"If you decide to accept!" quipped Gwin, a former Bulldog football player himself. Upon which Croom shot back "Where is it?!" in regards to an actual invitation slip. "On behalf of Larry, the president, entire Bulldog family, we accept this invitation. We're looking forward to coming to Memphis to be a part of this great tradition."
"It just made sense," said Ehrhart. "If you would have told me last summer of all the teams I could have had out of the SEC, I'd have picked Mississippi State."
Ehrhart and Gwin made the drive to campus Sunday to officially confirm an invitation Templeton already knew was forthcoming by Saturday night after all conference championship games and some regular-season finales were concluded. Saturday's scores certainly rippled through the bowl lineup, but in the end Mississippi State (7-5) found itself where most had expected. Central Florida (10-3) earned the other berth automatically by beating Tulsa in Saturday's CUSA title game.
Ehrhart and Gwin also brought the Liberty Bell Trophy for a presentation prop, and a motivator for the dozen Bulldog players at the ceremony. "That's the big cowbell!" Ehrhart said.
"We're proud to be associated with Mississippi State," Ehrhart said. "Larry Templeton has been involved with the Liberty Bowl for many years and we appreciate him very much. At the beginning of the year he told when he was on the Liberty Bowl radio show Coach Croom and this team were something special and were going to get it done. I think he said he'd accept the bid back then, that's the confidence he had in Coach Croom."
Croom inspired comparable confidence with the Bowl's committee on a pre-season appearance in Memphis. "The mission you guys have been on that he expressed to us about character and class really resonated with our group," said Ehrhart.
"They've been interested in us from the beginning," Croom said, "and very receptive to the possibility we could be their invitee to the game. It's great for our University, great for our state." In fact Ehrhart was at State's season-opener back on August 30, and attended the final four contests of the regular campaign as well. He and three other representatives were at the Egg Bowl and remained after Croom's press conference to speak with Croom and Templeton.
Ehrhart also noted that Croom was on the staff of the Alabama team that in 1982 played in the Liberty Bowl in Coach Paul ‘Bear' Bryant's final game. This is the 25th anniversary of that game, which makes it an even more special event for Croom…who said he's never been back to the Liberty Bowl, the game or the stadium, since 1982. This is an unexpectedly perfect situation for a return, though. "Of course that was a very sentimental game for me, so I'm honored that the first bowl game I get to go to as a head coach will be this particular game."
Of course the Bulldogs had to take care of a lot of regular-season business to merit the Bowl's berth. While they became bowl-eligible by defeating Alabama on November 10 it was the comeback victory over Ole Miss in the season finale for a seventh win that secured State's position with the Liberty Bowl staff. It was also the victories over Alabama and Kentucky that tipped the balance as those were the three leading candidates in Memphis minds.
But so is the fact that this is Mississippi State's first post-season invitation since the 2000 campaign. "It took a lot of work by a lot of people to get to this point," Croom said. "And I hope our players, the University, our fans, our alumni, and the entire state get behind this thing and really enjoy it. Because Mississippi will be well-represented."
Representing CUSA and the state of Florida is a Knight team that won seven-straight games to take their league's title. Ehrhart was there to formalize that automatic bid. "They were parading this Bell around after they won the championship." The Knights are also publicizing a Bowl sub-plot of star running back Kevin Smith who needs 184 yards to become the NCAA's all-time rushing leader.
This is just the second-ever meeting of the programs. Central Florida was State's Homecoming guest in 1997 when the Bulldogs won 35-28. "I think you'll enjoy playing against UCF," Ehrhart said. The Knights are also coached by one of Croom's friends. He and George O'Leary were on the San Diego Chargers staff. "I know what kind of coach he is," said Croom, who watched the UCF-Tulsa game Saturday. "They have a great back, they're well-coached, they're tough, they're going to be fundamentally sound because that's the way George coaches."
