"I will be working with major gift fundraising, which is obviously something that is very important to Mississippi State as we go forward trying to improve our facilities and generate revenue that will help us be more competitive in our league.
"Greg (Byrne) has also asked me to help form the capital campaign and come up with ideas not only to communicate the priorities of that campaign to our fanbase, but also identify and solicit some donations that can go toward making that possible."
When you say major gifts, specifically what dollar amount are you talking about?
"Different organizations have different definitions. The MSU Foundation considers a major gift to be $25,000. But it's really how it sounds, it's a gift that can make a good-sized dent into the overall goal in what you are trying to raise."
I know your career has mainly been in media relations. Is this new position something that you have been working toward during your career?
"When I came to Mississippi State twenty years ago, I wanted to work in athletics. I wasn't really sure what aspect of athletics, but it turned out to be media relations. And I was fortunate enough as a student to work in the media relations office at Mississippi State. As valuable as my marketing degree from Mississippi State has been, the four years as an undergraduate when I came to the MSU Athletic Department every day was just as valuable of an education for me. I was able to take that experience and get jobs at four other schools over the last 15 years. And every time you go somewhere new you learn new ideas, new ways of doing things, things that work and things that don't work.
"And the longer I have been in college athletics, the more my interests have moved into other areas of athletics. The last ten years I have had an Assistant or Associate AD title. When you are at a senior level like that, you have opportunities to be involved with other facets.
"At Kentucky, for instance, I would make donor trips. We would take groups of donors to various games and I would interact with them. And I would develop relationships with a lot of our donors. Things like that have allowed me to expand my knowledge of this industry and this business."
Just from talking to you, you seem to be very comfortable talking to people.
"I'm pretty comfortable interacting and building relationships with folks. I think that's the first thing you have to do in fundraising, be able to approach people and develop relationships with them.
"In addition to that, you also have to have a good understanding of what you are trying to sell. And I have a pretty good understanding of what we are trying to sell in regard to college athletics at Mississippi State. What we are selling is an experience."
What do you mean by that term - selling an experience?
"An experience for a student is the education. For the student-athlete it is the education and playing experience. But for so many of the people who consider themselves fans or alums of the university, that experience is based on love, passion and excitement. The reason that Saturdays in the fall are so great is because all that comes together in one place at one time.
"Showing up on campus on Saturday, pulling into your spot, tailgating with family and friends, walking into the stadium hearing the band play, the drums, seeing the colors, seeing the team running out, and feeling the excitement from a good game while anticipating the victory. There is nothing else that can replicate that. And that is a pretty powerful experience. That is our core product - that is what everything comes back to no matter what area of athletics you are in."
Where does the fundraising fit into that experience?
"On the fundraising side, we have to bring more revenue in to make that experience as good as it can possibly be. The more money we bring in the better the facilities can be, the better the staff you can attract. If you have good staff and good facilities to go along with your great university, you can attract the very best student-athletes. And when you have those type student-athletes, then it makes the experience for the fans that much better."
You came from the University of Kentucky prior to taking the job here. They obviously have a rich tradition in basketball. Are there things you learned about their basketball fundraising that can help you to raise funds at Mississippi State?
"There are. But Kentucky is a little bit different because the majority of their fundraising is centered on the parceling out of basketball tickets in Rupp Arena. As an example, if they have a pair or lower level seats come open - and it's a lot like Dudy Noble where those type seats don't come open very often - they wouldn't just give it to the next person on the priority list. They would basically auction it off. They would know somebody that is interested in the tickets and who is a major gift donor, and they would tell him he can have them for let's say $500,000 and he could pay it off over the next ten years. They've actually gotten that for tickets. That's what their fundraising has been - high priced tickets.
"We do some of that with our priority seating at the club level seats and suites, but not at that type level because that is an unusual situation at Kentucky. But you can take from that concept and learn from it.
"The thing that they don't do there that we do here is they don't re-seat their basketball seating like we do at the Hump. By doing it by priority seating, you basically let the market dictate what you are doing. It's more natural that way."
You mentioned you have worked at several other universities over the course of the past 15 years. Are there things you will bring from each that will help you here?
"The thing I have learned from all those things is that I have a pretty good understanding of college athletes. I've also learned that there is not a cookie cutter approach that will work everywhere. You have to figure out what works best at Kentucky, what works best at Baylor or Auburn, or in our case at Mississippi State.
"But you do have a perspective based on the different ways people have done things at the different universities. You can use that perspective and tie it all together."
