New Coach, New Site, Renewed Excitement

Under the combined circumstances a top turnout was anticipated. Still as Greg Byrne prepared to take his place on the elevated stage at one end of the Jackson Convention Complex floor, he took one more look at the still-filling room. "I'm blown away," he said. "A great crowd, people are fired-up, the location is new, alive, fresh and it's great to see all that."

Great indeed. This 2009 edition of the Central Mississippi Extravaganza didn't just turn a new page by moving to the new locale. The annual event was literally reinvigorated with the largest crowd in years as at least 3,500 Bulldog folk celebrated the unofficial opening of a new sports year at Mississippi State. Even more would presumably have made their ways downtown if not for a spate of thunderstorms that hit in the hour after gates opened.

The top draw of course was another new name on the roster. Though football Coach Dan Mullen got to meet and greet plenty of Bulldog fans and friends during his spring Road Dawgs tour, this time he was speaking to the largest single gathering on the Mississippi State schedule. The turnout was as encouraging as the timing, too.

"This is huge for us right now in getting ready to kick off the season," he told reporters before the formal program. Mullen would be last man at the microphone, too, which made for a long Thursday. He had spoken to the state high school Coaches Association in the morning, then visited the Childrens Hospital with members of the Bulldog team after lunch. At the Convention Center they were joined by Mullen's staff, many of whom are just coming off their last bit of vacation time. So for State staffers the Extravaganza was also something of a transition.

"We're excited to get going," said Mullen. "Our players are excited to stop lifting weights and just get out on the field and start playing some football. We're ready to go. I guess I want it to be here even more than them!" But maybe not as ready as the thousands of fans that lined up for player and staff autographs, who got a spring-time taste of what Mullen has in mind for Bulldog football and can't wait for the full fall menu.

"We get to see the fans are real excited and ready for a great football season," Mullen said. "But I think there is a lot of excitement for the season, obviously with the season ticket sales. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks we push the 40,000 mark and get everybody fired up to get us going."

Selling tickets was much on Byrne's mind too. He confirmed that State has exhausted its ‘Top Dawg' plan tickets. "We're actually having to change our advertisement that says season tickets start at $115 because we don't have any more of those. And that's a great problem to have!" Byrne said that "a few seats" remain for sale on both the lower east and west sides, "then just the upper deck west."

There is still time left to obtain those season ducats, which go at the usual $240, "plus any Bulldog Club contributions," added Byrne. While Bulldog Club members have been able to purchase a number of individual game tickets as well, Byrne said "Pretty soon we'll open up individual tickets for the general public." Pretty soon being early August, which means the better chance of seeing any games is to grab one of the remaining full-slate tickets.

At the podium Byrne did as he said earlier, thanking fans for their support while at the same time turning attention to continued needs Bulldog athletics have. "There is no doubt we have the most loyal fan base in the league and our fans care more about their institution than anybody out there. If we're organized and everybody is helping out, pulling the rope in the same direction, we can do that." Though no ‘rope' was in sight Bulldog Club chiefs Scott Stricklin, Mike Richey, and staff were certainly busy working on adding or increasing memberships. Byrne told the crowd that about 3,000 new members have signed on in the last three years. "And we need to keep going at that thousand-a-year plateau."

Time and an interruption meant only a trio of head coaches spoke. Basketball Coach Rick Stansbury, recruiting up north this week, was unable to get out of Pittsburg on schedule and missed this year's Extravaganza. Wife Meo and the three sons were also in Kentucky. So the roundball Dogs were represented by senior guard Barry Stewart who showed off the team's new uniform (maroon version); as well as a much-improved physique. So much so that one fan actually grabbed a bicep and asked if it were real. Stewart told Dawgs' Bite that after playing at 170 pounds as a junior he weighed-in today at 184.

Stewart also reported that classmate and All-SEC center Jarvis Varnado is back on campus after his ten days at the World University Games in Belgrade. "And he's VERY glad to be back in Mississippi," the guard grinned. At the same time Stewart wasn't worried about Stansbury missing this event, even if they haven't seen each other for most of two months now. "Coach uses this time to stay away, because we're going to see him all the time. And I appreciate that, you gotta love a coach that trusts you enough to do what you're supposed to do." Mostly, lift weights, improve condition, and play a lot of individual basketball. And in Stewart's case, keep honing that long-range shot.

"It's going pretty good. I'm working on every aspect of my game but the three's a given!"

Byrne used the evening to show off new Dog duds provided by the adidas contract for several teams, though others wore the past year's gear. Outfielder Brent Brownlee represented baseball in the simple black top/maroon number, for example. But the girl's soccer and volleyball players were in sharp new uniforms, and halfback Anthony Dixon was introduced last to show off the maroon edition of football's brand-new fashion statement…maroon helmet included.

Also on display was something else in maroon-and-white. Mostly white. It was a Smart, one of the new micro-cars coming from the Daimler AG fold and sold in this country. Byrne had seen one elsewhere trimmed in the colors of a not-to-be-named college and wanted to know where was the Mississippi State version. Thursday night it debuted, white body with black trim and maroon M-State logos…as well as a maroon football helmet that would almost serve as a roof. The Dawgs' Bite editor was not allowed to sit in, much less drive it.

