Dak Prescott surprises campers at Camp Jabber Jaw

This week in Starkville, two groups made their way to Mississippi State’s campus. On the north side, football players got to town for summer classes and workouts. On the south side, participants in Camp Jabber Jaw arrived at the T.K. Martin Center for their annual summer camp helping children who require augmentative and alternative devices for speech and communication.

On Tuesday, the two groups met when MSU quarterback Dak Prescott drove his car over from the weight room following a workout to the activities room at Camp Jabberjaw where the campers were assembled and waiting on a surprise special guest.

10996045_1039650492714099_5339629442637715008_nThe camp, whose theme is superheroes this year, is geared toward helping children who need and use typing devices, eye-detecting computers or other services to aid in their verbal communication. For most, they are the only ones in their school who have to use them, often making them feel left out or more reluctant to communicate. At Camp Jabberjaw every summer, they are in an environment where everyone around them, kids their own age, is just like them.

They are immersed in an environment where they can be comfortable, and are also provided with instruction from full-time staff at the T.K. Martin center as well as graduate students in speech pathology programs across the state of Mississippi. The camp is a unique one, attracting campers both new and returning from all over the United States every summer, and with parents and siblings invited it’s also an opportunity to learn together that they don’t often have.

And, of course, the idea is to have fun, hence the superhero theme including a cardboard Batmobile outside the entrance and murals of everyone from Clark Kent to The Hulk.

Prescott waited just outside the door to the room where all the kids waited as he was being introduced.

“We’ve been talking about superheroes all week,” one of the camp directors told the room, “so we wanted you to meet one of our heroes here at Mississippi State – Dak Prescott!”

She motioned for Prescott to walk inside, and as soon as he did the room erupted in cheers and clapping, as well as several excited looks from one camper to another.

Many of them knew who Prescott was, being Mississippi natives. But even the ones who didn’t looked at him with awe. The contrast between he and the campers was not lost on Prescott, whose 6’2”, 235-pound frame, shaved head, bulging muscles and big smile made him look every bit of an other-worldly action hero to the pint-sized kids, many of whom were bound to wheelchairs.

Prescott immediately walked up to the closest camper and introduced himself, shaking a little girl’s hand as he waited on her to type her name into the program on her iPad that would then read it back to him. Slowly, Prescott worked his way around the room, stopping to talk to every camper, making sure no one was missed, taking pictures, signing autographs and chatting with each of them as long as they liked, coaxing smiles and words out of even the shyest campers.

Not that all were shy, however.

An outgoing camper named Rachel flagged Prescott down as he neared the end of the line and played a message she had composed for him.

“Roll Tide!” the device chirped at MSU’s quarterback.

“What?!” Prescott responded with a smile and feigned disappointment.

Rachel, it turns out, is from Birmingham, and she’s a big Alabama fan.

But after laughs and a little more back and forth, Rachel leaned over the side of her wheelchair and gave Prescott a big hug as they said goodbye to each other.

MSU fan or not, Rachel was excited to meet Prescott. They all were, as evidenced by the Dak-Prescott-signed teddy bear and phone case now floating around somewhere at Camp Jabberjaw, but perhaps none were more thrilled to see Prescott than an older camper named Bac.

unnamed-1Wearing a maroon and white Mississippi State baseball hat, Bac had patiently waited in his spot in the circle of campers, watching intently as Prescott moved from person to person. As soon as Prescott stood up from taking a picture with the camper before and turned his way, Bac leapt out of his chair and held his hand out for Dak to shake it, an enormous smile covering his face.

Bac had actually graduated from MSU recently, one of the staffers explained, and he loves his Bulldogs. He and Prescott talked, joked, took pictures and smiled permanently as they spent several minutes with each other.

Once Prescott moved on down the circle, Bac just watched him with a smile as he introduced himself to each camper.

Something that had taken just a few minutes for Prescott had already become a memory that would last the rest of Bac’s life.

“Everybody does so much for me and there’s so much I can do with just a little bit of effort,” Prescott said afterward. “It makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing. It definitely humbles me to see them in their position.”

On the way out at the end of the morning, Prescott turned a corner coming down the stairs and saw a camper standing on the bottom floor along the wall in front of a life-size picture of The Hulk.

“Bac!” Prescott yelled down to him. “Are you a Hulk fan?”

The last thing Prescott did before walking out the door was to take a picture in front of The Hulk, he and Bac both flexing and cheesing for the camera.

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MSU investing in students with SEC revenue boost

Good news, Southeastern Conference schools: all 14 of you just got a $10 million raise.

sec_nation_story_memoOf the several stories to come out of the SEC meetings in Destin last week, the nearly 50 percent increase in conference payout was seemingly the biggest. Jumping from just over $20 million to $31.2 million, the per-school payout hit a record high thanks to the SEC Network, the new College Football Playoff, bowl money and other various sources of conference revenue.

Said recently-retired SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, “This increased revenue is important for our athletics programs to continue to fully support broad-based athletics programs for both male and female student-athletes and to give them the opportunity to compete at the highest level, both in the classroom and in competition.”

Over the past year, the question was how much the SEC would make. Now, with that answered, the question becomes, what do the schools do with all the extra money?

The most obvious answer is covering the cost of the investment each school made to be able to produce and broadcast SEC Network events, and that will certainly be a big part of it. The SEC Network has shown itself to be a worthwhile investment both financially and for the fans who were able to receive unprecedented coverage of their teams at home and on the road.

However, according to Mississippi State Athletic Director Scott Stricklin, it seems the most significant chunk of the new money will go right back to the people at the center of the department’s mission: the student-athletes.

At MSU and all 13 other SEC schools, a new (and welcomed) expenditure popped up in the form of the NCAA allowing scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance. The numbers vary to a degree from school to school, but in Starkville, Stricklin and the athletic department have budgeted $1.4 million next year to cover the additional scholarship benefits.

“The timing is really fortuitous,” Stricklin said of the SEC revenue increase.

Combined with rest of the cost of scholarships for student-athletes, MSU’s athletic department will have a roughly $10 million bill to pay for tuitions, books and fees.

In addition to covering full cost of attendance, MSU – like many other SEC schools – has already added more full time staff throughout the department, most of them in areas working directly with students.

MSU hired a full-time nutritionist for the first time last year, is adding another full-time athletic trainer this year, and for the first time ever is creating a position dedicated entirely to life skills coordination for student-athletes. The job, as Stricklin explained it, is intended to help students manage their time in college and prepare them for life after school, everything from putting together résumés and job applications to saving money and using time wisely.

In fact, MSU actually has plans to work with Dave Ramsey’s organization to provide fiscal education to student-athletes.

“We want to make sure that they understand the basics of finance,” Stricklin said. “Not that we’re going to tell them what to do with their money, but to make sure they understand how to open a checking account, set a budget and things of that nature.”

Just this week, a full-time assistant marketing position was added, and there are plans to expand both the ticketing staff and the new video team, as well as hopes to hire a full-time photographer. Beyond those hires, MSU is adding several graduate assistant spots throughout the department, some administrative, one with nutrition and several with individual teams.

