From The Dawghouse, Labor Day Edition

There are many ways to describe Dan Mullen’s manner in pressers, post-games, all sorts of interviews. A tendency to understatement is assuredly not one. While his talking-tone has mellowed, or “matured” as he quipped last week, the man does shade towards overstating stuff. But boy, did Mullen low-key things Saturday saying “We’re probably a couple of years ahead of them right now.”

A couple? When We is a Mississippi State football program which just kicked off its season by kicking the opponent around whistle-to-horn, and within an expanded and renovated stadium; and They are a CUSA club unable to respond to, well, anything all evening, and which headed home to a venue even Vanderbilt wouldn’t envy… A couple of years ahead?

How about a couple of decades? Which is how long the Southern Mississippi series lay dormant. Whether it ought ever been revived in the first place is a moot debate and not out point here on Labor Day. Which, you’ve noticed, finds Yer Editer laboring away after taking Sunday off. Filing the last part of Saturday game coverage at 3:14 ayem justified an afternoon-off, even if I invested a hour of it walking campus to both look at after-math and shake some echoes from the ears. Man, did I pick the wrong game to forget my earplugs.

That segues nicely into the first indicator of just how great a gulf has grown between two schools sharing the same state and not a heckuva lot else. I confess, when the clouds let loose mid-afternoon I feared it would trim the crowd by 10K or so. Wrong, oh pessimistic State scribbler. Even if rain complicated traffic by multiple magnitudes, and reports of post-game escape issues show some things need addressing, weather didn’t diminish the turnout.

No, in a weird way it actually contributed to filling the expanded house for its grand re-opening since most everyone was already on campus, already soaked, and I guess saying what the heck, let’s just enjoy it even more. Doing my pre-game hour of radio with J.T. Williamson of the eponymous weekday talk show, we pointed out how every time the rain picked up, the volume of cowbell clanging in the Junction only got louder! (Along that line of thought, has anyone else noticed how during Mullen’s years what at the time seems a bad break somehow ends up making things even better? The whole 2013 season, for example.)

Besides a stuffed-stadium crowd of 62,000 there was the over-riding aspect of it being, yes, a splendidly spiffed-up stadium. Most of you haven’t and might never get to see the more primo portions of DWS. Me, I got to tour it once which might be my only experience in environs that boggle an old Bulldog’s mind. I say with all candor, kids, use whatever connections, pull whatever strings, beg and borrow every feasible favor to at least once get into the Stadium Club. Tour, look, and go ahead and say it: THIS is Mississippi State?

Heck yeah it is. It is today’s Mississippi State, not your father’s. Which reminds me, I took time yesterday to find that commemorative brick bought to honor my dad’s graduation from State College sixty years ago. I don’t care to count it up mind, but I’ve gotta think his kids have attended more Bulldog wins than he got to listen to between 1954 graduation from State and his 2000 passing. He’d have never sat in, nor wanted to, premium seats anyway, grandstands were grand enough for him. But would have smiled at the sight of what has been built here. By the way, I have a tiny B/W photo he shot of the original east grandstand from the north side. That view doesn’t exist any more, obscured by the magnificent additions. He’d like it.

He’d like the re-opening game’s outcome even better though. There was many a summer afternoon one of his favorite young Summerland Baptist Church preachers would stop by the house just to talk, and eventually the MSU-USM issue would arise (on the preacher’s part, as his brother used to coach there). Dad was adamant the series should not be re-started, just not as virulent about it as his outspoken son has been. Maybe still is.

Have I reconsidered? Yes, but not quite for the obvious reason. Call it snobbery or whatever but playing an in-state school of same Division but not same league still is helping the other program out to some degree. Not as much as used to be the case, but some. This too might become moot in the future if the SEC sticks to the P5 inter-conference scheduling mandate for 2016.

However there has proven some profit to a brief renewal. Several new generations of State fans have grown up with no memory and really not even much talk about the series-which-was. To them, there’s no difference playing Mississippi Southern or a Memphis or UAB, and blessed are they for un-scarred histories. USM is maybe more involving as they must have friends or family attending the other state college, and this obviously helped fill the house better than Alcorn State would have. But regarding football, most fans now don’t see the schools on the same plateau.

Today they don’t see them sharing the same planet.

Which is the second positive aspect for us elders. We can appreciate so much more today the different tracks these programs have followed over the past quarter-century. I mean, everybody knew it in theory; now we have seen it in action. And the 49-0 final margin should have been even greater without those first-half Bulldog bobbles. Then again, maybe had State stormed out to a three-touchdown lead in a single quarter, the staff would have called the Dogs off sooner. As it is the coaches were able to apply the verbal spur to the squad to clean-up things, stay focused as if this was more than a scrimmage. It worked because we got to see the two-minute offense in action, the defense play harder for a shutout, and even special teams production. On a block admittedly for six instead of a made-kick for three, an item of ongoing angst amidst all the other positives.

