"I came (to MSU) in April, 1985. So, I'm starting my 18th year. I had been to two previous schools before I came here, the University of South Carolina and at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. I was the head of the media areas at both schools, although at South Carolina, it was kind of a split office where I was over football only. At Northwestern, I was over the entire media department. I had been at South Carolina, then went to Northwestern. But after being at South Carolina, I grew to love the south and was looking to come back. A job opening occurred at Mississippi State University. I applied for the job and got it. It has been 18 great years.
"I came here with a background as the head of a media relations office, but the way they had the job structured when I took it, I was more in public relations, more of a marketing type person. Basically, my job was to work on the football, basketball and baseball game programs and sell advertising for it. I also did all the posters and schedule cards and supplemental materials for ticket sales. I basically did everything that you would expect to be marketing or PR oriented. I really didn't do any media relations type work, although the media folks reported to me.
"Through the years, things changed. I guess it was after the 1991 football season when Larry Templeton asked me to not only do what I was currently doing, but also to take on the media relations aspect of what I had previously done. I have now been doing that a little over 10 years."
That was about the same time Coach Sherrill came aboard, wasn't it?
"It was his second year. He had coached one year when Larry asked me to make that move. Coach Sherrill and I had had a passing relationship prior to 1991, but not anything more than that."
You mentioned that you worked at South Carolina. You've actually help promote a football player that won the Heisman Trophy, George Rogers.
"Actually, that is the only association Coach Sherrill and I have had prior to 1992. He was the head coach at Pitt and I was at the University of South Carolina in 1980. The two schools played each other in the Gator Bowl. Plus, we had a Heisman Trophy candidate, George Rogers, and Pitt had a Heisman Trophy candidate, Hugh Green. Of course, like you said, George won it. That was wonderful for the university and for George. It ended up being good for me, too. It was a lot of work, but, at the same time, it was certainly beneficial."
What did you have to do differently for someone who was a Heisman Trophy candidate?
"There is really not a lot of difference because you really don't know who votes for the Heisman. There are so many voters nationwide. You can guess, because it is usually the top newspaper writers and top radio and television people. You adjust your mailing list to include more national folks, but again that was 20 years ago. A lot has changed since then. It is much more technical now."
I realize this is a broad question, but what does the media relations department do at an SEC school?
"To give you a definition first, the media relations practitioners are the people who work as a liaison between the news media and our coaches and student/athletes. Specifically, what that means is we try to provide the media with information and the opportunity to do interviews. And in that way, to promote our university and its coaches and student/athletes. We do all the game notes and issue all the news releases. We basically do all the publications for the department. We are in charge of all the media guides and all the game programs. We do schedule cards and posters. We had been doing, up until last year, the ticket applications. Really, a big part of our job is to work with the news media so that they feel comfortable covering Mississippi State. By in large, I think we do a very good job."
People don't really think about this, but the MSU Athletic Department is in reality a large corporation. It is a business that grossed over 20 million dollars last year and is projected to gross over 23 million this year. You basically have a large company that you try to cover with a limited staff?
"I can't complain about the number of employees that we have. We have 5 full-time assistants and one full-time intern and several students, between 6 and 8, who help us part-time. While they are paid, it is not enough to make a living from. But we are also giving them the opportunity to learn more about the profession. We also have some support help such as secretaries. Our staffing is fine."
Compared to other schools, it is not that big, is it?
"No, compared to other schools it's not."
During the football season, how much time do you work?
"From August 1st until January 1st, by and large, we work seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. It is worse during two-a-days. I get there for the morning practice and work it. Then I go back in the office and try and catch up from being gone for 2 or 3 hours. By the time I get caught up, it is time to go out to the afternoon practice. We usually write a practice brief each day during two-a-days so that the media has something. The only days off we might get is on an open weekend."
What is football gameday like for the media relations department?
"I am usually in the office four hours before gametime and I'm usually at the stadium three and a half hours before gametime. We are usually in the pressbox an hour and a half after the game. After that, John Cade, my assistant, will work in the office several more hours updating SEC stats and other stat packages that we do. And sending some material off to the NCAA. I will usually stay 30 minutes in the office doing some things for our coaches. After that, I go home and work between 2 and 3 more hours preparing for Sunday. Sunday is a long day for us. Anything we can do Saturday helps us for Sunday."
You talk about working a lot of hours during football season, but that is not the only season you work long hours. I've even seen you selling game programs during basketball games. How did that come about?
"Yeah (laugh). That developed a long time ago, back before the change took place in 1991. Part of my job was to work with game programs. I still work with our basketball programs sellers. I recruit the sales force. I have to account for the paperwork after the game. I have to account for all the programs sold."
You talked about the football season itself, but you also have to deal with the recruiting season as well. Your department does a great job getting information about each of the signees. Talk a little about that.
"Usually, early on, maybe two months before signing day, I'm really just gathering information about commitments. I'm getting extensive background information on them. As we get closer to signing day, and there are some guys who are hanging out there that haven't committed anywhere, sometimes I will put together bios on four, five, six or seven guys who may or may not sign with State. That's really the only way we can do it. If we waiting until signing day, it would be too hectic."