“Everything we do,” Stricklin said, “is about enhancing the experience for our students and making sure they have the best academic experience possible, the best athletic experience possible and then a healthy, well-rounded social life.”

unnamedBeyond the new costs and positions, MSU is actually doing something fairly unique in big-time athletics. For the first time ever in the 2015-16 fiscal year, MSU’s athletic department will not receive any money from the tuition and fees of the school’s students.

In the past, all MSU students had fees in their tuition going toward free and reduced price tickets for athletic events and the university would send that money to athletics to use as they saw fit. In recent years, that number was as high as $4 million annually, though it steadily dropped and hit a low of $2.5 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

Starting this year, athletics will forgo receiving any institutional funds, allowing that money to go straight back to the academic side. Not taking any money from general student tuition is a rarity in college athletics.

Beyond that, the athletic department will invest another $1 million back into academics, sending $750,000 to the school’s State Pride Initiative for faculty and staff, as well as another few hundred thousand toward a university-wide marketing campaign.

“We’re fortunate to be an added benefit to the university without taking any resources away from the primary mission,” Stricklin said.

A portion of the increased SEC revenue will go toward other areas, to be sure. Facilities, salaries, food and beverage for student-athletes, equipment for various departments and programs, and a host of other expenses will take up much of the added income.

However, at least in MSU’s case, the greatest bit of it is going right back to the students.

“It’s not just about building buildings and paying coaches,” Stricklin said. “It’s about creating a great experience for our student-athletes and benefiting the entire university.”

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Live blog: John Cohen end-of-season press conference

At noon today, Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen will hold his end-of-season press conference reviewing the 2015 season, talking summer league baseball, and previewing the 2016 campaign.

Live updates to follow. Follow @HailStateBB for a live-stream of the event on Periscope.

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RUIQZQZZGTYQQMF.20150214024509He’s here! As are a full room of reporters. They’re going to ask questions of Cohen, I would assume. Plan is for him to answer them.

Asked about the season as a whole, Cohen says, “Obviously, we were pretty disappointed with the overall season,” but, “I don’t think we’re that far away.”

Adds, “I’m not a big believer in the luck part, because I think you make your own luck,” but says he’s watching the SEC teams they played close against do so well in the postseason and knows they were a few plays away from beating those teams.

Cohen, mentioning the seven players in the Cape Cod League, says “I’m excited about the group we have coming back.”

“The summer is really big for everybody … the development of our kids over the summer is really important.”

On the big picture, Cohen says, “Any successful organization is always evaluating itself … We’re evaluating everything we do, every phase.”

Specifically, Cohen says the things they’re looking at are what they’re going to do with pitching and how personnel sets up for Dudy Noble.

“We feel like we’re in as good a position as we can possibly be,” Cohen says of the current signing class and their prospects in the MLB Draft. “If the entire class shows up, we feel like it’s one of the best classes if not the best class in the country.”

“The only way you can prepare for those things is to be super aggressive in your numbers. It’s a challenge, no doubt about it.”

As for current players on the roster and possible transfers, Cohen says it’s hard to know right now, they expect to know a lot more next week. Said they’ve got some difficult and sensitive situations that have to be figured out.

More on the incoming class, specifically the talented pitchers, Cohen says it’s difficult to tell, “But I think they’ll all have an impact, it’s just difficult to tell what it will be.”

As pitching staffs go, Cohen says he doesn’t want to be reliant on just a few people. “We want as many people as possible to contribute.”

On the injury front, Cohen said he’s not quite ready to discuss details. Says things will be more clear at the end of the summer. He notes, as is known, that MSU had a good deal of injuries in the 2015 season. Though he added, “That’s not an excuse … All teams that compete at a high level will have injuries. The ones that can minimize that are the ones who will have success.”

He did share that there were several injuries and situations they didn’t share publicly.

Cohen talking new ball now, says “we were not out in front of that.” Mentioned that most of the pitching staff was guys who get sink, and the new ball took some of the way. As hitting goes, said obviously Dudy Noble is a big park.

On that hitting front, Cohen says some of the need for power “has been addressed” in current signing class.

Interesting. Cohen was asked about the adidas bats, said that the players used them (and other bats) in some testing and they chose the adidas bats. Players like them.

With so many young arms, Cohen said pitchers Zac Houston and Dakota Hudson will be relied on in 2016. “Both of them showed flashes, but we’re going to need more than that … They have to make some jumps.”

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100 things to look forward to for 100 days until MSU football

Today, as this is published, it is exactly 100 days until Mississippi State kicks off the 2015 football season against Southern Miss. With that in mind, I spent the last several days compiling a list of 100 things to look forward to about football returning. This is specific to MSU, of course, though there are a few broader harbingers of happiness.

0fa519bd4c4937f51053b17b799e28cbThe list was compiled to be from the point of view of an MSU fan able to enjoy the full luxuries of a football season, things I must often observe in jealousy from the press box – though I certainly won’t complain about the cover if it rains. I did, however, include a few of my own personal pleasures here and there.

Anyway, here in no particular order whatsoever are 100 things for MSU fans to look forward to about the 2015 football season. Fair warning: I was a little hungry while putting this together.