It was more of a show-off day for Dixon as the senior halfback learned Thursday from media relations director Joe Galbraith that he had been voted preseason second-team All-SEC, along with senior middle linebacker Jamar Chaney. "It's a lot of hard work put in and I guess it's paying off," Dixon said. "I would love to have been on the first team but second-team will do." At which point he went from safe media-speak to, well, being Boobie.

"It's just the beginning of the season so this will give me a little bit of motivation. I was disappointed because I wanted to be on the first team, no doubt, but it gives me something to work towards. Now I know I my season won't be boring!"

Which got a smile from senior quarterback Tyson Lee, one of the upperclassmen brought to Jackson to tour the Children's Hospital and sign autographs with fans. "I love it. You can't ask for two better guys. Jamar is like a brother to me and so is Anthony. I'm so proud for them." Not that such teammate-pride will keep him from gigging his halfback just a bit about not making the top SEC squad. "I need to! Anthony is a one-of-a-kind guy, he's second team but hopefully that will motivate him to get on the first team."

Baseball Coach John Cohen and women's basketball coach Sharon Fanning participated in the program. A sign of increased interest in the Ladydogs was the number of fans commiserating with the coach about the absurd officiating in the NCAA Tournament second-round game at Ohio State. But with almost the entire lineup returning for 2010, as well as getting a three-year veteran guard back after an injury season, Fanning had plenty more better things to say about the upcoming year.

Cohen thanked fans for the support they showed during the first year of both his tenure as State skipper and the rebuilding work ongoing. There were highlights from 2009 to talk of, but most of Cohen's words and thoughts were towards the future. Both the near future as the June draft did no unexpected damage, actually even less than thought and an impressive incoming class offers immediate fixes to a lot of State's problems; and farther ahead than that. "We've already got eleven commitments for next year," Cohen said. Which means rebuilding is getting closer to reloading here in year-two and the coach can talk of his ultimate national championship goal.

"We're not there yet, but we will get there," Cohen said. This before turning to his other favorite sport, as Cohen is a football fanatic in his own right. "I can't wait to see us ‘spread' the ball around this fall," he quipped while looking at Mullen.

While that begins on September 5 when State hosts Jackson State in the '09 opener, fans will have a chance to see their squad up-close. Mullen let the cat out of the bag, or rather the Dog out of the house, by announcing that there will be a Fan Day on August 29. Promotions coordinator Chad Thomas later confirmed the date, one week prior to kickoff, as well as the Palmeiro Center as the site and a noon-to-2:00 time.

Mullen did not have anything specifically to tell the crowd about his first Bulldog team, sticking more to the sort of cheer-and-challenge theme he took on the road in spring. In his earlier talk with media, he did say that expectations are the last NCAA-uncleared incoming freshman, wide receiver Ricco Sanders, will get the good word. "He's expected to be finished up for the last week of July and ready to go for fall camp." As for summer injury-rehab situations two stand out. "Obviously we've got to monitor (WR) Brandon McRae because it's so unique and injury there's no precedent to say he's so far along. (RB) Arnil Stallworth is working and we have a lot of win-win luxuries with him, he does have a redshirt year available if he's not healthy enough this year. If he is that's great, we'll get him out there and get him going." He offered no updates on the health status of either RB Robert Elliot or TE Marcus Green, both of whom have been working out all summer and were on-schedule for August availability.

Per NCAA rules Mullen has had practically no contact with his first Bulldog squad since the spring. "I'm ready to get back around the team," he said, since all he knows about the players is relayed reports from Coach Matt Balis' summer program. One benefit of the Extravaganza and Childrens Hospital trip was Mullen could at least chat some with his seniors about the state of State.

"Talking to our guys, they say they're having a real good summer. A lot of that confidence comes from them, and just getting to hang out with some of them today you see some of the confidence they have from the work they've put in."

While players will continue their July regimen next week, it's back to real work for their coaches. Mullen said this was the last official fan function on his pre-season schedule, though there might be another one or two added. "But not many more until the end of the season. I'm back in the office first thing Monday morning, trying to get the summer wrapped up. Our staff reports back Monday after their vacations." The week will involved finalizing plans and schedules for two-a-days and the rest of camp, as well as checking on player academics, how recruiting is progressing, and so on. It will be interrupted Wednesday as Mullen, joined by juniors SLB K.J. Wright and OT Derek Sherrod, appear at SEC Media Days. This is something new for the first-year head coach but Mullen isn't exactly worried.

"I'll probably be amused by it more than anything else." Other than that, though, fun takes a back seat to business now as preseason approaches. "It's been too long of a break for me, to be honest, I'm ready to get out there and working and get our team ready for the season," said Mullen.

"It's real exciting to have everybody back and be talking football again. But to be a great teacher you have to get back in the swing so we'll have a (coaches) retreat where we go away and really install the offense and defense to each other so we get used to teaching again. That's in a week or two."

And as the coaches put their practice plans in place, Byrne will keep pushing the remaining season tickets out for public consumption. So far, so good, but… "It's been great. Our fans have just really stepped up. But we're never going to be satisfied until we're sold out, and we're still not there."

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