"I know we are excited about the NCAA Championship. We've been in the top 10 before, but I don't know if we've ever had this talented of a group going as we have this year. In the past, we've had two or three superstars, but all the athletes we have going this year are way beyond SEC caliber.
"To be in this league and to be in the NCAA and in the position that they are all in, you have to be more than just a talented athlete. You have to have a lot of character, a lot of drive. They say it takes a village to raise a kid, well it takes a great deal of people at this level for these kids to be successful, from the academic advisors to the medical people to their coaches. And I have a great coaching staff in Coach Dudley, Coach Fetzer, Coach Franks, Coach Thomas and Coach Gant.
"We've had some tragedies this year that have kind of brought us together as a team. We've had three deaths in the family. I think these kids are running for a lot more than just for track and field.
"Each one of them will tell you that workouts are a lot harder than any race that they may run."
"Jamil Hubbard had a tough road to get here as most junior college athletes do. But he did a great job and had great family support. I told Jamil and Marrissa (Harris) when they got on the bus after the SEC Championships that they are SEC Champions and when they get to be 65-years-old, they will still be SEC Champions. It's a big deal to be an SEC champion. Golden Coachman was in Iraq being shot at for a year prior to coming here. Chris (Woods) had developed into one of the best 800 meters runners in the country and the best true leader that I have ever had. O'Neal (Wilder's) journey is just beginning. He's only been beaten in the SEC by one guy this year and that's Jamil Hubbard."
Based on the athletes you are taking to the NCAA Championships, what are you expectations? Where do you believe they can place?
"We've had several NCAA champions at Mississippi State during my career here. I remember telling (MSU National Champion) Tiffany McWilliams in the hotel room when the pressure looked like it was eating her up that she didn't have to win, just go make them race. I think, if we go out and make them race and do everything they have to do, then we could have these kids standing on a platform getting one of the trophies. Or, we could be 9th or even 15th. Every one of the kids sitting in those chairs (Jamil Hubbard, Golden Coachman, Chris Wood, O'Neal Wilder, Marrissa Harris) are going to the Olympic Trials.
"In the Mideast Regional there were several Big Ten teams there and we beat the Big Ten champion by 20 points. In the East Regional three SEC teams were there and only one team, Florida State, beat them. We've beaten everybody from the ACC, everybody from the Big Ten, and some from the Big 12 in those two regional meets. If we can take 75% of the points that we scored in the regional to the nationals we can get one of the four trophies. But, at the same time, you don't want to put that pressure on the kids."
How much pressure is on these kids?
"The hardest job that anybody has is Marrissa's job. In the heptathlon, she has seven events. She's the Bruce Jenner and Jim Thorpe of Mississippi State. She has to go directly from one event to the next one and has to forget the last one no matter how she did.
"In the 4x4 and the 4x1, you don't want to be the one guy who messed up. From the first guy, to the last guy, you don't want to be the one who caused them to lose.
"But I think our guys have handled that type pressure very, very well."
O'Neal Wilder is not only a track athlete, but a football player as well. You mentioned that he can be a Olympian. Is him also being a football player a possible hindrance to that happening?
"It didn't hurt Willie Gault or some of the other football players that ran track. I believe the faster he gets on the track, the faster he will get on the football field. So, I think it will help, not hinder, him."
Until this spring, O'Neal's really hasn't learned much track technique. Now that's he practicing it with college track coaches, how much faster can he get?
"I think, by the time he graduates from Mississippi State, that he can take two seconds off his time. I think he could be 44 to 43 (seconds in the 400 meters), he's that good. He could be a world champion. You don't really want to put that much pressure on a kid, but he really could be that good."
Unlike most sprinters, O'Neal is 6-5 tall. Is it unusual for a track sprinter to be that tall?
"There are probably guys that tall that play other sports that are just as good as those 12 great 400 meters runners that we have in this country. So, I don't think it's unusual. I've compared him to Randy Moss and if Randy ran track he would be pretty good in the 400 meters."
Coach Schmidt calls you the leader on the team. Talk about being a leader.
"Being here all four years has helped me become a leader. But I had a lot of people help me get to the point where I am now - LaChristopher Lewis, Jamal Ashford, guys who were here before me. They really helped me be the person that I am now.
