"The book is called the Mississippi State University Football Vault. Whitman Books has been doing a series of books like this at other schools. Ours was one of the next ones they wanted to do.
"And Whitman approached me about writing the book in early November. My responsibility with the book was writing it. I tried to tell stories and at the same time provide some type of history in the book. The words are mine, but the pictures and memorabilia that were reproduced in the book were provided by Whitman. They sent a representative (to Mississippi State) who went through all of our files, plus archives in the library and a bunch of other things to find that type information. Unless they became aware of them, they didn't explore personal collections that people may have had. I think it took that person about 10 ten days."
How long did it take you to write the book?
"I wrote it in a little over four months. I think they told me it should be 24,000 words. That sounds like a lot but when you start writing historical events that occurred during 100+ years of football that's really not that much. I probably could have gone into more detail in certain places but I just didn't have enough space. But really the book is a combination book - it's a coffee table picture book with memorabilia inside that also happens to have been written in a historical fashion. It's not your typical history book because it has a lot of good images, a lot of good pictures."
With a limit like that, how did you decide what to write about?
"I just wanted to bring some of the people to light, particularly people who were further back than most people who are alive today would know. And I tried to show the progression of how the sport of football has changed through the years. But really I tried to write it in a way that provided a historical document of what transpired here in the past. I tried not to put personal feelings in it, but, at the same time, a lot of it involved people who existed before I got here, so I really had no personal basis for commentary on them. I basically wrote a history book but I tried to tell stories.
"And I took a lot of information from books that had been previously written including university publications that had nothing to do with athletics at all but mentioned something about athletics within them."
MSU football has a long history obviously and you couldn't cover everything. So, how did you decided what to key on in this book?
"I tried to concentrate on the good stories, the positive stories, the interesting stories and not try to recap every year. In other words, if we had a series of bad years in a row I might have written about them in one paragraph. Whereas, if we had a good season that had some interesting stories, some interesting people, then I would spend more time on those kind of things."
Although you have been at Mississippi State for a couple of decades this book covers the history of Mississippi State football. What was it like to go back and look at the history prior to your time here?
"I go back to the last year Coach (Emory) Bellard was here. I also know Coach (Rockey) Felker, Coach (Jackie) Sherrill, Coach (Sylvester) Croom and now Coach (Dan) Mullen. I lived through those 24 years so what was most educational to me was prior to them. I learned a lot about the institution. I learned a lot about the people that were here that you could say charted the course for the institution and the athletic program through the years. And what I found was that a lot of what transpired positively and negatively in athletics weren't necessarily propagated by either the coach or the players. Sometimes it was outside forces that came into play. Sometimes they were positive and sometimes they were negative.
"I tried not to be too critical, although there are some critical parts of the books where specific individuals are involved. It was not my intention to point fingers at anybody or say this person was responsible for why we are where we are, but trying to be as factual as possible because it is a history book. I think if people read the book they'll see where things went astray early on that possibly put us in a difficult position way back, and we have been trying to catch up ever since."
We've had people here such as Darrell Royal as a football coach. He left after just a couple of years and went on to establish the University of Texas as one of the great programs in the country.
"That's something I mentioned a good bit in the book - some positive people, some coaches that we had here who did productive things here at the institution but didn't stay here long for whatever reason. Sometimes it was personality conflicts, sometimes it was money, and sometimes it was just that they didn't want to be here. But the bottom line was that we lost some good people after a very short period of time and we sometimes made some bad choices on some other people and kept them here too long."
I know this may be a difficult question to answer but after living it for 24 years and reading about the rest of the history of Mississippi State football was there one person who really stood out in your mind as the most important individual in MSU football history?
"Allyn McKeen. I came away from all the research and writing that I did really feeling like this was the guy who had as much to do with Mississippi State being a success. Not just because of the SEC championship that was won during his time, but because for a period of years he was consistently good.
