That’s right. Maybe Mississippi State’s first appearance in this true New Years bowl classic in seven decades, and my own first experience there ever, did not result in a win. The 11th of a season which produced so many other records, so setting the victory standard seemed nigh-inevitable.
It wasn’t. An opponent had something to say about the outcome and did they ever do so, loudly. As did fans who seemed prouder beating a SEC program than just winning on their own. Which is related to today’s topic, in a moment.
First though, let’s be clear this is not any detailed evaluation of 2014. I’m more interested in the big-picture seen now in rear-view. For that matter in-depth outlooks on 2015 can wait a little longer and, no surprise, after Coach Dan Mullen has finalized some matters. Like, his own contract extension.
In the waning minutes on the Orange Bowl sideline I asked for a timeframe. None, the top admin said, without sounding too concerned. This isn’t saying the subject is overlooked, simply set to one side. Mullen’s side that is, up until the last open major-program position was filled. Now negotiations with his representative should proceed more expeditiously.
Mullen has his own immediate matters. A few more names are popping on the defensive coordinator radar post-Miami. Actual interviews are unverified, for obvious reasons, and a couple of these ‘reports’ are agent-plays to force their current boss(es) to make decisions. It’s a heckuva game if one has something to offer elsewhere and in a few rumored cases…they do.
Fitting them into the existing or at least what we think will be the existing defensive staff is something else. I mean, if you have a proven developer of—purely for example and suggesting nothing—defensive linemen, it makes no sense to add a staffer of that specialty too. So the sense for now is that offering a coordinator candidate will get done parallel to knowing or at least hoping who else is staying around. Also hopefully with their input and agreement.
Goodness knows this must be a cohesive operation to bring Bulldog defense in-line with their obvious individual capacities. Look at the players State had to work with; compare it against 1,109 yards allowed in the last two games; try not to say ‘underachieve’ or worse words. Certainly there are enough returning and incoming, and to-be-recruited, players that the defense must get better and any new coordinator get credit, deserved or not.
Apparently the current staff has been given the weekend to make up for lost holiday time. They will have the usual sit-downs with the boss early in the new week, where raises are a sure subject as rewards or deal-sealers or whatever. Wouldn’t you love fly-on-wall access to wheeling and dealing there? If any departures result word will likely come from friends and families, but as of this moment nothing is certain. Likely because many college and for that matter NFL staffs are also in flux for now and weeks to come. Negotiations work both ways after all, and agents have ways of planting ‘word’ about an aide talking to somebody if only to spur his current employer to a decision.
What is reasonably understood is Mississippi State officials would love to settle Mullen’s extended status for a well-timed announcement. Ditto naming/hiring a coordinator and other staff stuff. Of course the most important January news is Dak Prescott’s pending pronouncement, and if a certain national figure calls the quarterback for any on-air interviews he’d best have a well-prepared apology ready. I know the new media reality forces old dogs to try new tricks but man, that was as dumb as making comments on player girlfriend’s attributes. Oh, wait…
So whoever stays or goes, is hired or fired, raised or praised or braised, things won’t be entirely quiet in Bulldog Country for early January. That’s part of a program achieving big-time stature.
Just like, say, participating in the Orange Bowl.
Speaking of big-time…I’ve been to quite a few bowls now, including two—Sun and Cotton—which are highly-regarded by media folk for how they treat the press corps. But I’ve never attended one which placed post-game shots of champagne at every seat. No joke, little plastic cups of bubbly stuff to mark the New Year which had rung-in while we were in the press room waiting to talk to athletes instead of at a party or something. Hmmm, that says so, so much about my job and my life, doesn’t it, and not necessarily positive.
Anyway, I gave my glass to a cohort, but appreciate the thought. Now, had the Bulldogs won, the Sober Southern Baptist of our press corps might have finally broken-down and imbibed in sheer celebration. That’s what a record 11th victory would have meant to this Old Dog.
But I’ve no resentments over lost game-and-opportunity. The young Dogs hurt worse and for-real. They wanted to win that one for themselves more than any history. Just as it should be. I’d have been annoyed had they left the field contented, understand, having worked Bulldog bowl games with teams only there for the swag and socializing. These Dogs meant business and if they failed on the field it wasn’t for lack of effort.
Having said that, something else needs to be understood. Once their Orange Bowl frustration fades, these Bulldogs have every other right to celebrate what 2014 was for them. Just as should we for what it meant to us.
Because in time we’ll pay off those cards and straighten-up everything unattended for a few weeks. I can’t be as upbeat about our winter weather ahead of course. I’m not joking about sunburn. Tuesday I trekked from hotel to beach, and it was worth the two-and-half-miles walk one-way to enjoy 80 degrees and bikinis in late December. OK, many ought not have un-dressed thus after their obvious holiday feasting. And having seen hordes of Ontario-tagged cars on the interstates en route, I understood all that Canadian bacon (bakin?) on the beachfront.