  1. The Dawg Walk
  2. 50,000-plus singing Don’t Stop Believin’ before the fourth quarter
  3. De’Runnya Wilson breaking tackles
  4. MSU cheese
  5. MSU ice cream
  6. The Egg Bowl being back in Starkville
  7. Richie Brown’s beard
  8. SANDSTORM
  9. Halftime shows
  10. Blue plates at Cappe’s Steakhouse
  11. Cookie dough bites at Stromboli’s
  12. Anything made by Ty Thames
  13. Road trips
  14. Tailgating
  15. The CBS College Football music
  16. Dak Prescott passing the ball
  17. Dak Prescott running the ball
  18. Dak Prescott catching the ball
  19. Dak Prescott creating world peace
  20. Fireworks after touchdowns
  21. Accidentally eating five meals worth of food on Saturdays
  22. Staying quiet throughout the entire National Anthem and definitely totally not yelling anything near the end of it. For sure.
  23. The debut of Gerri Green
  24. Rece Davis on College GameDay
  25. Complaining about students leaving early
  26. Complaining about students doing cheers too fast
  27. Wishing you were still a student
  28. Dinner at Harvey’s
  29. Late nights at The Guest Room
  30. Seeing which running back replaces Josh Robinson
  31. Unlimited opportunities for selfies
  32. Getting a picture to load in the stadium (Seriously, feels every bit as a impressive as scoring a touchdown)
  33. Making new friends
  34. Running into old friends
  35. Trying not to trip over children (They’re everywhere)
  36. Cowbell Yell
  37. Chanting before kickoffs
  38. Cheering way too hard for made extra points
  39. Deep passes
  40. Shipley’s donuts
  41. Watching Dan Mullen yell at the refs
  42. Watching a student assistant try to hold Dan Mullen back while he yells at the refs
  43. Cheese logs at The Veranda after the game
  44. A second order of cheese logs
  45. The land rush in The Junction on Friday afternoon
  46. The patio at Bin 612
  47. Cheese fries at Bin 612
  48. Chicken nachos at Bin 612
  49. Getting my drift here?
  50. Singing the alma mater with the team after the game
  51. Checking the video board for the words to the alma mater after the game
  52. Thanksgiving food in The Junction
  53. The Hail State Highlight
  54. The possible return of the College GameDay and SEC Nation sets
  55. The Juice Boys dancing on the sidelines
  56. The debuts of Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley
  57. Going to a bowl game
  58. Dinner at any of Robert St. John’s places in Hattiesburg for the Southern Miss game
  59. Cornhole
  60. Things wrapped in bacon
  61. Accidentally getting a tan in October
  62. Five-star freshmen
  63. Seeing the new polls on Sundays
  64. Piling too many people in one room to save money
  65. Crawfish rolls at Old Venice
  66. The McDonald at Mugshots
  67. Cookies at Bulldog Deli
  68. Anything at Lost Pizza Co.
  69. Pre-game in the Gridiron Club (my favorite spot in the north endzone)
  70. Waking up and watching morning games when MSU plays at night
  71. Sitting at the tailgate and watching night games when MSU plays early
  72. Falling asleep during the west coast games no matter when MSU plays
  73. Chips and dip
  74. The Maroon-White cheer
  75. Ringing cowbells at people from other schools
  76. Meeting nice people from other schools
  77. Kiss Cam
  78. Dawg Talk at The DawgHouse
  79. The inevitable return of Anthony Dixon. It’ll be fun, fun, fun.
  80. Running late on Saturday morning
  81. ESPN talking about Little Dooey
  82. Bulldog Bash
  83. Night games
  84. The clock museum in Barnes and Noble. Not kidding. That place is cool.
  85. Starkville Style wings at Stagger In
  86. Or the deep-fried cheeseburger
  87. Or the gumbalaya nachos
  88. Just go to Stagger
  89. Back-shoulder passes
  90. Strange Brew’s sign
  91. Chris Jones tacklin’ people
  92. Taveze Calhoun suplexin’ people
  93. Happy hour at Dave’s DarkHorse
  94. Ordering the Kathy Dip at Dave’s, even though it’s not on the menu
  95. Eating your weight in fried rice and sushi at Umi
  96. Just eat anywhere in Starkville, if you’re not picking up on this
  97. The 100 Year uniforms in maroon
  98. The 100 Year uniforms in white
  99. High-fives with strangers
  100. Dak Prescott pointing to the sky after touchdowns
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Bougard leaving legacy as all-time great at MSU

Erica Bougard has been at Mississippi State for four years. She’s won a National Title, set school and conference records and beat the best times at venues across the country. She’s everything a proud track parent could want.

Bougard receiving her first-place medal in the heptathlon Friday

Bougard receiving her first-place medal in the heptathlon Friday

This weekend, those parents and around a dozen members of Bougard’s family got to see her compete for the first time since she left Byhalia for Starkville, a two-hour drive along old Mississippi roads. Her response to the first competition in front of family since high school: Bougard won the SEC Championship in the heptathlon, setting four SEC Championship records in only seven events and scoring a personal best 6,250 points.

Not only was her score an SEC record, it’s tops in the country for 2015 and qualifies as the fifth-best heptathlon performance in NCAA history.

“I was happy to have my family here,” Bougard said afterward. “It made me push a little bit harder. They want to see me perform at my best and I want to do my best, so that just gave me a little extra boost.”

With her score, Bougard not only automatically qualified for Nationals, but met the standards for Worlds. In fact, she said, improving her score just by about 150 points would give her Top 10 status on planet Earth.

And she thinks she can do that. Her high jump, for instance, she believes can be improved due to her less-than-perfect form. Despite still finishing in the Top 10, her javelin throw was significantly less than what she’s come to expect from herself.

She’s already one of the most accomplished Bulldogs in history – All-American, SEC Champion and National Champion, to name a few highlights – and she’s got a full postseason ahead of her as she’s at the best she’s ever been.

Track and field may not draw the crowds of football, have the recruiting flair of basketball or be considered America’s pastime like baseball, but quietly in her corner of campus, Bougard may have carved out a career as great as any at Mississippi State.

Regardless of sport, could Bougard be considered one of the best athletes – or THE best – to come through MSU?

“No doubt about it,” head coach Steve Dudley said. “When you say ‘athlete,’ athlete means a lot of different skill sets.

“Who do you think can jump as well as she can?”

Bougard tied a personal-record in the long jump this weekend by leaping 20 feet and 11.75 inches.

“Who do you think can sprint as well as she can?”

She won the 800-meter sprint on Saturday by running two laps in 2:11, despite the fact she had already all but locked up the heptathlon title going into the event.

“Who can hurdle,”

…100-meter hurdles in a record 13.04 seconds…

“horizontal jump,”

…previously established long-jump record…

“vertical jump,”

…she cleared a school-record 6’,0.75”…

“and throw like her?” Dudley asked.

“There are a lot of components to being a great athlete. You’ve got a lot of people that are really good in their sport, but they’ve got one athletic skill set or two athletic skill sets they’re good at and then they’re not very good at the rest. That’s why she’s a multi-event athlete.

“So yeah,” Dudley concluded, “I don’t think you want to stack anybody up against her athletically and talent-wise.”

LCYZKVUKZIPUNHP.20150515021203It’s hard to argue with the man, or any of his several good points. Many have been taller, longer or stronger. But in terms of pure athleticism, of maximizing every muscle and reaching a world-class level in so many skill sets, few if any have ever met the standard Bougard continues to set.

Over at Davis Wade Stadium where gridiron heroes receive praise and support from tens of thousands every fall Saturday, the football field is named for Don Scott, not because he was a great quarterback or defensive lineman, but because he was a track star, the school’s very first Olympian.

In 2015, 101 years after Scott Field opened, Bougard is continuing his legacy.

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MSU decathlete Zach Taylor qualifies for NCAA Championships, competes for father

Zach Taylor was still fidgeting with his silver medal when he walked into the air-conditioned weight-room-turned-interview-room. A sophomore sprinter for Mississippi State, Taylor had just done something almost no one expected him to do – at the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Starkville, he beat out competitors from all across the conference and placed second in the decathlon, one of the most difficult events in the game, qualifying himself for the NCAA Championships in Oregon next month.

unnamed-2Those running with – and mostly behind – Taylor, hadn’t calculated him in their plans. MSU’s coaches and players, while confident and proud of him, didn’t think he’d do anything like that. Even Taylor himself, he admitted, had projected he would finish around fifth or sixth in the highly-competitive SEC.

No one expected him to do what he did. No one except for his dad, that is, and it was that man, James “J.T.” Taylor, who Zach first thought of when he was presented with his silver medal and when he stepped onto the podium as a winner on Friday afternoon.

Nearly six months ago, last November, Zach received a call. His father had been in an accident and it was serious. Within the hour, Zach was on a plane to Charlotte to get to the hospital where his dad had been taken and where his mother was waiting. He was scared for the worst, and shortly after arrival, his fears were confirmed. Try as doctors might, the injuries were too severe. J.T. Taylor passed away.

From that moment, Zach’s life went into a tailspin. After losing his father, his grades slipped, his focus waned and over the course of a few months he gained 20 pounds, a huge jump for a college athlete.

