But even for a stats ‘n history fellow like myself, what we saw on Scott Field through the Saturday showers was a major watershed moment for both programs. One which could, conceivably, define the course of college football in this state for some seasons to come.
OK. That is a bold Bulldog statement to say the least. After all, most real rivalries have their own inherent cycles and barring extraordinary circumstances will generally balance out over time. As long, that is, as both sides takes it seriously enough to keep up the ever-increasing efforts. Which is why I greatly respect those who endured the Dark Ages of World War II to Watergate when all fans wanted was for their struggling school to win one, somehow just one game against Those People.
Now here State is riding a three-peat wave. One which has left the rivals treading a heckuva lot of water, too. Maybe I've mellowed because in the fourth quarter I was having twinges of sympathy for those players on the other sideline. Blame memories of our own lame-duck experience when the '03 Bulldogs were there in body and not much else for a concluding coaching-tenure act. Come to think of it, that was a rainy evening at Scott Field, too. Even the score was almost identical. Eerie, eh?
And a cautionary note for the winners. There's a lot of truth to ‘be careful what you wish for' as gut-kicking, face-slapping, nose-rubbing success has a way of provoking greater responses. It's why ever since those aforementioned Dark Ages ended this rivalry has had its sharp, sudden cycles, when the winners get content and the losers get mad. And make changes. And recruit harder, work longer, coach smarter. That's what State did in 2008. Now we'll see what the opposition attempts.
Yet that proverb also contains the answer: keep wishing, just be careful to use granted wishes wisely. Here, I hope, is where the Dan Mullen/Scott Stricklin/Mark Keenum troika can not merely break the old Bulldog mold but set in place a much better template for continued success in our everlasting rivalry. Beyond it, in a SEC context? That's another matter for another discussion, not that Mullen overlooks his record against the rest of the West through three years now. They're working on it.
But as written here before, it takes a permanent foundation before building anything really big and lasting. Nothing in our state offers firmer founding than extended dominance of the Bad Guys. Especially as they surely begin their own rebuilding projects up there.
There was an amusing press conference moment last week when Mullen was talking about how the best rivalries are back-and-forth affairs. It was in relation to State's 11-9 record (now 12-9) since the series returned to campus in 1991. "That to me is a great rivalry, if one team wins all the time it's not a rivalry." I just couldn't resist jumping in and asking if that meant Ole Mi…sorry, The School Up North in Mullen lingo needed to win a few to sustain it as a ‘rivalry'.
Fortunately the coach caught the implied joke, so don't y'all go casting the impish editor into outer darkness as a heretic. His grinning reply, "I'll make sure we keep it one-sided. But I'll make sure it's still a rivalry!"
Oh, will he ever. As long as Mullen works here it remains a rivalry all the more. We've had coaches here who could take the high road in intra-state relations, others who would ruffle feathers, and a couple who became object of annoyance. But in my MSU years nobody, and I mean nobody, has gotten under Ole Miss skins like Mullen did his first two years.
And now…he's in their heads.
I suppose it could be a fragile thing in one sense. Sorta like an aggressive defense or quick-striking offense that rattles cages for a couple of seasons until opponents settle down, figure a fix, and beat it. When that happens the team is done with nothing left to fall back on. Same can be said for p.r. assaults that in the end are exposed as merely bluster.
This doesn't seem the current case with Mullen vs. TSUN. Because he's not only backed it up with wins on the field, the off-field campaigns just keep spinning the other guys off their balance. Seriously, look over what has happened up the road in the last half-decade and ask, have they responded rightly to any of State's recent challenges? Or for that matter missed an opportunity to self-destruct? Maybe it's a long-overdue generational change, where the tough old ********* from another era who oversaw (overseer'ed?) events have left the scene and their heirs are clueless to cope with the modern world.
By the same token, over the last 20 years Mississippi State has benefitted from hard, often painful lessons of the past and developed a tougher-minded approach of our own. But with a degree of modern polish fitting the current college sports climate. Could it be that for once we're the ones ahead of the proverbial curve? Hard not to think so with the facilities done and begun this new decade, the outreach to existing and potential fans and supporters, and their buying-in (metaphorical and literal alike) to what State is doing.
And of course, and most obviously, on the scoreboard. Not to mention that ugly, battered, awkward, and utterly wonderful hunk of gilt metal and wood pedestal that remains on our campus for a third-straight annum. For 1,096 days if I count correctly.
