Dr. Keenum Sees Expansion Benefits To State

Mark Keenum knew Davis Wade Stadium before it ever had a separate name. Or a lot of other things for that matter. "I can remember they didn't have the fencing or hedges or anything around the stadium when I was a boy. Sitting on the west side, you could literally walk out on the field at the end of the game and stand on the sideline with the team. And I did that many, many times!"

He still stands on Scott Field's sidelines these days, typically towards the end of another victory. But now his team really is his team. And with this latest and potentially greatest expansion project, University president Dr. Mark Keenum and Mississippi State's administration are giving more Bulldog fans even more prime places to sit. Or stand and cheer and ring their cowbells as the action warrants.

"This is our commitment to progression of expansion here at Davis Wade Stadium, for our commitment to excellence in our football program," Dr. Keenum said at Wednesday's presentation of planning, funding, and constructing. When completed in summer of 2014, the $75 million project will have added over 6,000 to the net capacity…and burnished the campus facility's image by several zillion's worth.

"We think our gameday experience here at Mississippi State is one of the best in the nation," the University's top Dog said. "To be able to expand and create more opportunities for more alumni and our fans to come support our football team on gameday, it's exciting for us."

This was an opportunity born of necessity, really. Two-plus seasons of consecutive sellouts at DWS, not to mention complete commitment of every available season ticket and a waiting list to boot, demanded a bigger and better Dog house. Taking care of record demand, and still accommodating University students, the fans and best friends of their classmates in uniforms, dictated expansion.

At the same time the realities of the larger fan base absolutely required major, even total, makeovers of stadium amenities. Put all that together, look to the future, and Mississippi State had work to do. Now that the essential tasks of finding financing and assembling blueprints is done, things will begin physically moving towards that 2014 deadline.

"When you see a fan base that is excited, the number of season tickets purchased, demand for premium seats and suites and boxes, it's exciting that we're able to meet their needs," Dr. Keenum said. "There is a legitimate need. You can look at is as evidence, by the waiting list we have for season tickets and suites, our fans want more. They expect more of us as an institution."

As well as ever-more of the football program. Serious construction, or de-construction as needed, will get going about the time the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex receives finishing touches towards a January 2013 opening. That is a $25 million project, all funded privately; a source of great pride to the president. As athletic director Scott Stricklin pointed out, between just these two projects Mississippi State will be spending $100 million.

"I think that's evident of the league that we're in," said Dr. Keenum. "We're in the big leagues, we're in the Southeastern Conference, and we want to be competitive. We want to have good facilities for our coaches, for our players. We're doing that by evidence of our commitment to our football program."

Commitment the players and fans and for that matter broadcast audience can see taking shape over the next two total years. The emphasis leans towards quality over sheer quantity, but there is something about reaching the 60,000 benchmark—in a venue that first saw permanent seating in 1928—which brings the Bulldogs a little bit closer to the big time. Though it all requires context.

Dr. Keenum referred to recent or proposed expansions of conference peers. "You look at the expansions of their stadiums. We have one of the smallest stadiums in the league, second I think to Vanderbilt." He is correct. Dudley Field is 40,555. Expansion will nudge Mississippi State just past in-state rival Ole Miss' 60,580. Next in-front is Kentucky's 67,942, before moving into the mega-sized stadia of the SEC.

"But if we're going to compete on that stage year-in and year-out we're have to have facilities to meet the need of our team and our program, and the growing need of our alumni base to participate."

Mississippi State secured permission earlier in summer to borrow as much as $82 million for expansion and renovation. Dr. Keenum said this request was based on architect's ideas what the materials and labor and all could add up to. "You never really know until you put it out for bid. We put $82 million as a total because we felt that was the upper-end we could afford with the revenues generated.

"But to come in much lower than that, along with private gifts, it was a relief to me. But also to Scott and our athletic staff." Even better, State already has some $7 million in private donations for this project, meaning only—only--$68 million need be borrowed. "It's a 30-year bonds and the revenues are ample to service that over the life," Dr. Keenum explained. Meaning, profits made by filling the expanded stadium and leasing all premium seating—there is a waiting list as well—will go towards paying off the debts.

"I am very proud of the leadership of the IHL, Board of Trustees in working with us to help us approve our financing plan. We're confident with the ticket sales and premium seating that our fans are going to step forward and provide it. We'll generate ample revenues to support the bonds that we're issuing. Obviously the generosity of our alumni and fans in major gifts is a big way to help us move forward as well."

Harrell Contracting Group of Jackson submitted the successful bid, and Dr. Keenum knows they are up to this great task. "We were very pleased with the bids, the quality of the companies that bid. Harrell Contracting is an outstanding company with a wonderful reputation. They'd done a lot of work on this campus so we were very confident in their ability."

There's a certain coincidental symmetry in the project's timeframe. After all, three decades ago a young, albeit somewhat older than when he first strode the sideline, Mark Keenum was working for Mississippi State. That was about the time a perilously underfunded athletic department gambled on adding an upper deck to the west grandstand, widening the east stands, and putting permanent lighting on the 1930s-era stadium.

Then in 1999 began the largest single addition in stadium history, the east side upper deck along with two decks of skyboxes and a club section. Opened in 2001, debt on this project is still being served. Most recently the, to be technical, humungous video/scoreboards was added in 2008. It makes the upcoming expansion all the more impressive that a matching board is to be built. Some joke the stadium lights won't be needed any longer with the searing illumination two such boards will provide.

"This is a natural progression and commitment by the University to our football program here at Mississippi State," Dr.Keenum said. A progression sped-up by the achievements of Coach Dan Mullen's first three Bulldog teams, naturally. Which raises natural questions about the long-term cycles college programs are prone to. Yes, Dr. Keenum said, Mullen has raised the proverbial bar of expectations for Bulldog football.

"Dan has established a new foundation for us. And we want and expect him to be with us for many, many years and have many, many winning football teams. But we don't know what the future holds. We do know he has established a solid foundation for growth and expectations for us to build on in the future."

This is a huge investment, the president agrees. But this is a different Mississippi State, both on and off the playing field. A University that dares think big and, for all sorts of reasons, has the support to do so at last. Football in specific and athletics in general play their literal part, per Dr. Keenum.

We have balance. We have excellence in academics, in research, in outreach and service. Mississippi State University is a recognized leader in these areas. Athletics is just part of what we do. But it's tremendous exposure nationwide to have Mississippi State playing on the highest level. It's great exposure to tell all the other great things that are going on here. Athletics complements what we do here in our mission of excellence in teaching, research, and service."

The enthusiasm is there, the support is there, the need is there…and the opportunity is here. "This would not happen without the fans." He should know. The good Dr. was, and is, and will always be one of them. Seated or standing.

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