But the point really now is just how far Bulldog football has been able to develop over time. Mullen deserves his credit for taking things to that proverbial next-level, whatever that means; at the same time he is today benefitting from a process set in motion decades ago with some tough decisions. Ending the USM series wasn’t entirely popular back then, you ought to know. Moving the Egg Bowl to campus caused lots of kick-back from both fan bases too, as incredible as it now should seem to fans. Investing in better facilities had to be taken in starts-and-stops over a long, long period.

All the while, looking for the right coach ‘n staff for the changing times and even more-changing mindset. That, too, brought radical swings for better and for worse under every tenure. But each time a new man arrived to find the situation just a bit better-established, a little more promising. And how, here in the mid-2010s, is the payoff. On the field, around the field, and beyond the campus and even state.

Now as my junior high teacher would have said: class, compare and contrast.

Truly, for any USM folk who might read this, I’m not trying to pile-on to your woes here. But what we saw Saturday is also a grim reminder that for all frustrations inherent to Bulldog life in the Southeastern Conference, not being in a major conference has become an almost (almost) insuperable disadvantage. Not saying I like it this way or not, just that this is reality for what future we can foresee. I repeat something first written here (OK, on newsprint) decades ago: money doesn’t guarantee success, but lack of it assures struggles.

It isn’t just the cash-flow brought by SEC membership, along with MSU’s own upgraded revenue streams from fans and friends and corporate partners, that has changed the gridiron landscape. The players USM used to thrive on aren’t going there any more, certainly not in numbers. Very few really good high school talents go un-noticed and un-evaluated by SEC programs now, most especially linemen. Mullen once made an interesting comment in an informal talk. He suggested that a couple of starters on his team including some stars would not have been signed as Bulldog in previous years because they either didn’t get invited to camps for evaluation, or they played positions other than what State saw them at for college football.

I can offer my own Exhibit A on this team: Jameon Lewis, a prep quarterback who in the 1990s or even 2000s would have gone to another, non-major league school to play quarterback. State saw a receiver and return man. The rest is ongoing history. And while Mullen did not sign Chris Relf, he sure as heck turned an athlete into a winning quarterback who not all that long ago would have played elsewhere.

I bring Relf up in fact to remind how oncest upon a more uncertain time such un-spotted prospects would have been the core of winning Eagle teams. Long ago State and Ole Miss liked that Favre guy as a safety or linebacker type, you youngsters need to know even if you can’t believe it. Much more recently I am confident an Austin Davis (who even USM signed for baseball, not football) would not have escaped State’s notice or an offer at quarterback. But would former staffs been too proud or uncertain to offer a guy without lots of ‘stars’ and recruiting rankings?

This staff will. Oh sure, Mullen pursues the primo prospects at their high school positions and each year signs a few more of them. Still, would State’s prior regimes have gone after a, oh let’s say a Dak Prescott, with absolutely certainty he could become the quarterback of the future? Very, very unlikely. Instead he would have ended up at a La Tech-type program, or perhaps even in Hattiesburg. This by the way reflects the other and larger woe which has fallen upon Southern Miss, the athletes they used to make a fine living on in CUSA find Sun Belt towns just as legitimate choices for college.

I don’t expect Southern Miss to stay down forever or even for a lot longer. The coach is good, his schemes were interesting, and there’s some skilled personnel to plan with. The lines of scrimmage, well, another matter entirely, but they should suffice in CUSA. And the SEC can’t sign everyone along the Gulf from the Sabine to Pensacola, even if the area’s TV market belongs entirely to the big conference. They’ll get good players over time, if given time. The trip to town next September 5 won’t be quite so routine as was this year’s opener.

At the same time, Mississippi State should only draw ever-farther away both on and off the field. RE: campus, including stadium. I’ve noted before how so much of what we now see is a product of demographics, the growth of an alumni base over time, lots of time, which has better and more profitable careers than our long-suffering forebears imagined. They’ve had families, sent kids to college who in-turn graduated into good careers (though my parents would question if sportswriting counts as such), started families, etc. and so on. The result? Davis Wade Stadium as we now behold it, along with the Seal Complex obviously, Mize Pavilion, and plans for a new baseball palace in the reasonably near future. And of course an enrollment around 22,000 annually.

I bring this up for another reason. After touring the expansion last week I spoke with a top MSU administrator and mentioned how it was partly a result of Dog demographics. He said something very interesting: that research reveals another and bigger ‘bulge’ of alumni aged mid-30s to 60 who in a few more years will have paid for kids’ college, built their homes, secured their coming retirements…and are ready to begin serious donations to their alma mater and its athletic programs.

This statement sends as strong a signal about the state of State as a University as did whomping what once was a respected rival says about the football program. Or rather they are saying the same theme. Mississippi State might have much more work ahead to be permanently established among the SEC’s contenders; but we’ve moved a few lifetimes in front of lesser folk.

Just something to consider and to savor on Labor Day 2014.

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