"And there was nothing epic that happened during the Allyn McKeen era that would have caused him to be so successful. The program had been up and down through the years prior to when he got here - there were some good years and some bad years. But once he got here it was almost all positive. And to be honest with you, the war hurt him and hurt the program here as much as anything."
(Allyn McKeen's era spanned from 1939 to 1948. His teams were 65-19 overall, 29-16-1 in SEC, had 8 winning seasons in 9 seasons. His teams were 34-5 overall prior to the war and 31-14 after the war.-Gene).
Was there a trait or traits you saw in the good coaches compared to the coaches that weren't successful?
"The one thing I learned about the good coaches in our past is that they never really got caught up in what they didn't have. They spent more time in accentuating what they did have and putting their program into action. In other words, they didn't worry that the resources may not have been good enough or that we were in a small community. They took what may have been perceived as a negative and made it into a positive. They were the people who succeeded. And the ones who failed almost to a man on the way out the door were critical of what they didn't have. The really, really good ones worked through that.
"The other key thing is - and this is particularly important in the early days but it's also important today - the coaches who were allowed to stay here, and that's assuming you hired the right man, generally were successful. What happened more times than not prior to Coach McKeen was that we were going through coaches all the time. Coaches would come in with a new style. Players didn't have the same system year after year. They were always learning a new offense or a new defense. Some coaches were easygoing, some were hard, tough guys. It would be two or three years and they would be gone. I think for a program like ours we need that stability of having a coach here for an extended period of time. Of course, you have to have the right one. We have had guys here in the past who weren't the right guy and never pulled out of it no matter how many years they were here. But if you have the right guy he is going to have success if he has the time to put his program in."
(The forty years prior to McKeen MSU had 19 head football coaches.-Gene)
When you wrote your last word what were your thoughts about the book?
"I thought how much I really enjoyed writing it. It never really became a task for me. You would think when you write that many chapters, that many words, there would come a point in time where you would become tired of it but I didn't. I think because during the early years - even through the '40s - I was learning so much as a I was writing, it was entertaining to me. Probably the '50s, '60s and a little of the '70s were difficult because we lost a lot and a lot of bad things happened. And I wasn't here yet, so I didn't have the personal knowlege of what transpired. That made it a little more difficult to find good stories during that time. But from '85 on, when I first got here, that brought back old memories which was fun for me. It was a very positive experience for me."
Speaking of the '50s and the '60s, what happened during that era, a 20-year era where we only had 6 winning seasons? What was the negative trend during the timeframe?
"I think some of it was hiring the wrong people. Back in those days a lot of the time the athletic director was also the head coach. And a lot of times a person was hired as the football coach and made to be the athletic director to give him more money. But when you are the head football coach and the AD who is going to fire you as the football coach? Sometimes it had to get pretty bad before a person was fired. But it came down to the fact that some guys just proved not to be very good coaches for whatever reason."
How can people who want to buy your book purchase it?
"I know in the Starkville area they are in Walmart, Barnes and Noble Book Store and the Campus Book Mart. I would guess that Whitman Books would put them in those type outlets (throughout the state of Mississippi). There may also be some specialty bookstores in places like Jackson and on the coast."
Will you be doing the Mississippi State basketball and baseball books if Whitman Books decides to do those books?
"They do want to do a basketball book but they told me that they probably aren't going to do another Mississippi State book for another four or five years. I think they determined that is the shelf life of the heavy sales with this type book.
"I told them I would love to do a basketball book and a baseball book. I think both of those books would sell just as well as the football book because there are as many good stories and positive things that have come out of those two sports as with football through the years. I think the difference is with football there have been some history books written about Mississippi State football, not a lot and not recently. But to my knowledge I don't think there have been any on basketball or baseball."
The Mississippi State University Football Vault®: The History Of The Bulldogs is part of the College Vault Books series from Whitman Publishing of Atlanta. The 144-page hardcover 12" by 10" book with slipcase is available for $49.95 in bookstores. The book can be ordered online at www.collegevaultbooks.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.