"Also, having been here for four years, I now realize that we have the best coaching staff in the NCAA as far as track and field. All the coaches, from Coach Schmidt to Coach Dudley, Coach (Houston) Franks, Coach (Bryan) Fetz(er), they all helped me become the leader that I am. And my teammates keep me on track just like I help to keep them on track. Everybody plays a part in leadership."
What do you do as a leader to set an example for the other guys?
"There is really noting specific that I do. I just try to go out to practice and set an example and make sure I get through all the workouts. That's hard when you have coach (Steve) Dudley in the workouts and he's yelling at you. I always try to stay positive no matter what. Whenever a freshman has his head down and he's not necessarily happy about the race that he's had and, even on the ladies side, when she's not too happy with the race she had, you stay positive. You tell them I've been here a while and that you're not always going to have the best race possible but if you just stick with it good things, positive things will come out at the end. So, I just try to stay positive."
You have been through an NCAA Championship before, so you know what to expect. How do you help a guy like O'Neal Wilder, a freshman who has never been through something like this?
"He's already got his head on straight - how his mindset is set, how he approaches the race. He should just go out there and have fun and not worry about the pressure. He's already got a championship. There's not too many freshmen that can say they've made the NCAAs with one of the top times as a college athlete in the United States in the 400 meters and also have one of the best times in the world as a junior. That's very big as a freshman, especially when you consider how late he came in and how hard he worked."
You guys have done really well in the SEC Championships and in the NCAA Regional. How do you carry that over to the NCAA Championships?
"You don't get lazy. You keep working hard in practice and keep that same killer mentality that Coach (Steve) Dudley talks about. If you do that, then everything will be ok and you will succeed in whatever you do."
Now that the NCAA Championships are right around the corner, are you getting more nervous or more excited?
"I don't really get nervous until the race is about to start. I guess you could say I'm anxious to get there. I'm really ready to run because I've prepared well due to the training that I've gotten under Coach Dudley."
But this race is not the SEC or a regional, it's for the national championship.
"I'm used to being put in these type positions because I ran the USA Track and Field and ran for a national junior team, so I'm used to it. It all feels the same to me. It's not that I'm downing the national championship, but it's that I feel like I'm been here before and know what to do."
In some of the longer distant races there are mental games and maybe even a little pushing and shoving going on with runners during the race. Do those kind of things happen in the sprints?
"In the 4x4 it's exactly like that. It's a battle in that race."
You aren't the biggest guy in the world, so how do you handle the pushing and shoving?
"I just try to get in there with the big dogs and run. But there is a lot of shoving going on. I've never been knocked down, but I have knocked someone else down. It was an accident, though. When you are running, your arms are pumping and you might run into somebody. Those things happen."
Talk about your success as a freshman this year.
"I wasn't expecting to succeed as much as I did this year. Coach told me that I was going to have one of the top times in the country, but I wasn't expecting for it to come this soon. I have worked hard for it, though. And I thank God for it."
What are your thoughts going into the NCAA Championships?
"I'm just going there to have fun. I'm not going to change any strategies. I'm just going to go out there and try to have fun."
You are a football player participating in track. Has this track season caused you to love track more than you did coming into this season?
"Yes, because in high school I really didn't have a lot of respect for track. Now, after coming out here for college track and going through all the workouts and all the sweat, pain and misery that we go through, I respect track a lot and really love it."
How are you going to be able to handle both sports over the course of the next few years?
"I think I'll be able to handle what I'm doing now. I think what I'm doing in track will help me succeed in football."
How will football help you in track and how will track help you in football?
"Football will get me stronger and help me fight through the fatigue. Track will get me faster and help me learn to use my hips more to drive."
Considering you are a football player, why did you decide to run track?
"It's mainly because of (track) Coach Dudley. He was the first guy that recruited me. He recruited me before football or any other sport. He told me he was going to stick with me until the end whether I qualified or didn't qualify. And he did, so I did it for him. Now, I'm mainly doing it for the team, but I came out here for him."
Do you plan on doing both the four years you are at State?
Talk about breaking the school record.
"Personally, it feels pretty good to set the school record. I really didn't think about it when I did it, but it's nice."
How have you developed since you've been at Mississippi State?
"I've developed faster than I thought I would. Coming out of high school, I was probably mediocre as far as SEC talent goes, but I really wanted to compete on a level where I knew I could get better. When I came out of high school, high school was over with, I couldn't say I did this and or that in high school. I was on a whole other level - more talent, more speed, more everything, so it provided me with a good foundation. I had to start all over once I got to college."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.