What it's like once signing day is over with?
"Once the two signing days are over (December and February), we are working on the spring football guide. Then it is spring football. We do the same thing then that we do during two-a-days, going to practice, writing daily briefs. Even though it slows down a little bit, it doesn't really quit for football."
Switching over to another subject, there have been folks who have posted on my message boards that the MSU media relations department is not aggressive enough in getting MSU sports information out to the news media. How much control do you have in getting MSU sports information out to the media, then getting them to print it?
"We are in complete control of how much we can send. However, we have no control over what they write or report. To a degree, that goes back to hoping that you have a relationship built up where they look favorably upon what you send them. Basically, I think we are in good shape there. We have far fewer problems than a lot of other schools in getting things placed in the media. I do think there is a misconception that we can write something and it will be run by the media outlet that we send it to. That just doesn't happen. The media outlet is there to determine what news they want to run and how much they want to run. Our job is send everything out in a positive and promotional way, which we do. What they do with it when they receive, that is their job."
How do you determine who you are going to send your information to and who do you send it to?
"The first priority for us is the state of Mississippi. We realize that most of the fans of our program live within the state of Mississippi, so obviously we are going to do our most comprehensive job in trying to reach the media folks within this state so that they can distribute that information to alumni, fans and friends of Mississippi State that live in this state. Consequently, we try to contact all media outlets throughout the state either directly or through the Associated Press. Virtually, every daily newspaper in the state receives our information. Virtually, every television station receives our information and several radio stations, primarily the ones that have sports programming, receive our information. The Associated Press is the group that is our external media outlet for outside the state of Mississippi. The Associated Press in Mississippi will send our information to a regional AP headquarter, which I think is in Dallas. From Dallas, it will go to New York. Theoretically, everything we send goes on to the national AP. Because of that, virtually everybody has an opportunity to see it. Some of our information may get filtered out along the way. Dallas may choose to not send it to New York. New York may get it and decide not to use it. That is their responsibility.
"I guess the biggest misconception is we have control over what gets into the paper. We don't. I've gotten emails and letters through the years asking why they can't get any information about the Bulldogs in Huntsville, Alabama. We send the material to AP and AP has the choice to move it on or not move it on. We have no control over what the Huntsville paper and tv uses. They have to look at who their market is and decide what to use from that. They have to base it on who is watching their show or who is reading their paper. It's like anything else, if enough people start making enough noise about wanting MSU material, then the radio, tv or newspaper will pay attention to that. Really, it is more important for the people in the different areas to contact the local media and ask them to provide more MSU information."
You mentioned sending information to the AP, but do you also send information to the larger newspapers and other media outlets in the southern states outside of Mississippi?
"With our normal weekly releases and game notes, I have an email list of about a 100 people I send them to. Those are people all over the country that have either requested the information or I have added to my list because of their level of expertise in college football."
You have been really good to the larger, independent websites like mine. You have always made sure that I received media credentials. As I've learned over the past couple of years, MSU media relations is the exception and not the norm in that case. Why are you so good about providing credentials to internet sites such as mine?
"I think we treat you a little differently than most folks simply because you are reaching the people we ultimately want to reach. When we send things to the media, that's not the end goal. The end goal is to reach the public, the Mississippi State fans and alumni. You reach those people directly with your website. We are going to treat you like a regular media person because you are reaching the people we want to reach. You come around the office most days. You are looking to do player interviews. You want to talk to coaches. You are doing the things that media people do. You are getting information out that is going directly to our people."
After internet sites came out, when did you decide you would provide them with media credentials?
"I don't think there was an exact day it started. I think it was an evolving process. When websites first started, there was a lot of apprehension in our industry because of how people were getting them started and how they were making their name with respect to their sites. As time has evolved and we have seen how different sites have progressed, we realized that some of those sites were good news suppliers."
You mentioned the positives about the internet. What are some of the negatives that you have had to deal with?
"I think the message boards remain a concern, simply because there is no accountability. People can write whatever they want and they can be anonymous. You don't know whether it is a Mississippi State person or somebody else. You don't really know how to treat it. It is a problem because a lot of people buy into what is said because they treat people as an authority. Sometimes things are posted and they develop a life of their own. At times, we have to stop it if it is wrong, or at least get out position out so that it is not going completely unchecked. There is a lot of disinformation on message boards. Sometimes it is hard to separate fact from fiction. With our job, we try to deal with facts."
While we are talking about the internet, MSU also has an official website. How do you guys put that information on your site?
"The rights to our website is owned by Host Communications, which also does out coaches tv shows and the baseball radio network. They also have the rights to some of our programs. They manage our website. Basically, what we do is send them the material just like we do to the Clarion-Ledger. We will email directly to Host Communications and they will post the information on the website. They are a good working partner. With our staff, we have to have someone like that to work with. We could do it ourselves, but it wouldn't be as good as it is. Our job is to continue to improve the website. There are some things we want to do but can't do physically. There are also some other things we want to do but can't fiscally because it would cost a lot more money to do."
Mike, thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
Gene Swindoll is the owner of Gene's Page (http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com), the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports on the internet. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.