This will be Mississippi State's first appearance in Memphis since a regular-season game with the University of Memphis back in 2002. There is some irony in this year's Liberty Bowl game date, as December 29 was also when the 1991 Bulldogs played in this same classic. That game saw the largest crowd ever to watch a Liberty Bowl with a gate of 61,497, after State set an advance-tickets sales record.
Official stadium capacity is 62,338. Templeton said Mississippi State will receive an initial allotment of 23,500 tickets but that more ducats will be available to meet Bulldog fan demand. MSU will begin taking orders through the Ticket Office at 8:30 Monday morning by phone at 1-888-GO-DAWGS and 662-325-2600; or on-line at the athletic web-site. Tickets will be assigned to Bulldog Club members and season ticket holders in priority rank order with a maximum number of ten tickets at priority. To secure their priority tickets, those parties must place their order by Friday, Dec. 7, at 4:30 p.m. After that time, seats will be assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis.
"I want to challenge our fans," said Croom. "I like breaking records. We set the last record, let's go break our own record. We need a full house, want to make it a home field advantage for Mississippi State."
This will be Mississippi State's third appearance in a Liberty Bowl game. The 1963 Bulldogs, making MSU's first post-season appearance in over two decades, defeated North Carolina State 16-12 in Philadelphia under legendarily cold conditions. It wasn't a whole lot warmer in 1991 when State returned to the bowl game, this time in the Memphis, and lost 38-15 to Air Force.
In the dozen appearances since Mississippi State first played post-season football, in the 1937 Orange Bowl, Bulldog teams are 6-6. But they won their last two such games, in the 1999 Peach (now Chik-fil-A) Bowl and the 2000 Independence Bowl.
Besides the obvious program angles, some Bulldog players can also use this 13th game to reach or raise individual goals. The NCAA now recognizes post-season football statistics, as they always did in basketball and baseball. So sophomore halfback Anthony Dixon gets another chance for a 1,000-yard season; he ended the Egg Bowl at 980 yards in 12 games. Dixon is also three rushing touchdowns from tying the season record of 16.
Senior defensive end Titus Brown needs one more sack for a top-ten season at State. His 18.5 sacks in his career ranks 7th all-time. Junior safety Derek Pegues needs 35 yards' worth of kickoff returns to break the career record of 1,862. And of course Pegues will look to add to his career tally of touchdown returns which stands at five (three on interceptions, two on punts).
Croom said that with this week devoted to final fall semester exams, bowl practices won't begin until December 12 with around 12 or 13 working days available. "My big concern is the holiday and working around that. I'd like to get a full week of practice up there to maintain our normal schedule as close as possible." The Bulldogs will arrive in Memphis on either the 23rd or 24th depending on the final scheduling. "I also want a situation where our players can get all the benefits the NCAA allows as far as renumeration and transportation."
Along that line, Croom said up to 110 players will be on the travel party, though only 80 will dress for game-day. "We want to take the 105 (roster) players plus some guys that have been here a while. We'll try to take anybody we feel has made a significant contribution to what we've been doing here. Even though they may not dress for the game they'll get the benefits and we'll have seats for them."
The Liberty Bowl has a series of events scheduled for the participating teams, but what has Croom most excited about this particular trip is the chance to take the Bulldogs to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. Croom has been there on other occasions, which inspired him to take Bulldog players to Children's Hospital in Jackson each summer.
Yet the ultimate focus is on December 29 and Saturday afternoon's kickoff as Mississippi State plays for an eighth victory in 2007. "We are going with the idea to win this game and represent this state and our conference well," Croom said. "I want our players to understand that. We're going to have fun but we're going to take care of business"
And, he wants Bulldog fans to play their own part on that bowl-business, encouraging Mississippi State folk to not only set attendance records but make lots of noise. "By any means necessary," he grinned. At which Ehrhart moved to the microphone.
"Let me interject," the executive director said. "Cowbells are welcome at the AutoZone Liberty Bowl."