“I have done it every year that I have been here,” said Dr. Keenum of greeting football visitors. “The very first year that Dan Mullen got here, he asked me to do something like that. We got here at about the same time and the first time I got to meet with recruits was with his very first recruiting class.
“He invited me to come and speak to them while they were on their official visits. I think we did that over at Templeton (Center). I met with them and sat down and had a meal with them. I spoke with the parents and we just sort of visited and had lunch together.”
From there, Dr. Keenum’s involvement in the recruiting process has grown annually. So has his personal hospitality. Because Bulldog football hopefuls are able to spend some time at the Keenum home, just a street off the heart of the historic campus. In fact, from the President's residence one can see the old band practice field...where the first Mississippi A&M squads played and the first Egg Bowl (even if it didn't have the name or trophy back then) was won. By the home team.
“I made the suggestion that we should have the official visitors and their families over to our home,” Keenum explained. “We just decided to host them at a reception before they went out to dinner that night. We gave them the chance to meet with me, my wife and our family and just see the President’s home. We wanted to learn about them and allow them to learn about us in a more casual setting.
“We have been doing that ever since and I hope that it sends a positive message to their families that we truly care about them. I want them to know that my involvement with them doesn’t end when they sign or decide to come play football at Mississippi State. I stay in touch with these young men during the time that they are here.
“I get to know most of them and I see a lot of them when I go over to the Leo Seal Complex. I don’t hang out over there, but I may need to go over there to get my knee worked on, my wrist worked on or my neck worked on. It gives me a chance to see them over there in that environment. I may go over there to get my knee treated and then the next person over is Taveze Calhoun, who is needing treatment.
“All of that allows me to have more of a personal relationship with these young men, because I genuinely care about them as students. I want to see them succeed and do well. I feel like we do a marvelous job of helping our student athletes with their academics.
“We help them with time management, because there are so many demands on the student athletes here and at any University. Academics come first and I tell them that when they first come here. We explain that commitment to their families when we have the chance to visit with them. I am not just happy with them coming in and playing football here and then leaving. I want all of them to be able to earn their degree. They are going to need that to be successful in life regardless is they go on to play on the next level or not.
“It is important to us that these young men get an education and we are going to do all of the things we can do to ensure that they get the opportunity to do that at Mississippi State. We are going to expose them to world class facilities, coaches and health care. All of the things that are provided for them are going to be important, but we want their academic foundation to be very important.
“It’s one thing for a coach to tell that to a mom and a dad, but I think it’s a bit different when a university president tells them that and that we genuinely care about their sons.”
It really is, as comments over the years from visiting prospects--whether they sign on with Mississippi State or not--attest. Keenum remains engaged with the football program throughout the year making several visits to see the team prepare for action in the Southeastern Conference.
“I go watch a lot of practices over the course of a semester,” Keenum said. “I go over and meet with the team at the start of football season. Coach Mullen asks me to come over and meet with them in the spring. That usually takes place right before spring break. I try to speak with them before they all go off to go home and of course I see them on campus throughout the year.”
While football recruiting remains in the forefront of Bulldog fans’ minds this time of year, Keenum reports that his good tidings to potential Bulldog student athletes is not limited to those on the gridiron.
“I do this for all of our student athletes,” Keenum explained. “I meet with Coach (Vic) Shaefer and his players. He brings some young ladies to our home when they come on their official visits.
“I meet with volleyball recruits, golf recruits, softball recruits and every coach knows that if they if have a young man or young woman on campus for their official visits that I will find time to meet with them if I am available. Sometimes we meet in my home and other times it’s here in my office. We will come and sit down and visit together. I believe that is important.”
In an effort to keep an open dialogue with Bulldog athletic staffers, Keenum makes time each year to meet with the leadership of every Bulldog athletics’ program to convey expectations on and off of the fields of competition.
“I meet with all of the coaches every year and I talk to all of them about their roles this coming school year,” Keenum said. “I tell them that we are going to abide by all of the rules of the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference. I expect our programs to abide by the rules and expect our leaders to uphold the rules." Keenum, by the way, is serving as the vice-president of the Southeastern Conference for 2015-16.
“I also remind them that they have young men and women that they are recruiting and that I am available to meet with them when they come and visit the campus.
“I don’t just meet with student-athletes, but I meet with prospective students as well. If I am on campus and I have a window in my day, I want to meet with these young people who want to get their education at Mississippi State. It doesn’t just end with the meeting either. I am happy to be a reference for a student who is seeking a job or needing a reference for graduate school.
“I want our students to know that I am here for them, while they are here. I want them to be successful, but we also want to help them as they leave here and make their way in the world. I want them to know that I am going to be there to support them and help them in any way that I possibly can.”
Keenum is no 'hired gun' in Starkville, plunked-down in an unfamiliar setting by the IHL. No, sir. Growing up a Mississippi State fan, the President understands the passion that fans have for the Maroon and White.
