dan Mullen and his staff boiled down to that one powerful but completely intangible thing: just believe in us.

And they did. That was their only choice, really. The best tangible selling point back in 2011 and 2012 was a decades-old locker room in a building shared with a half-dozen other sports.

“That wasn’t too much of a pitch,” senior defensive end A. J. Jefferson joked this week. “’Come here, we’ve got a Gatorade machine!’”

But he, like many others, chose to believe in what MSU was doing and where it was going.

“On my official visit, it felt like a family here,” Jefferson continued. “Coach Mullen did tell us, you come here, you’re going to work hard and help build a championship team. I think that’s exactly what he’s done. I’m thankful for my development. Thinking back on it, I don’t think I would have developed as much, especially as a man, a football player and just as a person the way I did here.”

The emotions, memories and experiences are similar for Torrey Dale, one of Jefferson’s fellow senior defensive linemen. Dale moved from New Orleans to Starkville at 18 years old, unsure of himself and likely a little unsure of what he was doing, how he would figure out where classes were, how he would fit in.

Now, Dale is 23, he’s got a college education and he’s got friendships that will last as long as he’s alive.

“It means a lot,” Dale said of his time at MSU. “It’s one of the schools that gave me a chance to better myself in life, on the football field and in the classroom. It showed me that a lot of people believed in me, seeing something that maybe others didn’t see in me. It really pushed me to bring that out. I’m forever grateful to this place.”

unnamed-2That trust was mirrored on all sides. Those young men believed in MSU, and MSU believed in them. Likewise, MSU’s fans showed belief in all. When the first game was played in the expanded Davis Wade Stadium, MSU was completely unranked and was coming off a season in which it only made a bowl game and avoided a losing record by winning its last three games

And the game was a complete sellout. Just like it had been time and again for years leading up to that moment. Those who believed then, when the best was yet to come, were rewarded not just with a win that day, but with victories all season and with the fastest rise to No. 1 in the country that college football has ever seen.

People who believed in MSU were in the stands, on the field and along the sideline that day to watch unranked MSU play unranked Southern Miss. And because of the work put in by all, new heights were reached. It’s journeys like that one that seniors this week are looking back on.

Fred Ross was just starting his second year of college that day, and now, this week, the school’s all-time leading receiver is less than a month away from receiving his diploma, an achievement he says he is far more proud of than any of the many records he’s set.

“Mississippi State taught me how to be a man,” he said. “It went by so fast. I remember just getting on campus as a freshman and not knowing what I had going, not knowing where my classes were, when workout times were. I’ve been blessed just to make it here.”

Ross, like many of his senior cohorts, knows that when his name is called on Saturday night and he runs onto the field for the last time it will be a whirlwind of emotions, helmet in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other.

“I’m gonna be crying like a baby, I ain’t gonna lie,” he admitted. “I know I’ll see my mom out there and she’ll be crying and that’ll probably make me cry.”

These seniors have compiled quite the list of memories as they’ve felled both records and giants, often in the same game. They’ve played in front of the biggest crowd in the history of Mississippi State football at Davis Wade Stadium. They once leapt into the stands after beating Auburn, doing so with the knowledge that they had just become the best team in the country.

“Davis Wade was rockin’ that day,” Jefferson recalled.

unnamed-1They’ve won in blowouts and overtimes, while also losing heartbreakers along the way. They’ve become captains and leaders. They’ve gained weight and grown beards. Some have already graduated and one of them has even gotten married. As important as anything, they’ve helped usher in the new era of Mississippi State football, helping put the Bulldogs squarely in the national conversation time and again.

“Memories like that are things I’ll tell my kids about one day,” senior linebacker Richie Brown said.

They have a lifetime left in front of them to reminisce. But now, they’re down to just one more chance to make those memories on their home field.

Jefferson remembered this week the words of teary-eyed Preston Smith two years ago after he was honored on Senior Night.

“It’s gonna be the longest jog of your life running to your mama,” Smith told him then, tears in his eyes.

Two years later, Jefferson expects those words will ring true as he asks himself one final question.

“Where did the time go?”

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South Region Champs, MSU Cross Country Looks Ahead To NCAA Championships

Maybe I’m just stupid. In fact, that’s almost definitely the case. I’ve just never been sure how to write about cross country as a sport. Forget writing a story for a minute, I haven’t even been sure what to ask in an interview.

“So, y’all try to run fast?”

“Yep.”

“Um, for a long time?”

“That’s the idea.”

I mean, I guess I could ask about the difficulty of drinking water while running at the same time. That’s a thing, right? Seems hard. I know some people who can barely walk and chew at the same time.