Finally, roughly two months ago, Zach emerged from the emotional turmoil and started to turn things back around. His coaches moved him around within the track program, helped him in get shape and taught him to channel his emotions, exhausting them through the healthy means of training and competition. Steve Dudley, MSU’s head coach who Zach considers a second father, has been at the center of it.

Throughout it all, since November, Dudley has called Zach nearly every night to check on him and talk to him. Dudley has called Zach’s mother to do the same. Thursday and Friday, as Zach worked his way through the 10 events it took to finish the decathlon, Dudley watched from the side as the young man who had been through so much fought his way to the top of the leaderboard.

“I’m blessed to have a coach like him,” Zach said. “He’s really like my second dad right now. He’s stepped up and taken a big part in my life, been there for me through everything.”

KHGBLMVGZSXXRYX.20141202191310Coming into the SEC Championships this weekend, Zach had dropped the extra weight, he’d picked his grades up and he had trained daily for months. But despite all the work, he still didn’t quite expect this.

Not only did Zach beat the competitors, he beat himself. Zach set a personal record in eight out of the 10 events in the decathlon, an incredible rarity in such a competition. He was initially surprised by the result, but as he shared in emotional moments after the meet, he probably should’ve seen it coming.

“Before every meet this year,” Zach said, “I went and talked to my dad. This time, he told me some good things. I’ll keep that between me and him, but he told me some good things.”

Zach’s father, watching from above, knew the young man his son had grown into and knew the successes which would come. Those big moments came for nearly all of Zach’s teammates, too, as Bulldogs placed in or won event after event in the first two days of the meet. Zach was competing for his dad, but not him alone. Zach and his teammates were also running for Daundre Barnaby.

A former Olympian, Barnaby was a sprinter for Mississippi State from 2009-13, and while training with the Canadian National Team this March, Barnaby tragically drowned in the Atlantic Ocean, passing away on March 27 while preparing for what he loved the most. At the SEC Championships this weekend, MSU’s players and coaches all wore hats with the letters ‘F.L.B.’ stitched across the front – Finish Like Barnaby.

As Zach ran, jumped and threw his way to the conclusion of the decathlon, it was Barnaby and his father who spurred him on in the toughest moments.

“Both of those started to come through my head,” Zach said. “Every time I started to feel like I was hurting, any time my legs got tight, that went through my head. ‘I gotta finish. I gotta finish.’”

And finish he did, the most incredible performance of his young career, thanks to his father, the man who had more confidence in him than any.

“He motivated me through the whole thing. Every time I felt down, I just had to push harder,” Zach said as tears welled up, physically and emotionally drained at the end of the day. “He’s looking down smiling right now.”

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Mullen, Schaefer, Howland recruiting people, not players, on Road Dawgs Tour

The crowd in Biloxi was fully aware who each speaker was as they needlessly introduced each other.

unnamed-2Dan Mullen is the head coach of the football team – the football team that rose all the way to No. 1 last fall and will start its next campaign with a Heisman frontrunner. Vic Schaefer is the women’s basketball coach who was the surprise star of the SEC this year, getting his team into the Top 15 and to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in only his third year. Ben Howland, the new men’s basketball coach, may have the best resume of them all, plus he just signed one of the top five high school players in the country barely one month into the job. And then Scott Stricklin is the athletic director who takes credit for all of it. (Kidding, Scott!)

It was, in fact, Stricklin who had a hand in hiring all three, and it was again he who pointed out that Monday on the Road Dawgs Tour was the first time those three Mississippi State coaches had been together. Taking it in turn to address the crowd at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Miss., each had different words but ultimately a similar message.

They are all at different points on the same path, their progression down it in reverse order of how little hair they have. (“I know I’m losing my hair,” Schaefer cracked after relating that he’d frequently been mistaken for Howland, “but my goodness, I’ve got more than Ben.”)

For Mullen, that path began in 2009, as he told it.

“We went 3-5 at home my first year,” Mullen said, “but that’s when we started selling out games.”

Since his first day on the job, Mullen has preached the same message when it comes to the program. He couldn’t build it on his own and then get fan support. They had to come first, then he could build it. Luckily for him, they did.

A few years later, as crowds continued to come and Mullen began to win more and more, Schaefer started reaping benefits from the fervor for football.

“You’ve got no idea the environment that football creates for us,” Schaefer said of bringing visitors to campus on football weekends. “It’s hard for me to screw that up when I’m recruiting with that.”

Likewise, record crowds began turning out for women’s basketball. Not just this past year, though. Many of the records Schafer’s crowds broke in 2015 were originally set in 2014, back when his Bulldogs were just in the WNIT. Within a year, they went from hosting the WNIT to just barely missing out on hosting the NCAA Tournament.

At the beginning of that path is Howland, the newest of the three who has yet to play a single game at Humphrey Coliseum.

“I didn’t see a lot of fans in The Hump,” Howland told the crowd of his days watching from a distance the last couple years. “The only way we’re going to have success in the future is to fill it up. I know we’re gonna have that in the future. I really look forward to it.”

If crowds for Mullen and Schaefer – as well as those for seemingly every other sport on campus – are any indication, Howland will get his wish. Based on the excitement from the crowd in Biloxi (over 400 people, nearly double the usual attendance) he may only have to wait until his first game for it.

In addition to sharing his enjoyment of Biloxi, Howland sang Starkville’s praises at length, and not in a disingenuous manner.

“The people,” Howland explained, “are so nice, so hospitable, so welcoming, so lovable. That’s gonna make it so easy to recruit.”

Whether Schaefer intended to do so or not, he actually gave a perfect example of what Howland meant when he told the story of securing the signature of his latest high-profile signee, a 6’7” five-star forward from Texas. One of the country’s most sought-after players, Teaira McCowan had taken visits all over America, to cities big and small.

Near the end of her first visit in Starkville, she stopped Schaefer and her family and said, “Coach, we had no idea all this was here.

That night, while eating dinner at The Veranda, Schaefer remembers McCowan rapping her fork against her water glass and telling the table she had an announcement. She stood up and told Schaefer she wanted to be a Bulldog, she wanted to move to Starkville and she wanted to play for Mississippi State.

“I’m 54 and I had my first heart attack,” Schaefer joked with the crowd Monday night. “Mississippi State is an easy sell.”

It’s a sell Howland has already made once, securing the signature of Malik Newman, the top player in the state of Mississippi and a McDonald’s All-American. It’s a sell Howland will continue to make, even immediately, he hopes, as he said plans to add another player to the roster by the time his first game starts.

Oh, and that first season – he thinks they’ll be pretty good.

“Malik would not have joined us if he didn’t believe we’d win right away,” Howland explained.

Howland speaks as someone who can’t wait to get on the court, who can’t wait to play a game, and certainly as someone who very much hopes to have a big crowd there to watch every game. He also speaks, both in direct words and perceived tone, as a man who wants to take MSU basketball back to the top of the conference and the country.

As Schaefer said before him and Mullen detailed after, the path has been laid.

“Three years ago, I told y’all we could do something special, and we did,” Schaefer said Monday night. “Mississippi State is here to stay. That’s not going to change.”