Back in August, on the Sunday my youngest niece was moving into town, I took the bro-in-law over to Templeton on the off-chance the door was open. It was, and I showed him where the Golden Egg resides when not being hauled around the field in celebration, or taken to events as a decoration. I mention it now because we were in Jackson back in '77 for another Egg Bowl. After the win of '76, those Dogs were trying to score back-to-back victories for the first time since long before either of us were born. 1941-42 to be exact, though we didn't know it at the time.
It was another rainy game and with State down two scores at halftime all our party of six went to the car but, for some reason, me. Still don't know why I stuck it out, but was forever glad I did; and sometime in the third quarter Robert returned too. We watched Bruce Threadgill turn the corner on a keeper and run about a million open yards for the go-ahead and winning points. Things like that stick in the memory. Or get in the blood.
Now all these years later, I and a few thousand others who made the trip to Oxford last year have seen first-hand a three-peat. Sure, it's my job to be there, which has kept me present at a lot of such days I wished to signal Scotty and beam me outa there. But I'm grateful to the benevolent gridiron deity that allowed this humble scribe to witness history.
I'm even more grateful though for what this can mean to the future of Mississippi State, not just Bulldog football but the entire athletic program and University alike. ‘Can' because as noted, relaxing is lethal. We assuredly should welcome Mullen's post-victory comments that the work resumes immediately, including—and most importantly—recruiting more good players to replace what we're losing (stay tuned on a couple of key juniors) and even improve the overall talent portfolio. Good enough to own Our State isn't good enough to stake claims beyond the borders so far.
This is turning into an odd sort of column even by my eclectic standards. Typically I'd be rah-rahing at length about this latest signal success, or dissecting interesting aspects, or applauding individual stories. Goodness knows Saturday offered enough angles of editorial attack, led of course by the triumphant conclusion to three careers I have cherished watching develop. Bless you Chris Relf and Quentin Saulsberry and Charles Mitchell, for all you've done and sacrificed and endured along the way to making this program what is now is. And to the aforementioned Marcus, it's just like I told you as you walked off the field a final time a winner: this was forever, guy. Something you'll appreciate all the more in years to come.
Still I can't help swerving back into a larger-view position after this win, and this regular season. Even the happiest Bulldog had a post-game perspective that 2011 wasn't quite the year expected. Hmmm, now that I think of it, the fact they, the happy winners, could say so after beating the arch-rival so thoroughly might be the best indicator that they too have expanded horizons? Now THAT would mean some serious progress as a program, because not so long ago just winning this one was enough.
It's a tricky act, keeping the Egg Bowl as Job One every year without relaxing pressures to improve everywhere else. But these Dogs seem up to learning this new trick. We just need more of them, and ever-better, to achieve it. Sorry, I do seem to be harping on the recruiting angle here. We'll see how that is developing on through December and January.
And, we'll be keeping an eye on potential staff changes. Staffs, too, have a cycle, though the defensive side hasn't settled into one here with, what, four coordinators in as many years now? Sorry, it's five. So some stability will be welcome here. On the offensive side, we won't be surprised to hear of some shuffles by bowl-time, but not to the core crew of course. Much less the central theme, that of old-school toughness applied through modern matchup concepts.
We'll know after the weekend where the Bulldogs are bowling, and while I'm optimistic of a trip to Nashville there is jussssst enough lingering uncertainty that I'm not making reservations anywhere just yet. Regardless, we're playing football for the holidays, again, and life is good. Again.
Though, I do welcome a break from the routine which began in early August, at last. There's the minor matter of a December 8 magazine deadline looming larger and I've only written about seven pages so far. Fortunately Gene covered for me yesterday at basketball (having filed the last E.B. story just before 3 ayem I'd have fallen asleep courtside), but the ranked roundball Dogs have the next key RPI game upcoming Saturday evening. With, at last, a healthy and activated full roster again. Looks like a very busy March '12 is in store for everyone.
And of course bowl camp will get underway mid-December. Hey, success just means more work, not less. Especially for a football program that presumes greater aspirations as their coach proclaims. Maybe Mullen will meet those championship goals in time. After all, he's been as good as his word, and words, in winning ownership of the Golden Egg and Our State alike. Prizes that a lot of Bulldogs have struggled, sweated, and bled for these three years.
Not to mention making those other guys bleed, too. Speaking of which, off to the cleaners…