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-11-44-14-amMy ignorance aside, obviously there is more to being an effective distance runner than strong calves and the ability to multi-task. I’m not so dumb as to think that anybody could wake up and do the things those runners do just by hopping on a treadmill.

Luckily, Mississippi State sort of forced me into learning the details, thanks to their women’s team winning the NCAA South Region for the first time in program history. Actually, it was the first time any school from Mississippi won it. Led by South Region Coach of the Year Houston Franks and National Champion Rhianwedd Price, MSU’s cross country program has been exceedingly successful over recent years.

The group is off to the NCAA Championships this weekend, and before they went, they held a press conference on Tuesday to discuss their victory. I had a few variations of, “So, y’all are good, huh?” tucked away and ready to go, but fortunately, Franks opened up a new world of information as he answered one of the other reporters’ questions.

“We take a very scientific approach to training,” he said. “We focus a lot on the physiological aspect.”

At the risk of getting an answer that went completely over my head, I asked him for more information on that scientific and physiological approach. In the upset of the day, I actually understood his response. Big picture, Franks coaches his runners in two main areas: the mental and the physical.

The focus, in this instance, is the physical, which again breaks down into two areas. First, there’s the aerobic side, which is exercise that requires oxygen and relates to endurance. Second, there’s the anaerobic side, which is exercise that does not require oxygen and relates to speed. There is far more nuance than that, but that’s the gist of things. To be at their best, MSU’s runners need to excel and be properly trained in both areas. That’s where Franks comes in, helping to get them there in each.

The difference is that aerobic exercise takes, according to most research, as many as six months of training to reach its upper limit. Anaerobic, on the other hand, takes 2-3 months. The challenge for Franks and his team is finding a way to have both of those areas hit their sweet spot at the same time, and to have that time be when it is needed the most.

“You’re always trying to get those two things to peak at the right times to where you’re at your best in those two physiological peaks you’re looking for,” he said. “We’re hitting on all cylinders at the right time of the year. In every sport, no matter what you play, you want to be at your best in championship season.”

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-11-43-52-amIn fact, while MSU has run well all year, Franks said the South Region Championship was the first “great” run his team had this season. Just two weeks prior, his team was disappointed in a fourth place finish at the SEC Championships. The fact that such a mark was disappointing shows just how far this program has come in a few short years.

Under Franks, the team has been on an upward trend for a while, but in the last couple years, they’ve taken things to a new level with their team and individual accomplishments. When asked what led to the unprecedented success, Price actually turned and opened her arms high and low to present her head coach the way Vanna White might present a brand new car to a potential Wheel of Fortune winner.

The development, she believes, can be credited largely to Franks.

“First coming in here, I had no idea what I was doing,” she said as she espoused the virtues of the man who had been named Coach of the Year just moments before arrival to the press conference. “He massively deserves it.”

The margins of victory and defeat are incredibly thin in cross country, a sport measured by tenths of seconds where the difference between first place and 30th place is just a notch above negligible. But through patience and a proven approach, Mississippi State’s cross country program has made those moves.

“The years we were going in the right direction, we maybe weren’t even getting the results, but we knew it was coming, and now we’re getting to reap the benefits of it,” Franks said. “But quite honestly, we haven’t reached the end game. We’re not where we want to be yet. We want to keep climbing and we want to be perennially a national contender.

“We’ve proven we can do it. Now we’ve got to prove we can do it over and over and over again.”

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Schaefer Embraces Greatest Challenge With Veteran-Laden Bulldogs

Vic Schaefer is in a unique situation as the basketball season begins today – unique for his time as Mississippi State’s head coach, anyway. He’s got, by most any measure, the best and most experienced team of his tenure with the Bulldogs, featuring four seniors and four juniors and a handful of players who have earned various All-SEC honors.

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-11-25-15-amAnd that luxury creates his greatest challenge. The same young women who led MSU to the Sweet Sixteen last year, the ones who were behind the best season in school history, are the same ones Schaefer is depending on to out-perform themselves. When he arrived in Starkville, there was nowhere to go but up as year-by-year he added talent in droves and depended on young players to compete beyond their years.

Now, with MSU picked No. 2 in the SEC and considered one of the top programs in the country, Schaefer and his players alike know how easy it would be to slip and how equally difficult it will be to climb the last rung of that ladder.

“We can go down or we can go up,” senior guard Dominique Dillingham said. “It’s like Coach Schaefer says – we only have one spot to go up, but we have a lot of room to go down. We have a lot of people coming back, so it’s up to us if we’re going to do better than last year. In order for us to do better than last year, we’re going to have to do more than what we did.”