I know you are still new to Mississippi State due to being away for the past 15 years, but based on what you do know, what are some things State seems to be doing well as far as raising funds? And are there things you feel MSU could do even better?
"From the annual giving side, part of our fundraising is based on ticket sales - you have to give an X amount of dollars to get access to a certain number of seats in a specific section of the football stadium. We seem to be pretty organized and pretty well developed in that area. And our priority point system is pretty well developed.
"From the major gift side, what you are looking at is opportunities for naming rights - the opportunity to put your name on a room, a building, a complex or another valuable piece of inventory. There are a lot of opportunities.
"Florida is a school that is good example of that. They do a great job with naming opportunities for people who have the ability to give at certain levels.
"But at the end of the day, the person who you are targeting as a major gift prospect has to have a great love for the institution. Then, you have to find a place where they are comfortable giving that type money."
What are some advantages that Mississippi State has in regard to asking folks for major gifts?
"What we have is a tremendously passionate fanbase. There are very few places where the fans have the passion that our fans at Mississippi State have. To give at the level we are talking about you obviously have to find the people who have the financial ability to do that. But the advantage that we have is the people who have that type ability also have the passion and love of their Bulldogs. And they want to see us succeed in the worst possible way. What we have to do is articulate a vision for how their contributions will help do that."
It's been 15 years since you were last here. How has it changed?
"I tell people that I don't remember a time where there has been the excitement that is around Mississippi State that I sense right now. I think a lot of that has to do with the success the football team had last year including winning a bowl game. And also the success they are having in recruiting this summer for next year. The basketball team has also gone through an unprecedented run of consistent success the last 15 years. The hiring of Coach (John) Cohen in baseball has also brought some excitement. And I think people are excited about Greg (Byrne) and the opportunity he has here. That's on the athletic side.
"But I also sense the excitement on the campus side. I don't know if our campus has ever looked so beautiful as it does right now.
"I can remember two years ago, the fall of 2006, I came here with the Kentucky football team for a football game. For fans who don't know how visiting teams are brought in - they are brought in on the new boulevard that is east of Chadwick Lake and the Bryan Building, go past the post office, go by the Union, take a right and then go to the endzone complex. We were leaving that day and going the opposite way and John Croft, who coached at Vandy and Ole Miss and is now an administrator at UK, leaned over to me and said, 'you should be really proud of your alma mater.' He said, 'I can remember when you came to Starkville and there wasn't much to look at. But I don't think any school has changed the way they present themselves to visitors as Mississippi State has. This is as pretty an entrance into a campus as I have ever seen.' I was very proud of that fact. And it gives you a perception of how other people look at this place."
There is a lot of excitement surrounding Mississippi State at this point in time mainly due to certain sports. Do you see that coming in the other sports as well?
"We can do great things here. We've had some success in football, basketball and baseball. There's no reason why we can't experience success in every sport that we field. Every student-athlete who puts on a maroon jersey should feel like they have a realistic opportunity to win a championship while they are here. And if you are winning SEC titles you put yourself in a position to compete for national titles. And we need to get one of those here at Mississippi State."
If someone wants to donate how should they contact you?
"I work in the Bulldog Club. They can call the Bulldog Club at 662-325-3074. They can email me as well at SStricklin@athletics.msstate.edu. While I work with major gifts, we need everybody. As Greg likes to say, 'it doesn't matter what level you can give at, it's just important that you join and be a part of it.' If it's a $100 a year, which is less than $10 a month, we need you here. If you can do more than that, that's great.
"One of the great things about Mississippi State is we truly are the peoples' university - we don't exclude anyone. I think that's what makes us unique and special in this state - we are the big tent school in Mississippi because we have a spot for everyone who wants to be a Bulldog."
Ten years from now when I'm interviewing you, what are you hoping we will be talking about?
"Trying to figure out how we are going to build another trophy case to put more SEC championship trophies in. That's what I hope we are talking about."
We've talked about experiencing Mississippi State sports. What will that experience be like ten years from now?
"My hope and my dream is that, because we will have had so much success, Mississippi State University and this state has tremendous pride and build even more of a personal attachment to what is going on here. I know many people already have that, but I have family members and even friends who anytime something happens like losing a game or something doesn't go as we want, they revert to a woe is me mentality. I want us to have a winners' mentality. I want us to set our jaw and be competitive in everything we do and never allow losing to be acceptable. That doesn't mean someone needs to be fired if we lose a game, that means we have the mentality to go back and figure out a way to win.
"If we have that type mentality from our student-athletes, our coaches, our staff, our fanbase, we can do some great things. We can make ourselves one of the haves of this league."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing email@example.com.