Also, if you intend to abide in what the late great John D. MacDonald called ‘Fort Lauderdamndale, palm-tree Christmas with Sanny Claus in shorts’ do bring money. Old money preferably, compared to the new-cash flash of Miami. There are more Bentley Mulsannes in Lauderdale than London I daresay, and pizza delivery guys do so in Maseratis and tip you. OK, I made that up. Still, while the mommy wagon of Madison is a Navigator; in Brentwood a Lexus; in Buckhead a Land Rover; down there in south Florida if you don’t ferry Biff and Muffy to school in a Cayenne, well, you’re just trash.
But then I wasn’t going to be invited to the posh New Years Eve parties anyway. Nor would have gone. There was a much larger and for Bulldogs infinitely more special celebration going on in Miami Gardens. The party of a professional lifetime in fact, having wondered for so, so many years what working one of the game’s true classic events would be like.
In fact, moments before kickoff I looked around and said, quietly, I’m at the freaking Orange Bowl. Mississippi State is playing the Orange Bowl. This is real.
It was. Real, and really special. Sure it would have been much more so with a record 11th win. And even more with locking up a top-ten finish in the polls, which is maybe my only personal bit of bitterness. I don’t have a lot of seasons ahead after all.
I do have a lot of ‘em behind though. Which allows a greater appreciation of what 2014 wrought. Like a ten-win regular record, first-ever here. The unprecedented #1 ranking of course. A perfect home season coinciding with the 100th year of play on Scott Field as well as re-opening of the expanded stadium, which could never have been scripted. Wins over three top-ten-at-time teams and who cares what those clubs did the rest of the way? Somebody had to pin the first loss on ‘em and these Dogs did it, convincingly each time.
And so on and on we could go. Even the defeats affirmed this new-found State stature. I mean, you can only lose a #1 ranking by winning the darned thing in the first place, right? When’s the last time an Alabama program which takes #1 for-granted so celebrated beating Bulldogs? Georgia Tech as noted already had their own SEC itch to scratch and wanted to take down the Dogs badly.
There’s a word for it. Respect.
Something we’ve sought for so long and so longingly here. Mississippi State got it in 2014. Keeping it? That is mostly Mullen’s task beginning with revamping and upgrading the staff in-toto, particularly recruiting prowess. This is still the fragile link in the whole process since while better new Bulldogs are signed each year there hasn’t been the great leap forward on this front. And for all boasting about a development program, one can’t help wondering what it will be like developing even better recruits, huh? This must be on Mullen’s mind in future hirings.
But I said ‘mostly’ because everyone else has a part to play. Y’all did great yourselves in ’14 by snapping up the tickets and turning out for games in record numbers…and this was well-before the #1 or any ranking for that matter. Self-respect counts too, y’know.
Which finally swings this around to the core commentary. Yes there are a number of fans in foul moods right now because the Orange Bowl was lost. The Egg Bowl too, and as I’ve mentioned coincidence these things do seem to go together under this regime. But unlike the last Gator Bowl where hangover from that and three other defeats was blatant…I saw nothing similar this time in camp or game. A subjective sign sure, but a sign all the same.
What I’m getting at is while there are unhappy citizens of Bulldog Country today, they are fewer than usual and seemingly quieter about it. I credit this to a general understanding and appreciation of what 2014 was. What it meant to Mississippi State as a football program, an athletic operation, a University and as Mullen often reminded to the entire state.
We won ten football games f’rgosh sakes. We played in the Orange Bowl. I hang my press pass proudly. No offense to fine folk of Memphis and Nashville and Jacksonville and all, but this one goes to the front of the stack for more than chronological reasons. Just like the 2014 season football pass.
I probably don’t have to say much less explain what was Mississippi State’s finest moment. You know it too. In my own tenure going back to, let’s just say the later 1970s, we’ve had our great big events here on campus capped sometimes with milestone wins.
But nothing, nothing compares to the build-up and complete climax of October 5-11. It was remarkable enough around town ‘n campus before playing Auburn; winning the game made it epochal, and never again can I hear or hum ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ without the warmest glow of MSU memory. Honorable mention goes to sight of what looked like every living soul in DWS lighting-up the cel phones and swaying to ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ during the last home game.
Such stuff can’t be planned or promoted. So many factors must coincide. Team, fans, opponent, situation, even kickoff time and weather. It was a day that defined a season in so many ways, that you can only hope to experience something similar again. Not identical maybe, some events are so electric and extraordinary to defy duplication. Then again, in 2015 all the main rivals are coming to campus so…who knows? Keep the cowbells tuned-up just in case more is needed.
For now, 2014 was success. Unalloyed, no, but a season to savor now and even more in years to come…though I won’t regret if next January there’s an even more important pass to hang and bigger game to cover. Let’s hold off debating possibilities for a while, as my brain and yes butt are worn-down from a very long trip and a much longer season labor which began mid-July.
And that’s another irony, because my return-routed past Hoover, where in what? just six-and-a-half more months the SEC’s media assemble again and another season gets going. At least it should be warm…but with fewer Canadians and no bikinis.