It was one of the hardest moments of Schaefer’s career, but MSU’s loss to UCONN in the Sweet Sixteen has proved to at least have a silver lining in the strong motivation it offers. Both because of the sting of that loss and because of the knowledge that individual and team development is the only way they can improve, MSU’s players spent their full offseason doing everything they could to get better.

They broke down their own film, pinpointed any weaknesses or struggles and dedicated the summer to fixing them. Dillingham put up hundreds of shots every day in an effort to better her field goal percentage. Players worked on help defense, blocking out, ball handling, the works. Whatever was needed, they dedicated the time to fixing it.

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-11-26-15-amSenior forward Breanna Richardson had the question of improvement posed to her shortly before the season began. How does a team full of the same people get better than it was a year ago?

“Just get in the gym,” she said. “I know it’s simple, but just get in the gym, work on your weaknesses and they become strengths before you know it.”

For Schaefer, however, the ability of his team to improve is contingent on more than just skills development. His biggest concern and his greatest hope are the same – team development.

“Talent doesn’t win alone,” he explained. “The chemistry piece, the leadership piece is where our next step needs to be. We’re certainly a very talented basketball team, but that’s not enough to win.”

That’s where players like Dillingham and Richardson and the other veterans become important, particularly junior point guard Morgan William. Finally back to full health, William has quickly found herself as one of the most experienced players on the team, and with her position, she’s one of the first to be looked to for leadership and guidance.

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-11-25-48-amVocal leadership isn’t necessarily a natural trait for William, but it’s something the point guard has worked on in the offseason. She’s started to talk more, taken on the role of being a leader. Specifically, she’s taken on the responsibility of calling plays while bringing the ball up the floor, making an effort to call out the sets earlier and earlier in the play clock as she gains the experience.

“I’ve gotta be a coach on the floor,” she said.

2016-17 will be the most talented and experienced team Schaefer has had at MSU. They aren’t where he wants them to be just yet, and Schaefer knows surpassing their previous highs will be a great challenge, but there remains an emphasis on the great part of things.

After all, this exactly where Schaefer wanted to be.

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Weatherspoon Brothers Pair Talents, Competitions At MSU

Like a joke-loving dad who would never embarrass his kids on purpose but relishes holding the possibility over their heads, Mississippi State coach Ben Howland confessed the contents of his phone to reporters on Wednesday. Somewhere deep in that camera roll, Howland has that most embarrassing of artifacts – baby pictures. Specifically, he’s got pictures of one of his veteran players, Quinndary Weatherspoon, with one of his newest players in signee Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary’s little brother.

quinndary_vandyIt was a big deal when the first Weatherspoon signed with MSU as a four-star guard and debuted last year, Howland’s first at MSU. It was an equally grand moment when the second Weatherspoon in as many years signed with MSU, this one also a four-star guard, the top-rated player in Mississippi, one of the best 35 players in the country and the No. 5 point guard in America in this class.

Nick is just a tad higher rated than Quinndary was out of high school, but to hear big brother tell the story, Q has always been a little ahead on the court. Asked when Nick got old enough to compete against or possibly beat his brother in basketball, Quinndary was clear that such a moment has yet to occur.

“He still hasn’t caught up to me, I don’t believe,” Quinndary joked.

Kidding from both Quinndary and Howland aside, each is thrilled to add a second Weatherspoon to the roster next year.

“I’m excited that I get to play with him again,” Quinndary told reporters. “I really enjoyed us playing together in high school. We had a lot of fun growing up playing together.”

They started playing together late in elementary school when the two brothers would go out in the backyard to shoot around, play one-on-one or delve into whatever competition they could muster with just the two of them. By the time they were both in middle school, Quinndary and Nick had taken their game to local gyms, not only playing against older boys, but typically beating them, too.

It may have been disappointing at the time for those high schoolers to lose to a pair of middle school brothers, but they’ll likely feel better in a few years when there’s a strong chance of both Weatherspoons being professional basketball players. Who knows, maybe they’ll even play on the same pro team together.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see either brother in the NBA, particularly as Howland and Quinndary both compared Nick to one of the greatest basketball players in the world. And it just so happens that the player in question, Russell Westbrook, also played for Howland in college.

“Watching him a year ago,” Howland said of Nick, “he played out in Vegas and he was just phenomenal. He made his team so much better, and I was like, ‘Wow, he’s the only player I have ever watched where he reminded me of Russell Westbrook.’ That is the ultimate compliment that I can pay a player, and it’s because of his motor. What makes Russell Westbrook special is what makes Nick special; competitive, toughness, desire to win and playing both ends of the floor. I can’t pay a young man a higher compliment.”

