Record Crowd Celebrates 35th Extravaganza

Kaleb Eulls paused between signing posters to check the increasing crowd. "The people come out to see us. And we come out to see them," the Bulldog defensive lineman said. "You know, they might believe they are our fans. But we're their fans, too. They support us and we support them."

Such mutual appreciation could have served as evening theme at the Central Mississippi Summer Extravaganza, the July party which serves as the semi-official start of a new school and sports year for Mississippi State. And if the upcoming Bulldog calendar follows the lead of this year's event it should be an outstanding 2012-13 all around.

The 35th edition of the Extravaganza lived up to that title. Despite late afternoon storms, a crowd reported as a record 3,500-plus came to and through the Convention Center. Snarled traffic and limited parking were not problems at all, other than for some University staff. The flight bringing Dr. Mark Keenum and others to Jackson had to be scratched with the president finding a fast drive instead. He arrived on time anyway and boasted of benchmarks set this past year.

Such as, awarding over 4,000 degrees for the 2011-12 academic calendar, most ever for Mississippi State and bringing the University's alumni total to 124,000. Dr. Keenum took special pride in the news announced this week of record one-year fundraising of $86.4 million, giving a four-year total in his tenure of about $294 million. Worth noting in the past year's record donations is that unlike other annual records there were no single gifts of $10 million, showing how many more separate donors contributed to the University.

This and another expected record enrollment (last year topped 20,400 students) allowed Dr. Keenum to remind not just State fans and friends but foes as well of the new order. "We are our state's largest, most comprehensive, and most impressive university. That's why we are the flagship university in the state of Mississippi."

Coach Dan Mullen was a bit more concise, if no less accurate. "We've become the cool school to go to."

As well as give to, with a reported 18% of those aforementioned alumni now giving to their alma mater. The Central Mississippi chapter helped get the new giving year going strong with a check for $15,000 presented to Dr. Keenum on the stage.

"More of you came than ever before," acknowledged Scott Stricklin. Which allowed the athletic director to segue into the popular topic of expanding Davis Wade Stadium. Actually Stricklin's word for it was "transform" and when the nearly two-year project is completed in summer 2014 the campus facility won't look much the same at all. Stricklin had a couple of interior and exterior renderings of what the finished product ought to be, now that final plans have been approved by the IHL and funding settled. Stricklin said details are "getting close" to completion and asked just a little more fan patience.

The Leo Seal Jr. Family Football Complex construction has been underway since winter and is on track for January opening. The 80,000 square-foot Complex, which Mullen called "the premier football facility in the Southeastern Conference" has been funded by over 200 families' contributions, Stricklin reminded.

The stadium and complex get headlines, but Stricklin had four other architect's renderings to show the crowd. State has plans for a golf clubhouse at the course, while on campus the soccer stadium is due for major additions; and a semi-linked project building clubhouses, offices, practice facilities and upgrading stadiums is in the works for adjoining softball and tennis. Which, as the AD noted, is the first part of the athletic plant seen by anyone arriving on campus from the northeast.

"We have some real exciting things we're working on. These are possible because you help us build great facilities," Stricklin said. The Jackson firm of Wier + Boerner provided the drawings and proposals.

Naturally the center of summer excitement was Mullen's team. Coming off 16 wins in two seasons a State coach would normally be riding high. Yet while pleased with the initial steps taken by Bulldog teams in his first three years, this coach is pushing players and staff for better. Much better. In fact, he told the crowd he saw some worrying signs coming off the Gator Bowl victory and nine-win 2011 season.

"We wanted to enjoy some of the successes we had and I was worried we'd get a little lackadaisical. That spring we had the lowest GPA since I've been head coach. We recovered and had a good year going to the Music City bowl. And wining our third straight Egg Bowl of course." The ‘of course' being just what fans liked and now expect to hear from their confident coach.

Mullen was able to reinforce the optimism with a short ‘state of State' statement about team attitude going into preseason.

"This spring I saw a renewed sense of urgency in our guys. Even with two bowl games and three-straight Egg Bowls they realized they had lost a little bit of that ‘chip on their shoulder'. I've seen a great energy and kind of a desperate work ethic staring in January. And we wrapped up spring with our third-highest team GPA in school history. And I think our guys are having a good summer."

If last season wasn't all coach and club hoped, it was a winner at the end. And, Mississippi State strengthened the ‘our state' claim that much more with a third-straight Egg Bowl triumph. As Mullen pointed out, sometime this September the Golden Egg will have resided on this campus for the 1,000th-straight day.

"That will be pretty good. And then sometime in 2016 it is 2,000 and that is the next step!" Not that Mullen is looking quite that far ahead, of course, but he does definitely intend to maintain this trend. "Do you know there's not a student on campus who in there time has not had the Golden Egg on campus?"

"The majority of students on campus are used to going to bowl games. That's what they know, we go to bowl games in football. That is the reality they live in and that was made possible for all of you and the vision of the future and what we could accomplish."

These encouraging words about the present, though, led Mullen to talk next step and bigger picture. Maybe something said at SEC Media Days just the day before had stuck with the coach, because he had some clear comments for the home crowd about the overall program direction.

"When I got here a lot of people were saying the word ‘can't', what we can't accomplish. Well, we can." This was aimed at the doubters, as Mullen called them, convinced Mississippi State cannot succeed consistently either in this league or on the national scene.

"Well, we're proved all those other things wrong; our plan is we will. We can win the SEC West championship, we have before and we'll do it again. We can win go to Atlanta and win the championships game and we can go play for a national championship."

Know something else, per Mullen? "And we are just starting. This is just the beginning of what will be a great journey of many, many championships; many, many successes in the building of what will be the premier University in all aspects not just in the state of Mississippi, not just the South, but the entire nation. That's what our goal is."

A goal shared for an evening with an enthusiastic audience, including a couple of special guests. One was quite capable of speaking for himself, though MSU great, Jackson native, and recently-retired pro Fred Smoot didn't take the stage. Nor need to, as fans kept him busy all evening for autographs and photos. More emotional for all was recognition by Megan Mullen of Mrs. Linda Bell, mother of the late and much-missed Nick Bell. Mrs. Linda was at the Extravaganza helping promote the Nick Bell Mentoring Fund.

With the 35th Extravaganza history, and historic too, the countdown to kickoff really starts. The Bulldogs have two more weeks left in which to complete both summer academics and off-season workouts, with camp opening in early August. Fan Day will be August 25, at which Stricklin will likely have more details to offer about stadium expansion and renovations.

Before then, though, fans can get an on-line look at how their heroes will dress this season. "We're going to have an unveiling of some of the new uniforms next Thursday, so everybody look out for that coming up," Mullen alerted. Yes, he said, everyone has differing opinions on this subject pitting tradition vs. trend. But as the coach said, this is supposed to be about the guys banging bodies while fans cheer.

"If they think the uniforms are cool and it's going to make them run a little bit faster down the field, I'm all in!"

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