An Extravagant Start To New State Year

It was a tithe of total crowds his team will play before, and play for. Still the throng attending the annual Central Mississippi Extravaganza reminded Dan Mullen how enthusiasm is building for the 2011 Bulldogs. "I know they have a lot to cheer about," Mullen smiled. "And it's starting to heat up to football time. It's another reminder the season is almost upon us."

If 2011 achieves anything like its ongoing build-up, it could become The Season. Certainly this edition of the Extravaganza was an impressive informal kickoff to the campaign as an official crowd of 3,500 packed the reserved areas of the Jackson Convention Complex. Note the ‘areas' because in anticipation of record demand Central Mississippi alumni officers obtained use of another, adjoining room for this third appearance in the Complex.

It was needed. Almost 2,000 seats were set up in the second room for the program beginning at 7:00 and despite early departures there were still at least 500 left standing with more remaining out in the central hall where displays, sales booths, and the autograph tables remained busy. The crowd was clearly the largest for an Extravaganza since the football heydays of the 1990s and seemed larger than the official counting.

"This was just a great outpouring of Mississippi State alumni and fans," said University president Dr. Mark Keenum after the program ended. "And it's a great way to kick off the upcoming semester and our football season. It's just right around the corner and the excitement level is just off the charts. It gives me a lot of enthusiasm about the upcoming year!"

But then Keenum and Mississippi State was already on an emotional up-beat even before making the Thursday trip to Jackson. Just this week John Rush of the MSU Foundation had announced all-time record donations of over $80 million for the 2010-11 fiscal year. Of that, $34.7 million had been gifts to Bulldog athletics, also a record single year's receipts. This was up from 2009-10 donations of $61 million.

"Phenomenal," Keenum called it. As well as challenging, since demand for dollars will only grow along with the University. Keenum used the evening to remind the packed house that Mississippi State is getting pretty packed these days, too. "We're going to have over 20,000 students enrolled on our campus this fall. We've never had that many."

Not coincidentally, the president noted, new serving lines and seating are being added in another renovation to Perry Cafeteria. Feeding the young minds will require other sorts of expansions of course, and Keenum is particularly proud that while enrollment has grown so fast lately the quality, judged by test scores and other academic indicators, hasn't dropped as would be expected. It has actually increased.

"I want to see this University to grow to even greater heights," Keenum said. "When we came here two-and-a-half years ago we thought we would hit 22,000 in 2015. Here we are already over 20,000." He paused. "Scott asked me if we'll hit 22,000 next year. I don't know when, but one way to make sure we do is when Dan wins a national championship!"

That's a goal athletic director Scott Stricklin seconds. A Jackson native himself, this was the second Extravaganza for Stricklin to attend as A.D., and the first following a winning football season. He and Bulldog Club officials also came to town with no season tickets to sell, all such ducats having been purchased by June. That won't keep a sizable segment of the fan base from coming to campus games anyway just to share in the general fun.

Besides, in time Stricklin and the Club will have more seats for selling as the spring-announced additions and renovations to Davis Wade Stadium continue to take organized shape. The formal construction schedule, as well as that of the planned Seal Football Complex, is not set yet but all such things are on a far faster track than anyone would have projected just a summer ago.

"It goes back to how unified we are, everybody in this room, our students, our fan base, everything that is occurring in recent years is because of that unity," Stricklin said. For that matter, he added, "There's a generation coming up that expects us to be successful. And that's pretty special."

Something else Stricklin, Mullen, and Keenum all felt was special enough for comment was how 80% of the University enrollment will have Mississippi home addresses. It factors into the bold, and unapologetic, statement MSU has made since the end of the 2010 regular football season in the form of billboards around the borders welcoming all to ‘our state'. Also, for fans of a certain generation, Keenum drew knowing grins when he referred to MSU as ‘THE university of Mississippi'. Some old notebooks can still be found bearing that proud proclamation of decades ago.

Even the handful of non-MSU folk and fans sprinkled through the crowd had to heed Mullen's statement that "We can do more than all the other teams in the state because we're on the same page." Winning, whether the consecutive Egg Bowl victories or the 9-4 turnaround of 2010, naturally pushed the program to a new phase. But Mullen gave credit to off-field factors, even something as simple as the wearing of maroon colors or posting flags in off-season. He said a visiting camp-coach from the arch-rival region commented on how solid State fans appear now compared to the opposition.

"I can't tell you how we're going to be as a team this year, we have a lot of development," Mullen told the crowd. "But the belief of our player and our fan base is what is going to accelerate us to being a consistent winner and a national championship contender."

This Extravaganza featured a change to the program. Instead of the traditional series of speeches, coaches John Cohen and Sharon Fanning-Otis—who were both present—and Rick Stansbury who was back in Starkville with basketball practices getting underway, gave recorded talks on the video boards. Volleyball coach Jenny Hazelwood was also present along with several players. Keenum, Stricklin, and Mullen were joined by m.c. and new Bulldog football analyst Matt Wyatt on the stage for a ‘roundtable' talk.

Still Mullen got the last word in, with a challenge to the remaining crowd—it was getting near 8:00—about following the one-year-old revised cowbell rule that Keenum and Stricklin won last summer from the SEC. He told everyone with a cowbell to ring it, and about 25 folk did. Then the entire crowd was told to cheer, and did. The final score?

"I can tell you it's ten times louder when you yell," Mullen said. He said the rule now actually can create more of a home-field advantage. "If everybody yells and cheers instead of ringing a bell, our stadium is much louder."

A dozen or so Bulldog football players, class schedules allowing, came with Mullen to town arriving hours before the Extravaganza for a lower-key event. They visited Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children to meet with kids and families and friends and just brighten some days for those under such stresses.

"To sit with a family whose one-month old is getting out of intensive care and they have all their Mississippi State clothing on, and are happy to take a picture with you…that is something special," Mullen related prior to the party. "Any time you can give back you need to do that. I'm blessed by being able to come."

Coming to town also signaled that a new school and sports year is beginning. Soon. Football players officially report on August 1 with first practices on the 4th. Volleyball and soccer aren't far behind for their own preseasons. Then mid-month a fresh semester signals a new school year on a campus more crowded than ever.

"And it is a testament to the desire of young people in this state and region to want to come get their education and prepare for their future at Mississippi State," Dr. Keenum said afterwards. "It is incumbent on us to accommodate the needs of our students in housing and dining services and classrooms. And, expanding our athletic facilities to accommodate the growing demand of students to attend our sporting events. So it's an exciting time at Mississippi State."

How exciting could it get? The new giving season is off to a good start if the $25,000 check presented by the Central Mississippi chapter is an indicator. The crowd cheered video highlights (Nick Vickerson's walk-off homer at the Gainesville super regional got an especially loud response, while an older clip of the late Nick Bell reminded that there can be tragedy within triumph) of the past year.

But then what everyone really wanted to know, or at least discuss, is what Mullen's third Bulldog team can do. "Dan tells me we're going to win a few football games in the process," Stricklin quipped at one point. Mullen got in on the fun as well, suggesting that this year everyone has to do more and work harder just so progress can continue…including saying prayers and maintaining lucky rituals. "Whatever you did, keep it going!" he said.

Seriously, much more seriously, "This is the most important year in our football program's history. In the past we've had one or two years of success, and were not able to sustain it. This is a big year for us to keep that momentum going."

If this Extravaganza is a good guide, the emotional momentum is already going full-blast into a new season, semester, and school year.

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