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Successful year one of SEC Network broadcasts for MSU

The first year was supposed to be about learning, easing into things and figuring out how the whole seemingly-complicated mess would work out.

SEC Network launch party on MSU's campus

SEC Network launch party on MSU’s campus

It turned out, the SEC Network was the biggest cable launch in history, and after nine months online, the digital side has more than doubled its projection with the 14 Southeastern Conference schools producing and broadcasting over 1,000 events on SEC Network+.

And the most impressive part, to some, isn’t just the sheer amount of productions, but the fact that quality has somehow kept up with the quantity.

“I don’t know how other coaches in our league feel, but it’s actually dramatically better than what I thought it was going to be,” Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen said. “When you have that much that you’re trying to cover as a network, you just assume that some of it is going to be a little sketchier. But it hasn’t been. The production has been phenomenal.”

The projections before the launch called for each school to have around 40 of its own broadcasts in year one, a strong but attainable goal. From August 2014 up to now, that number has doubled to an average of about 75 live events produced per school. MSU has produced over 100 when including games, press conferences and other live events.

Bennie Ashford, Assistant Athletic Director for Video Production at MSU, is the man tasked with the day-to-day operations of every production, lining up cameramen, directors, producers, talent and the like. It required more work for everyone involved, but Ashford said he wasn’t at all surprised the numbers went so far beyond expectations once people figured out how to do everything.

“The schools,” he said, “felt like, ‘Hey, this is a great platform. Let’s use it. Let’s just put every game we possibly can out there, and as long as you’ve got a budget to support it, do it.’”

At State, volleyball and soccer coaches saw how nice it was when Ashford’s crew began broadcasting their games online. Once the kinks were worked out of the productions, there was no reason not to show as many games as possible. Between volleyball, soccer, softball, baseball and men’s and women’s basketball – the sports with regular online broadcasts – only a handful of games were missed, an impressive juggling act by a group with only one control room.

MSU's current control room. Another one is being built this summer.

MSU’s current control room. Another one is being built this summer.

Only able to broadcast one game at a time has caused at least a little bit of stress, especially during heavy months like November and February with so many teams in action, but Ashford’s crew managed.

However, reinforcements are on the way, according to Scott Wetherbee, MSU’s Senior Associate Director of Athletics for External Affairs. By next year, MSU will have two fully-operational control rooms located at Davis Wade Stadium in the plaza of the new north endzone. Up to now, MSU has kept its SEC Network budget under $1 million, though the needed upgrades will put the department’s tab into seven figures.

It will be worth it, however, and not just to broadcast a few more games. While pumping out an ESPN-quality broadcast, Ashford’s crew also has to run HD video boards for each of the games for the teams who have them. There may only be one “broadcast,” but every game is a dual-production when video boards are involved.

“Marketing people are concerned about what’s going on in the venue on the video board,” Ashford said, “and if you’re watching on the ESPN app, you want to see a ballgame with slo-mo replays and different camera angles. We’ve been able to co-exist throughout the year with one control room, but with two next year, it will be a lot cleaner.”

Part of the emphasis to be able to broadcast more and at a higher quality level has been for a both surprising and obvious reason – the people watching. ESPN, the SEC and all the schools certainly hoped their numbers would be good, but interest has, again, gone beyond even what they expected.

All 14 schools together, the average for baseball broadcasts this spring has been around 5,000 viewers per game, led by an overwhelming 20,000-plus for LSU’s baseball productions. At MSU, numbers finished around 7,000 per broadcast

Softball has been strong league-wide, as well, bringing in around 1,500 viewers per game. At MSU, those numbers have been even more impressive as the Bulldogs have averaged nearly 5,000 people tuning in to watch them on SEC Network+ each home outing.

“When you have those kinds of numbers watching softball,” Wetherbee said, “we’re doing everything we can to be on the air.”

One incidental impact the SEC Network has had is the change in scouting for SEC teams. Baseball and softball this spring, for example, have had easy access to game film from opponents.

So easy, in fact, that softball coach Vann Stuedeman says her staff has been able to send cut-up video of opponents straight to their players phones so they can prepare for the pitchers or batters they’ll face in their next game. Before, Stuedeman’s staff was typically working with weeks-old film and sometimes they’d even have to go back and pull video from previous seasons.

“Now, an opponent we’re going to play tomorrow,” she said, “we’re watching their game from the previous Sunday with better camera angles, better views.”

Of course, as Cohen pointed out, “Everybody else in the league has that availability, too,” but it’s still been a boon from nearly every point of view. League visibility has improved, scouting is easier and fans are enjoying the product.

15561830-standardOne of the more subtle benefits has been the convenience for the parents of players in all the sports. With students coming in from across the country and even across the world, it’s not as easy for mom, dad and siblings to watch games as it was in high school when the stadium was just across town.

Alexis Silkwood, for example, is a sophomore pitcher on the softball team from Illinois – not exactly an easy afternoon drive. Ashford remembers the first time he met her, when her immediate response was to say how much her parents love being able to watch all of her games. They apparently enjoyed the quality of the broadcast, which is certainly a positive, as well.

It’s been an experiment in broadcasting that’s had a wealth of positives like that one, though that’s not say everything has been rosy. If nothing else, the time devoted and the stress induced for those like Ashford and Wetherbee has been strenuous, to say the least.

Wetherbee was charged with preparing MSU’s athletic department for the SEC Network from every possible angle, and he estimated at least two-thirds of his time every day was spent in Network preparations from April-December of 2014.

“It was a chore,” Ashford conceded, saying it’s been an every day job for him since the announcement in 2013. “It lasted, really, until now.”

Since that time, ESPN and the video coordinators from all 14 schools have had hour-long teleconferences every two weeks to review what’s been done, go over what was coming and feed off each other for ideas. It’s a unique situation, really, where those in charge act the opposite of all others across the conference. While the athletic teams are rivals on the field who intensely hide their secrets and methods from the competition, Ashford and his colleagues are open about everything, constantly giving each other tips, hints and inspiration.

“Everything we’re doing is all for one common goal – to publicize the league and to promote our athletes and athletic programs,” Ashford said. “The best way to do it is to work together.”

So they talk to each other. They study each other. Ashford and Wetherbee have spent hours on end watching other schools’ broadcasts to see what camera angles they use, what type of graphics packages they have, how their talent interacts with each other and anything else they can glean.

It’s been a lot of effort, a great deal of time and a ton of moving parts to put it all together, but they feel it’s been worth it. The much-anticipated check from the first year has yet to come in, so they don’t how much they’ll see from all the work, but it will assuredly cover the costs and much more.

At the very least, the fans of Mississippi State have been served, and ultimately, that’s the goal of everything happening in MSU’s athletic department.

“It’s worth it,” Ashford said of his time spent the last two years, “because it’s great for Mississippi State. It really is. We’re playing in the big leagues as it comes to television production. We’re getting our events out there so our fans, no matter where they are, can watch the games. That’s a big deal.”

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After five years on the job, Stricklin reflects on past successes and future goals

May 7, 2010.