“I feel like I am the #1 fan,” Keenum said with a smile. “I love Mississippi State athletics. My earliest memories as a child involved Mississippi State athletics. That was all imprinted on me very early in life. There may be a bigger fan than me, but I don’t know who that is.
“I want to see us succeed. When people come to the campus, I want them to see the new facilities like the Mize Pavilion, the Leo Seal Complex, what we have done to Davis Wade Stadium and the new softball and tennis facilities. We have a new track and we have some big plans for Dudy Noble (Field and Polk-Dement Stadium). We just built a new golf facility out at Old Waverly and we’re about to build a new field house for our soccer team.
“We are making a tremendous investment to our infrastructure here, so that our athletic teams can be competitive. “In order to be competitive, you have to have the facilities and you have to have the coaches. I believe we have to hold our coaches, myself and our administration accountable. As I tell our coaches at the beginning of the year, we have won championships in the past and I want to be competitive at the highest levels and bring championships to Mississippi State no matter what the sport is. I want us to enter every year with that mindset.”
Athletic director Scott Stricklin is a former Mississippi State student himself, who upon arriving on campus got involved immediately with Bulldog sports in the media relations office. He even wrote a SEC football predictions column for the original Dawgs' Bite Magazine. Stricklin also cemented his status as a lifetime Bulldog by marrying the youngest daughter of all-time basketball legend Bailey Howell. Still it is his successful experience at Power 5 programs Auburn, Baylor, and Kentucky before returning to his alma mater that confirms Keenum's confidence Stricklin has what it takes to usher the Bulldogs into an even greater era of winning.
“I believe we have a great athletic director in Scott Stricklin,” Keenum said. “He is a real visionary. We want to have a very strong athletics program and we share that vision. We also want this to be a great experience for our fans. We want our faculty, our students and our fans to just have a great experience when they attend a Mississippi State athletics event. We want them to take pride in and enjoy our facilities, while they are here on campus.
“I think that being a lifelong Bulldog may be a real benefit for our athletics program. For me it’s fun. It’s one of the fun things that I get to do. I enjoy being able to cheer on our teams.”
When Keenum has the chance to cheer along the Bulldog football team, he has some real credibility. As a former football player that competed above the high school level, Keenum understands the demands placed on student athletes.
“Every time Coach Mullen introduces me to the players, he always mentions that I played football,” Keenum said. “I played from pee wee football all the way through High School and then I played at Northeast Mississippi Junior college, then. I enjoyed my time. I loved playing and I played offensive center and on defense I played either linebacker or defensive lineman. At Northeast, I was strictly a center.
“We had two good years there, two great years actually. I reminded the football team this year at the beginning of the season that during my sophomore year at Northeast we were ranked #1 in the nation over the course of that season. I asked them if they could relate to that. It was sort of like their season last year. We lost our last two games that year. Unlike them, I didn’t get a second chance at that. That was my last year of organized football. I would have given anything to have had another year to play with that team at Northeast that we had coming back to try to go back and win a national championship.
“When I told our team that this year, I was sitting right in front of Dak Prescott. I told them that they had the best quarterback in college football. We had great leaders on that team and I told them that they had a chance to back out there and try to win a championship.”
The Bulldogs built some real national appeal during their 2014 run to #1 in football for the first time in school history. Keenum reports that those type of successes are paramount in branding the University as a school that expects to compete for championships.
“I love sports and athletic teams are so important to our University,” Keenum said. “It brings so much notoriety and publicity to us in so many ways that we would not receive otherwise.
“We have great accomplishments in our academics, our science and our research. All of the things that we are doing are phenomenal, but our athletics teams allow us to get out there and tell people about all of the great things we have going on here at Mississippi State.
“When we are doing well and going to the College World Series, going to great bowl games and gaining some notoriety because of our success it fills our graduates and our fans with great pride. “I believe you have to have strong athletics to go hand in hand with our great academic successes that we are having here. The good thing is that we can have both. We don’t have to be either/or. We can have great academics and research and have great accomplishments in that realm, but we can do that in athletics.
“We are very blessed to be part of the greatest athletic accomplishments in the nation (the SEC). That has reaped tremendous financial benefits for the athletics department and this University. We are one of the few schools that doesn’t subsidize athletics. We are one of the only Universities in the nation that doesn’t give money to athletics. In fact, they are paying us. We are the recipient of funds that are generated through athletics. That is all coming back to help support this University. There are just a handful of schools that fit into that category.
“Working with Scott (Stricklin) we have been able to do that. We’re very proud of that fact and very proud of our athletics programs.”
Just as proud as Dr. Keenum can be, and is, of presiding over Mississippi's largest educational institution, a growing force in the economy of both the state and the region...and a campus that will be home to lots of winning Bulldog athletes. Many of whom can always brag, that they've been to the president's home.