Not to lessen an iota the dimensions of these events, you understand, but…all this coming just when things were going so brilliantly for Dan Mullen's Bulldogs? It makes one want to turn the calendar back a page, to the satisfaction of just eight days ago when the 7-2 Dogs were awaiting new polls and looking forward to the scheduled R&R. A break that was accidentally, superbly timed after the strains and drains of winning six-straight games, to recharge for the three-game November stretch that will determine Mississippi State's post-season position.
This too could come across as crass, and it also is not meant thus. Yet the idea of Mullen keeping a club on game-week routine with the utterly un-routine we just saw defies MSU imagination. Observing Bell's excellent campus memorial service Thursday evening, with commish Mike Slive there paying the SEC's respects for an entire league's loss, only aggravated me further that Mullen is being dragged back into the Cam Newton saga just as the still-young head coach was experiencing both the joy of success and the agony of a player's passing. Is ‘piling on' still against gridiron rules? Well, somebody shoulda thrown a flag at fate last week.
The fact remains State was spared the strain of forcing a false ‘routine' for a game week. Bulldogs could attend to grieving, or as much as young folk can do at the first fresh shock sudden death presents most. As Mullen wisely, for a still somewhat young coach himself, noted, everyone copes on an individual timeframe with no ‘right' or ‘wrong' method. But Sunday's resumption of routine also reminds that the schedule continues and these Dogs have much, much to play for in November.
Oh, let's briefly address the week's other issue. I've known John Bond since he was a 1980 freshman and I was a first-year sports information assistant. J.B. has had a, shall we acknowledge, most fascinating career since. But marriage to Mary Beth and the arrival of their daughter (true tale: first time I saw the youngest Bond I didn't look at the cute face, I checked the feet for spraddle-pawed proof of parentage) has wrought a fine family man and sound business man. Without deleting the Fun Factor of course.
Anyway, I admit to prejudice in the matter. If J.B. says he reported approaches by a former teammate, who I also remember, related to hooking juco hot-shot Newton up with State, I believe it. I'd believe it anyway since, think of it, what the heck did he have to gain otherwise by such an account? I briefly scanned Auburn message boards last week and ohhh, the absurd-beyond-stupid notions fans of all schools can come up with when presented with unpleasant and unrelated facts. Hey, guys, if State wanted to monkey-wrench Auburn it woulda been BEFORE THEY PLAYED, huh? But then I must remember that leaps in illogic are as natural to football fans as black bears pooping in a grove. (Say, what was the honest crowd count in Oxford yesterday anyway?)
Seriously, about all we know is Bond rightly reported claims by a former Dog-turned-agent who may or may not have been able to deliver, well, anything. Do keep the ‘may not' part in mind. It's attested Rogers had some sort of relationship with the Newtons. The SEC and NCAA will do the obligatory checking, in due time. But beyond, all else is spekalatin' based on what one prefers to believe of any and all sides. MSU has accused Auburn of nothing, though you'd hardly know so by condensed national recounting. Why the story, and what a thin broth it remains at the moment, bubbled into public purview last week has more to do with the modern media management obsession with ‘firstness'. A whole lot of folk, local, regional, and national, have been sniffing this trail for a while; and I know one hard-working, patient, attention-to-details peer who deserved better than having outsiders steal first-take credit. But that's what this industry has become, which is why I'm increasingly glad I'm on the downhill slope.
This story will also linger through November, compounded by Auburn's dramatic drive for the West title and maybe, hopefully (I mean that and not just because it will open more Bulldog bowling options) the B.C.S. title. But once the initial blitz is past, I do expect Mullen will be able to brush off follow-ups and keep just as focused on State's own ambitions as he requires his players to remain. Fortunately only the coach will hear such queries.
Players, now, can anticipate continued questions regarding Bell's effect. Well-meaning and obvious, agreed, but also wearing; we saw it in 1991 and again in '97. Yet they too should be able to, as the old communications 1003 course called it, ‘compartmentalize' once back into the game-week grind. And I suspect Mullen will grind ‘em, for the best of reasons. The finest memorial to Nick Bell will be winning more games and playing on the biggest bowl stage accessible in 2010.
"Obviously last week was a tough week for the program and the team," Mullen said today. "We got through the bye week, now we've got to get back in the routine and get ready for a huge game."
Huge, indeed. State isn't able to win the West. Alabama can still force a tie, and if Arkansas loses both tie-breaks they're still gunning for a top-tier SEC bowl slot. At 7-2 though Mississippi State is right there also, a dark horse (dark Dog?) for a prime post-season destination should they finish faster and LSU stumble down the stretch. A sweet bowl spot if'n you get the drift. A very long shot, to be sure, and in need of sizable outside assistance elsewhere…yet just to entertain such a notion here in early November is rather amazing in and of itself.
A better way to state State's state is the Bulldogs mostly control their bowl-bid fate with only the biggest of games out of reach. The corollary of course is they must continue winning, as a late losing skid can negate an matching overall record in selection committee minds. It all sets up a month of tumults and tensions for everyone involved since State is equally playing for and playing not to lose something.
Makes it that much more fun, too.
And I suspect the pleasure of playing for greater stakes will prove perfect in re-focusing both bodies bruised over the first nine weekends, and spirits scarred by the open week. It is worthy to play a season in honor of a departed comrade; it is also honorable to continue playing for their own selves. For the program that these Dogs have regained respect for and are putting in position for bigger and better.
I'll let Mullen's Sunday comments summarize. "Obviously it's something you never really put behind you, but what you do is live your life and hopefully have great memories of people you lost. And hope they've left you a message you can use in your life." "For us, it's getting into game week routine. I think we had a great memorial service on our ampus for Nick, the funeral, a lot of our players went over. They were able to make their peace, a little, with the situation and come to better grips. And know they have to move forward with their lives."
As well as with their season. It's good-bye to a bad bye-week, and get back onto the Bulldog business of the moment.