I double-checked the date he gave me, but I needn’t have done so. Scott Stricklin won’t ever forget the day it was announced that he got his dream job – Director of Athletics at his alma mater Mississippi State University.

That was five years ago today, and it was a week ago today I met him in the office he’s occupied the whole time to talk about what he’s been doing this whole time.

“Can’t believe it’s already been five years,” I told him.

“I don’t know,” he responded. “That does seem like a pretty long time ago.”

“Well, the good news is you don’t appear to have grown nearly as much gray hair as Presidents seem to.”

“Oh, I’ve got more than I did. There’s some there, trust me.”

Stricklin, left, with Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum

Stricklin, left, with Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum

Gray hairs aside – and he doesn’t have many to be just shy of 45 years old – appearances for Stricklin are overwhelmingly positive as he begins another year in the highest seat of Mississippi State athletics.

More and more teams are winning, new facilities are opening or being built on a seemingly monthly basis, donations are through the roof and visibility is, without question, at an all-time high. Not that Stricklin took over a department in need of heavy repair, of course. MSU was moving in the right direction already, and Stricklin himself was back in town and part of the administration helping it do so. But the five years since his hiring have been one of the most successful athletic runs the school has ever seen.

Under Dan Mullen’s leadership, the football team has been to five-straight bowl games, including the climax period of the run this past fall when the Bulldogs ascended to No. 1 in the country and held the top spot for five-straight weeks.

Just over three years into Stricklin’s tenure, the baseball team hosted its first Regional in a decade and played for a National Championship in the College World Series, the deepest run any Bulldog team of any kind has ever made it into a postseason.

Men’s tennis is about to play in its fifth-straight NCAA Tournament and women’s tennis just broke through and made the postseason for the first time in a decade. Men’s golf just witnessed a tremendous four-year run while women’s golf, coming off a sixth-place finish at last year’s National Championships, begins the postseason this weekend with hopes of being the first MSU team to win a National Title.

Since Stricklin hired Vann Stuedeman as head softball coach, they’ve been to the NCAA Tournament every year. Undergoing a big rebuilding project, Vic Schaefer got the women’s basketball team to the NCAA Tournament (and a top-20 ranking) in only his third year this winter.

MSU track and field, be it men’s or women’s, indoor or outdoor, has become one of nation’s most dominant programs, winning two individual National Titles in the last two years and breaking a full book of records along the way.

Soccer and volleyball are in years one and three, respectively, of rebuilding with nationally-respected coaches, while men’s basketball made the splash of the offseason this March when it hired Ben Howland as the newest coach of the Bulldogs.

Stricklin with Ben Howland, center, and John Cohen, right

Stricklin with Ben Howland, center, and John Cohen, right

Off the field, MSU’s APR (academic progress rate) has grown annually, including two semesters the last two years with a cumulative department-wide GPA of at least 3.0, last fall being one of them.

The Bulldog Club has seen record donations and surpassed 10,000 members last year (up to almost 12,000 now), a significant milestone for the fundraising arm of the athletic department, while record crowds have shown up to watch football, baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball and women’s basketball all over the last 15 months.

Efforts such as those have led to a boom in facilities, where Stricklin has been part of the expansion and renovation of Davis Wade Stadium, a $25 million football team facility, a $12 million basketball practice facility, renovations to the track complex and upgrades to weight rooms and training facilities across the board. This spring, MSU unveiled plans for a brand new baseball stadium, broke ground on a multi-million dollar golf facility at Old Waverly Golf Course, and just last week the school began construction on a new $6 million softball stadium and tennis facility.

All the while, MSU has been at the front of pack in social media presence, marketing and branding, thanks in part to the twitter-savvy and perception-aware Stricklin.

So, if he’s sprouted a few gray hairs the last five years, it’s hard to blame him. But to see him relaxed in his office for a look back at those 60 months, you wouldn’t think he’d been so busy.

While it could easily seem like he just sits behind his wooden desk tweeting all day, Stricklin makes a point to get out among the people in the department and spend time with the coaches and players keeping the programs running.

“He’s very personable,” senior baseball pitcher Trevor Fitts said. “He knows everybody by name.”

BzRP1mMIgAA3bKBFitts has gotten to know Stricklin particularly well, it turns out. Not only does he see the athletic director at practices and games, Fitts goes to the same church as Stricklin and is actually teaching Stricklin’s daughter this spring while he’s been student teaching at a local elementary school to finish his degree.

The first time the two were ever around each other, however, was Fitts’ freshman year when Stricklin spoke with the baseball team before practice one day.

“He came in and told us how he thought our baseball program could compete for a National Championship,” Fitts recalled. “He thought we had the talent and ability to do it. The next year, we played for the National Championship. I just thought that was really cool that he believed in us and saw it coming.”

Kayla Winkfield, a junior on the softball team, said Stricklin makes sure to come and talk to her no matter where they run into each other, on the field or at a restaurant around town.

What both Winkfield and Fitts say they like so much about Stricklin is not just that he’s around, but that he makes them feel important. He goes out of his way to make sure he not only knows their names, but asks what they want to do, where they want to go, who they want to be.

As sophomore softball player Caroline Seitz put it, “we’re not football players, maybe, but our athletic director knows who we are, takes notice and cares about us.

That dedication to sports beyond football has been a big reason for MSU’s overall success under Stricklin in recent years. Football was the star this past fall, to be sure, but Stricklin has made a noticeable effort to put championship-caliber teams on every field, court and track on campus.

“If they’re keeping score, I don’t care what the sport is, we want to be good at it,” Stricklin said. “We want the Maroon and White to win.”

It didn’t happen from year one, and Stricklin says the entire department still isn’t completely where he wants it to be from a competitive standpoint, but the results of that renewed commitment to all sports have been evident.

Each year, Learfield Sports and the National Association of Collegiate Athletic Directors present what is called the Director’s Cup, a ranking of all 300-plus NCAA programs based upon on-field success in a given athletic year.

Only fielding 16 sports, MSU doesn’t have the numbers available to ever garner a top-10 finish, but the Bulldogs have made a jump in those rankings the last few years.

Two years ago, MSU cracked the Top 50 for the first time in history, its highest-ever rank. Last year, State checked in at No. 52, the third-highest finish ever. To give perspective, MSU had been outside the Top 100 for seven-straight years before cracking into double-digits in 2011. This year, with a minimum of half of MSU’s athletic teams making the postseason (and more possible), the Bulldogs could have the chance to break their own record yet again.

The very first head coaching hire Stricklin made was Vann Stuedeman, MSU’s softball coach, back in April of 2011, less than one year into the job.

Stuedeman, a longtime SEC assistant, asked around the conference about Stricklin before her interview in Starkville that spring. The answers she received gave her an idea of what was about to happen at MSU, a revitalization of all 16 sports, big-profit or not.

“The common answer was, he knows no gender difference,” Stuedeman remembered. “Over the last 19 years there had not been a whole lot of change to softball [at MSU] as an outsider looking in. I wanted to know there was going to be dedication to our sport.”

She got her answer then, but it was re-affirmed last week when she and her players took sledgehammers to the old stadium, ceremoniously clearing the way for the $6 million facility to come.

