From Starkville comes a lesson for Coug fans

THRILLS, CHILLS, exhilaration and disappointment filled the 2014 college football season, but from this chair the single-greatest story has been one Washington State fans should take to heart: Mississippi State’s rise to national prominence.

The Bulldogs have mostly toiled in obscurity since World War II and yet, here in 2014 they were at or near the top of the polls for much of the season.

They beat LSU, at Baton Rouge, took down Auburn, and carried a No. 1 ranking into Tuscaloosa before losing narrowly to the Tide.

The Bulldogs are no longer in the hunt for a final four playoff berth, but their achievements this season capped -- in resounding fashion -- a decade-long climb from oblivion to steady bowl contention to the cover of Sports Illustrated.

After defeating Texas A&M in early October, MSU head coach Dan Mullen offered up some telling words about the path that led to his program’s rise:

“Listen,” he said. “To build a winning program, you need to sell out games. The fans. It’s not win first. Fans show up. If the fans show up and start believing in the program and supporting the program, then the wins will come … We started the sellout streak back in a season that we went 2-5 at home and our fans started believing. Now, right here, Starkville, Mississippi, Davis Wade Stadium has become a hard place for teams to come play, and that is all due to our fan fanbase ... everyone bought in to what we needed to do to build a winning program.”

The sellout streak to which Mullen refers began in 2009, when MSU went 5-7. The year before, they had been 4-8. And in the seven years prior to that they had posted just one winning season while amassing six others in which they won no more than three games.

This past off season they expanded their stadium by 6,000, to 61,337. And then managed to cram another 1,600 in for the Auburn game.

OVER THE LAST TWO SEASONS, the Cougars have played 11 games in Pullman. Three of them -- all this season -- were officially logged as sellouts, though the eye test would suggest only the Oregon game was a standing-room-only affair. Regardless, three official sellouts this season and three fairly close to it in 2013 are proof that Cougar fans are starting to step up.

I say “starting to” because when you look at the numbers for 2014 it’s hard not to notice the 3,000 empty seats in Martin Stadium for the Cal game and the 8,000 empties when USC came to town.

Cal and USC aren’t Southern Utah or Portland State. And those games weren't played on a Halloween weeknight or during Thanksgiving break. Those were regular old Saturday football games in the middle of the season.

The words of Coach Mullen at Mississippi State -- ”the fans show up...then the wins will come” -- ring long and loud when you consider the 11,000 butt-less seats for those two Pac-12 contests.

Too often I’ve heard fellow Cougs say they’ll start going to games when the team wins more. Which of course raises the proverbial question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

In Starkville, there’s no question which came first.

And MSU's fan support doesn’t stop at the turnstiles. The Bulldog booster club totals more than 10,000 people.

By contrast, WSU’s club -- the Cougar Athletic Foundation -- has been stuck at 6,000 for the last two years despite the entry level fee dropping to $50 from $100.

Think about that for a moment. The Land Grant School in one of the most poverty stricken states in the union has 10,000 boosters while the Land Grant School from the economically vibrant Evergreen State has 6,000.

Money raised by the CAF is used to offset the cost of athletic scholarships. Alas, because the number of members, as well as the average amount donated, are modest, WSU is believed to be the only school in the Pac-12 that must dip into its operating budget to cover the scholarship bill. In the last fiscal year for which data is available, that gap between WSU's athletic scholarship costs and CAF donations was $3.4 million.

Cougar fans aren’t satisfied with the 3-9 record their football team posted this season. The fact they expect more is proof that the culture change Bill Moos is working to implement is taking root. To fully blossom, however, Cougar fans need to turn their grumbling into two things that will make a difference on game days: tickets and CAF membership.

For proof of the power that fans hold in the success of a team, Mississippi State's steady rise to prominence offers powerful testament.

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