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-11-46-20-amQuinndary, likely unaware that Howland had made the same comparison just a few minutes before, confirmed the similarities.

“His game is very aggressive,” Quinndary explained. “I describe him as a young Russell Westbrook. He gets after each and every play and he’s going to get after it each and every game.”

Of course, Quinndary was quick to remind, just because Nick reminds him of the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer, doesn’t mean that he’s better than big brother. They haven’t played one-on-one in a few years, and the next time they share a court, they’ll likely be wearing the same maroon and white jerseys with “WEATHERSPOON” across the back. But Quinndary hasn’t lost confidence. His supposedly unblemished record has seen to that.

“I won all of them,” Quinndary said of their one-on-one battles. “I never lost.”

Perhaps little brother will get his chance at redemption – and rebuttal – next year.

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Q&A: Cannizaro Shares Approach, Philosophy As New MSU Baseball Coach

Early Friday night, barely five hours since he had been introduced as Mississippi State’s 17th athletic director, John Cohen stood in front of the baseball team that he spent so many years putting together and took a turn making an introduction of his own. This is the best man to lead this program, Cohen said as he stepped aside to make room for Andy Cannizaro, the newest head coach of Mississippi State baseball.

kap15167Cannizaro has spent a lifetime around baseball, working as the hitting coach and recruiting coordinator at LSU the last two seasons after working for five years as a scout for the New York Yankees, where he was responsible for drafting and signing former Bulldogs Jacob Lindgren and Jonathan Holder. In fact, Cannizaro played for the Yankees himself after a stellar career at Tulane where he was an All-American who still holds the Conference USA records for hits and stolen bases.

At 37 years old, he’s done more in the world of baseball than most do in twice the amount of time. And on Friday, he added head coach to his list of achievements as he was welcomed with enthusiastic applause inside MSU’s locker room.

Cannizaro stepped to the front of the group and told MSU’s players about himself, a high-energy guy (a descriptor he used more than a handful of times) with a wonderful wife and two little kids who will consider the young men on the team to be their heroes.

“They’re going to be around all the time,” Cannizaro said. “They’re going to love you and they’re going to want to run out on the field and play with you.”

The new head coach also told his team about his approach, saying he wants to highlight and emphasize the strengths of each individual, playing aggressively on offense and safely on defense. If you can hit the ball hard, he said, then he’s going to let you rake. If you can throw heat, he added, then he’s going to let you throw away. And very importantly, if you can run, he told them, then he’s going to let you make the basepath your personal race track.

By the end of his talk, Cannizaro had the entire team clapping and cheering. They seemed ready to take the field immediately, and perhaps they would have had practice for the day not ended just moments before Cannizaro met his new team. That, perhaps, was as good an indication as any why Cohen selected Cannizaro as his own replacement.

“This is the man who is going to lead you to a National Championship,” Cohen told the team as he finished his introduction, “and I’m going to be standing right here watching.”

—————————————–

On Friday night, Cannizaro nicely took a few minutes out of his whirlwind schedule for a quick question-and-answer session. The following is a transcript of that conversation.

kap15176Question: You seem to have risen through the ranks of coaching quickly. What do you attribute that to?

Answer: I just think it’s been a lifelong process of playing the game for a really long time and being fortunate enough to be in the big leagues and play for guys like Joe Maddon and be around guys like Joe Torre and playing around so many great guys. I’ve taken parts and pieces from so many different great players and front office people and managers over the years. I’ve combined that with all the things I’ve learned collegiately from head coaches like Rick Jones and Jim Schlossnagle and then, obviously, the last two-and-a-half years working every day under Paul Mainieri and working for him. I owe so much of the last couple years to him, watching him run a program every day and seeing how he handles his team every single day. Every day, I went to work with my eyes and ears open and just tried to soak in as much as I could. He was the greatest person I could’ve worked for the last two-and-a-half years.

Q: Going from scouting to recruiting seems like a natural transition. What are some of the similarities there and how does the crossover work for you?

A: So much of the recruiting part of it starts with player and talent evaluation. There were so many guys in the five years I spent with the New York Yankees in their scouting department and it started at the very top. Probably my biggest mentor in terms of recruiting and learning how to talent evaluate and scout was Damon Oppenheimer, who is one of the Vice Presidents of the Yankees and the scouting director. I tried to be around him as much as possible and he was such a great leader of that staff and one of the best talent evaluators in baseball. I tried to learn as much as I could from him every day for five years. I took so many of those principles that I learned from him and applied them to the recruiting part of it.