The same stories about Stricklin come in from across the athletic department, where Stricklin has demanded competitiveness from each sport and committed his time and resources to making that happen.

Stuedeman remembers a book Stricklin gave the staff during her first year on campus. It was called In A Pit With A Lion On A Snowy Day. The synopsis: don’t run from challenges – chase them, and don’t be afraid of finding yourself in a tough place. Stricklin will regularly give out books he finds inspirational or practical, but that one in particular, to one of his coaches, exemplified what he does for Mississippi State.

“I felt like he was in the pit for this athletic department,” she said, “just like each individual coach was in the pit with their own team and everybody was working so hard to rise up and get one step closer to national prominence.

“To me,” Stuedeman concluded, “he’s quite the genius. This is the time to be at Mississippi State. That starts with the leader and that’s him in the athletic department.”

———————————————

Stricklin with quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, left, and Dak Prescott, center, after Prescott won the Conerly Trophy

Stricklin with quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, left, and Dak Prescott, center, after Prescott won the Conerly Trophy

Stricklin and I sat down last week for a lengthy Q&A on a variety of subjects relating to Mississippi State Athletics and his time as athletic director. The following are highlights from that chat.

Question: Am I right to assume you always wanted to be an athletic director?

Answer: You reach an age of maturity, I think, where you’re more realistic and more comfortable with whatever happens. I remember when I became AD I was thinking what a great opportunity it was and how fortunate I am. Then I’d meet people who knew me here when I was a student. They’d say, ‘I remember you saying you wanted to be athletic director here one day.’ Man, how brash and precocious must that have been. For the last 10-15 years before being named, I don’t remember thinking that in a serious or realistic way.

But it’s fair to say I always wanted to be as high up in the administration as I could be. I also remember having the thought when I was working with Greg Byrne here and Mitch Barnhart at Kentucky that I was close enough to the fire to stay warm, but I never got burned. I remember thinking that’s a pretty good job, being a senior level person but not the guy at the head of everything. You do get burned sometimes when you’re name is at the top of the org chart. But it’s been great. I feel very fortunate and blessed. I don’t know how long I’ll get to do it, but I feel blessed every day I get to.

Q: Were you prepared for the time commitment and trying to balance family life?

A: I didn’t feel unprepared for that part. I had been around enough friends and others that I kind of knew what that was and how to manage the family part.

What’s different is becoming athletic director at a place you went to school and worked previously. There’s still people around here who knew me as a student. There’s some surrealness to that. It’s great because there are relationships there. But your role changes and you’re viewed differently. You have to manage things differently. Some of those relationships, while they’re still very strong, they’ve moved to a different stage. That was probably the thing that was hardest for me – not adapting to the workload, but how others saw and acted and treated me differently. It’s a little bit lonelier sometimes. People don’t pop in your office as much as they used to when I was down the hall.

Q: Looking at things you’ve done, a lot pops out, but facilities upgrades really stand out. Nearly every sport has made or is making improvements. Where did that come from?

A: I had a unique perspective because I’m a Mississippi State guy and always have been, but then I spent 15 years away. I got to see this place through a different set of lenses. 10 of those years I was in the SEC, so I would come back here often with another school. Some of the things I thought were great when I was here as a student, I realized maybe weren’t as great compared to other schools. Some of the things I didn’t fully appreciate before, I started to appreciate more.

One of the areas that I think you get a very objective view of a school is facilities. Plus, this day and age in college athletics, I think every school is constantly in the facility upgrade and expansion mode just because it’s so important how you’re perceived in attracting and retaining quality staff, attracting quality student-athletes and making sure your fans understand they’re important, too. Facilities touch everybody. Every one of your constituents are touched by facilities in some way, so it has to be a priority.

We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had so much support. The Bulldog Club, at large, has supported those projects. Whether it’s been fans buying tickets or individual donors stepping up. We’re not done. We’ve got a lot of projects ahead of us still. But it’s really pretty cool to see the Seal Complex start with just being an idea and then become reality. Then not only becoming reality, but you see the impact it has on the day-to-day operations of our football program. You see the football program grow from where it was kind of on a parallel path, they’re tied together. The women’s basketball program has grown under Vic’s leadership, and I think facilities are a big part of that. What we’re doing in golf, what we’re about to do in softball, it’s fun to see the impact those things make.

Q: Speaking of those programs, there’s been a lot of growth in the Olympic sports under your guidance. Not that people didn’t care before, but it seems like there’s been a renewed commitment there.

A: Absolutely. If they’re keeping score, I don’t care what the sport is, we want to be good at it. We want the Maroon and White to win. You’ve got to be strategic. You can’t just hope that happens. You’ve got to have the right people leading those programs and you’ve got to make sure they have the resources and tools around them to do the job and make sure they have a plan that can be executed. I get as fired up about women’s golf finishing sixth in the country or women’s basketball knocking off a top-ranked team as I do about our football team winning a big SEC game. It’s competitive nature.

The other part of it is, you can’t have a department where you care about some of your sports, and you really don’t care about some others. One of the most important parts about leadership is consistency. If we talk about wanting to compete for championships in some sports, I don’t know how you don’t do it in every sport. I don’t know how you don’t make that a focus and priority on winning consistently across the board.

Fans see the football players at the stadium or they see the basketball team on the court, but the fact of the matter is that during their time here at Mississippi State, those athletes interact with one another across their various sports. We have 350 student-athletes and they’re in the same classes, they share some of the same majors, they’re in study hall together, they eat together, they run into each other in the training room. Most of them don’t really have time to be in social groups. Their social network a lot of times is the other student-athletes. That’s why when you go to softball, you see football, basketball and track athletes supporting them. That’s their friends.

I want them to be around other winners. If we have winners in our football program and they’re going to go hang out with track athletes, I want them to be around other winners. That’s another reason why it’s really important. You don’t want any group pulling down everyone else. We’ve got to be good in everything. We’re not there yet, but we’re further along.

Q: In five years, you’ve hired a half dozen new coaches, as well as helping to retain assistant coaches and even sought-after head coaches across the board. You’ve also had to make decisions to let some coaches go, you’ve helped some ease into retirement and you’ve replaced some who left for other reasons. What have you learned from those experiences?

A: Those conversations when you’re making a change are no fun. It’s one of the worst parts of the job. At the end of the day, every action and every decision we make as a department has to be about what’s best for Mississippi State. Sometimes, there are decisions made that we need a change in personnel for the betterment of Mississippi State. It’s hard to sit down and have that conversation. Since we are doing it for Mississippi State and that is the focus, you’re able to move forward.

I love our group of head coaches. I think we’ve got as strong a stable as maybe in the history of our school and maybe as strong as anybody in the SEC, top-to-bottom. They all have a similar energy, have a similar focus. They all get along, which is very important to me. I’ve worked in departments where the football coach didn’t talk to the basketball coach and there was a lot of jealousy and territorial behavior.

It’s really important to me that people get this isn’t just about one sport. It’s about a whole university and how that sport can help benefit the entire university and department. I’m proud of that when I look out at one of the practice gyms and there’s coaches from all different sports out there playing a pick-up game together.