You’ve got to be able to get the evaluation part of it right. When you’ve got 10-12,000 people that show up on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday in the SEC, they want to see a good product out on the field, and that evaluation – a good team on the field starts five or six or seven years before your fans ever see those kids play. You need to be able to identify the talent, you need to be able to identify the tools, you need to be able to profile in terms of the position and the requirements for that spot and really follow the tools, make sure you identify kids that can play the game. But you want kids that are great students. You want kids that have a great work ethic and that are going to try to maximize their talents.

Q: You’ve been around all of these great baseball people and taken bits and pieces from each. What is your philosophy, approach and style as a coach?

A: I try to coach every single day like I played. I wasn’t the biggest and strongest and fastest guy, but I tried to play as hard as I could every single day. I tried to play fast. I tried to take care of the baseball defensively, always playing what I call ‘Good Catch’ – being an accurate thrower of the baseball. Make the routine play. I want to be aggressive on offense. I want to be conservative on defense. I want to make the routine play. Get athletes on the field at the premium positions – shortstop, second base, centerfield. I just want to be able to build our team right in order to have the parts and pieces to compete for a National Championship every year.

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Resistance To Fear Tips Scales For Young Bulldogs In Upset Win

Mississippi State began its season with significant quantities of both talent and inexperience. Every week since the beginning of September, each payload has been presented, sent out onto fields of competition to see which side carried more weight.

More often than not, the scales have tipped in favor of the inexperience, all the possibilities and potential of talent sliding off their plate into a pile of youth and disappointment, opportunities just barely missed time and again.

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-12-17-32-pmIt was an inconsistency senior linebacker Richie Brown saw in practice, where the young Bulldog team would string together two great practices, only to come out lethargic and sluggish the next day of preparation. Or, perhaps, they’d have two bad days followed by one good. Actually finishing a full week, forcing the scales to tip the right direction, was an accomplishment seemingly always slipping through MSU’s fingers.

Until now.

“This was the best week of practice we’ve had all year,” head coach Dan Mullen said Saturday afternoon.

“Everybody felt good leaving the field every time,” Brown confirmed.

The result was a shift in weight on a borderline seismic level. The talent was finally fed enough in meals of experience and sharpened mentality that it was able not only to tip the scales back in the right direction but to send the plate of possibilities crashing to the ground and throw the contents of inexperience scattering in the air around Scott Field.

In their best game of the season by the widest of margins, MSU dominated the No. 4 team in the country at the line of scrimmage, stymied the No. 2 offense in the SEC, neutralized one of the best defensive fronts in college football and romped for over 500 yards as they beat Texas A&M 35-28 at Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday.

“Guys have learned to not play with fear,” Brown offered in explanation for the change. “Fear can destroy you sometimes. I think that’s what we built on this week was playing with confidence. Don’t be afraid to go make the plays. Don’t be afraid to take the shots. Having fear can crush your life, in all areas of life. It’s important for this team to learn how to not play with fear.”

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-12-18-46-pmIt’s understandable, of course, for young and inexperienced players to be afraid, nervous or timid. The SEC is college football’s biggest stage and the opponents are the best and toughest the country has to offer. In a perfect world, someone older or more seasoned would be tasked with making plays and leading charges to victory. But for a variety of reasons, very few of those veterans exist on this team, Brown being one of the notable exceptions.

That’s part of why it was so important that those players heard from stars and leaders of the recent past this week. Former Bulldog greats like Derek Sherrod, Preston Smith and Benardrick McKinney spent time with the team. On the sideline before Saturday’s game, former cornerback and team captain Taveze Calhoun gave the defensive backs a speech that Mullen could only describe as the pep talk of a lifetime.

Calhoun was once in that position as a sophomore in 2013 when he was counted on to replace Johnthan Banks, the 2012 Thorpe Award winner, despite Calhoun’s youth and lack of playing time. He’s been there before, and now, three years later, he can share what it takes to make that jump, to tip that scale.

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-12-16-56-pmWhatever Calhoun said, it worked. The Aggies were held to 117 yards and 10 points below their season average, while the A&M offense itself only mustered three scores. A position group much maligned this year, State’s secondary made a remarkable leap against one of the most explosive offenses in the country.

“Our DBs did not play with fear today,” Brown said after the game. “They were confident. They were ready to make plays. They weren’t worrying about anything else. They were just making good plays.”

More likely than not, this team will still have some struggles and hard moments over the final three weeks of the season. But finally, it’s a group that appears to have found itself, to identified its personality and jelled as a cohesive unit with the talent and confidence to make plays and win games.

It was under far different circumstances that Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed, “the only thing we have to fear – is fear itself.”

But it’s a lesson this team learned on Saturday. They don’t have to be afraid.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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