Our coaches communicate with each other a lot on things that have nothing to do with their sport. I think that’s really healthy because they’re able to share ideas to make each other better, but they’re also able to support one another.

Q: You’ve made a point through social media, marketing and branding that people are going to know who Mississippi State is. Was that a conscious decision or just a natural reaction as social media became a bigger deal?

A: I think a lot of it is more natural. My background is in communication and I dealt with the media a lot early in my career. Relative to most A.D.s, I’m probably more comfortable in that space. The other part of it is, I really feel like at Mississippi State we have to be aggressive and we don’t ever need to be afraid of trying stuff. If there’s one thing that we kind of use as a barometer, it’s that I don’t ever want to not do something because we’re afraid to fail.

We’ve tried some things that you’d put in that category, that this may not work, this may fail, but if it works it’s going to be really good and we think there’s a chance it could work. We’ve tried some of those things and they’ve worked, and we’ve tried some of those things and they didn’t work as well as we had hoped, and that’s part of it. We’re not afraid to try and I think that’s the most important thing.

I tell our coaches, we’ve got to be innovative. We can’t just sit back. When you’re innovative, you’re going to stub your toe sometimes. But, if you quit and don’t try anything again, you’re in trouble. From a marketing standpoint, we’ve not been afraid. Whether it’s uniforms, using social media or whatever, I think more things than not have worked and have helped. I think it’s given us, as a university and certainly as an athletic department, a little bit different identity.

There’s some flashiness there that’s attention-grabbing, but at the end of the day, this is a department that’s based on blue-collar values, hard work, toughness, competitiveness and intensity. We have fun with it. We take what we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and I think that’s a key delineation there. I think we have an identity. What’s neat is I think people outside our department are starting to understand what that identity is. I think it’s something that Mississippi State people can be proud of.

Q: Do you have any favorite memories, moments or experiences so far? If you’re thinking back over the last five years, what sticks out?

A: There’s a lot. The Georgia football win in 2010, which was Dan’s second year and my first year as athletic director. I don’t think we all focus on that game very much, but that was a pretty key game. We had started the season 1-2. Lost to Auburn in a pretty close game on a Thursday night. Went down to LSU and got beat. Georgia was coming down to our place, and they don’t come here very often. We hadn’t beaten them in a long time. It was really one of the first times that the fans and everybody were willing us to a victory. It was a big victory. We ended up winning nine games that year. That was a special moment that resonates. I just remember the joy from that game. I remember thinking, this is pretty cool. This is something we can build off of.

The Gator Bowl win was pretty special. Watching growth in fan interest in sports like women’s basketball and softball, that’s been pretty cool. We’re expanding our softball stadium because we don’t have enough room for all the people that want to watch them come play. Vic has got such a great following now with women’s basketball, setting statewide attendance records. That’s been pretty neat.

Winning the last two football games in 2013, especially the Egg Bowl, was such a needed thing. I feel like that was a big part of setting up the 2014 season.

That three or four week period getting to No. 1 and then being No. 1 last year, I don’t think I’ll ever top that professionally. I hope we’re No. 1 again, but there will never be anything like the first time. Unless we finish the year No. 1, which is our goal.

To go down to Baton Rouge and dominate them, have an off week to enjoy it, and then get ready for A&M, then have our stadium packed. It was the first time since our expansion we had an SEC game at home. That was a magical day. We beat A&M handily. Come back and it’s two-versus-three in Starkville, Mississippi and it’s the biggest game of the week with GameDay. Then we win that game by a couple scores. That was as fun a run as I’ve ever had in athletics. I remember sitting there just looking up at our fans and being so happy for them and seeing the pride and joy on their faces because they knew we were going to wake up the next day and be No. 1 in the country.

Getting to spend 12 days in Omaha watching our team compete for a National Championship. It’s good when you sit there and rattle off great moments for three or four minutes and, oh by the way, that time our baseball team played for the National Championship. That meant so much to our people. We had 20,000 people show up in Omaha to watch our team. I love those moments when you can see pride on the faces of Mississippi State people and you think, our student athletes and our coaches helped make that possible.

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Walk-off goodbye to Dudy Noble for Heck, MSU seniors

The last anything is always a little sentimental by nature, and the last of a good thing is impossible to be enjoyed without a hint of sadness. Time has a habit of speeding up during the things we enjoy, so the best way to fight back is just to take more time.

BBPDWJEFHWMNLYB.20150503011441Saturday morning, around 10, the first grill in the Left Field Lounge was lit. After allowing the coals to heat up, biscuits, sausage and tins of molded eggs were thrown on to be cooked and served for breakfast, a day-long tradition to say goodbye once more to Dudy Noble Field and Mississippi State baseball at the last game of the year.

That early in the day, there’s no music on, no crowds buzzing with conversation. The only sounds are cars driving by and the tin of the rakes from the grounds crew. In that moment, there’s nothing to distract the small group from each other. They’ve got nothing to do but relax in each other’s presence.

Sometimes it’s good to just be. No tweeting, texting or critical thinking. Just hanging around with food and friends enjoying the company, conversation, sun and slow moments provided by the day.

There aren’t many relationships quite like the ones you have with the people you watch baseball games with. For a consecutive four or five months, you spend almost every weekend with the same group. Others mix in and out, as well, but the core stays intact the whole way through. In the Lounge, in the grandstands or even in the press box, you commit to spending anywhere from four to eight hours a game for almost 40 games a year with each other. You pass the time together as the earth slowly turns from the end of winter to the start of summer.

Then, with the result of one pitch, it stops. There aren’t many social communities quite like it. Churches, service clubs and even friendships at work, they continue uninterrupted until you decide to leave. Baseball gets stopped for you, and you don’t always know when it’s coming.

The same can be said for the players, who fight, fight and fight every game, every inning and every out, only to reach the final moment and realize the game they worked so hard to end is the very thing they want to go on forever.

Just as some arrived a little early in the outfield to get some extra time in on their last day at The Dude, the players happened to take the game a little longer than anticipated, going all the way to the 12th inning. They didn’t intend for it to happen that way, but it was almost as if the baseball gods were giving the fans who cheered so hard and the seniors who worked so long just a little more time to enjoy it.

Wes Rea, Trevor Fitts, Ross Mitchell and Matthew Britton have put their entire collegiate careers into MSU baseball, and their names will be remembered for what they accomplished. Lucas Laster, Seth Heck, Cody Walker and Jake Vickerson took their own paths to Dudy Noble, choosing to believe in MSU and rest their futures on the result.

When Saturday afternoon had turned into Saturday night, Seth Heck stepped up to the plate for what would turn out to be his last time in front of the Mississippi State crowd. He waited for the pitch as his parents, in town for only the second time all season, watched from the same spot in the outfield where breakfast had begun so many hours before.

Heck’s last at-bat was an RBI single in the 12th inning, a walk-off in every sense of the phrase for the senior from the state of Washington. The hit scored Jake Vickerson, who raced home only to find that his sprint to the plate ended a marathon he began in Starkville two years ago. They won; the Bulldogs won.

The home finale will always be a little bittersweet, but in a non-perfect season, the ending for many turned out as perfectly as could be wanted – much more sweet than bitter.

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