These are the Cowbells my wife, an Ole Miss alum, had made for me and my son for my 30th birthday.
Every fan of every team has a story. It doesn’t matter what kind of fan you are or what team you cheer for, each and every one of us has a story about why we love the teams we do. The fans of Mississippi State University are no different. We all have our reasons, and they are all unique. Today, I will share mine, and it’s all about dealing with Rebels and Sherrill today.
Dealing with Rebels
I knew when I first started taking any interest at all in the Bulldogs that disliking the Rebels was a requirement. Once I decided to become a full blooded, die hard fan, I knew I couldn’t just have a mild distaste for the Rebels. I knew I had to commit to making them at the bottom of my list for everything.
I grew up in Desoto County in Northwest Mississippi, and I realized soon after this that there were Rebels fans everywhere in that part of the state. My own brother was a Rebel fan, though I have never understood why. We had no one in our family that was attached to the Rebels, but he became a fan of them anyways. So yeah, I had to learn to deal with Rebels.
When you are vastly outnumbered, you pretty much have two options to deal with the rival’s fanbase. Option 1 would be to say screw everybody and be obnoxious as you want to be and alienate yourself with your own fandom. I know people who go about their lives this way, and they don’t have a whole lot of people close to them. Option 2 is to lay low, and pick your spots to let your fandom fly. That’s exactly what I do. Making predictions can just lead to unwanted grief, especially if those predictions aren’t correct. Typically, I found myself reveling in victory when it occurred and trying not to look too upset in the midst of losses.
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I learned quickly to not make myself an easy target. The more I let the numerous Rebels around me get to me, the more they would do anything they could to drive me batty. And when the numbers are so great, you are going to get if from all sides. It doesn’t mean you have to just sit there and let people run your team into the ground. Quite the contrary. You just have to make sure you know exactly what you are talking about. And I certainly did.
The Sherrill Years
Jackie Sherrill is a beloved coach among Mississippi State fans, and he should be. He brought the program out of the depths of despair and got it back to respectability. And as fond as many of us remember those days, many of us forget just how much of a roller coaster the Sherrill years were. I already talked about the losses to a bad LSU team and to a bad South Carolina team. In the same year, there were wins over Texas and Florida.
The reason why we all remember the Sherrill years so well is because we had a really good stretch of years from 1997-2000. I graduated from high school in 1997. I wanted to go straight to Starkville, and while I had a solid ACT score of 24, it wasn’t solid enough to pay for all of my schooling. I had to choose between going to Northwest Community College for two years with all expenses paid and get a loan for two years while at State, or go straight to Mississippi State and get loans for all four years. I chose the first option. From August 1997 until May 1999, I went to Northwest. The Bulldogs in my freshman year surprised a lot of people and went 7-4. Despite the fact that the Bulldogs suffered the tragedy of having their best player die tragically in a pool accident in Keefer McGee, the Bulldogs won a lot more games than many thought they would. Despite the 7 wins, the Bulldogs lost out on a chance to go to a bowl when they lost the Egg Bowl to the Rebels that year. It was one of the hardest Egg Bowls for me to swallow.
In 1998, the Mississippi State Bulldogs were picked to finish last in the SEC. I remember thinking that there were people who really undervalued us as a club. They made a lot of positive steps forward, and they had an All SEC caliber tailback in J.J. Johnson coming back. The defense was really good, and there was just lots of potential from this club. There was another roller coaster affect going on in this season as well, despite its success. They won convincingly against Vanderbilt, then squeaked out a win against Memphis. They followed that up with a pretty humbling loss to Oklahoma State. The Bulldogs would win their next three games before heading to LSU. It was a bad LSU team that absolutely pummeled the Bulldogs 41-6, which was followed up with a shootout loss to Tim Couch and the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington. My spirits were rather low at that point in the season, as what I thought might be a special season looked to be slipping away. The Bulldogs were 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the SEC, and the Arkansas Razorbacks looked to be a dominant team under new coach Houston Nutt.
Then a weird thing happened. When the Bulldogs handled the Crimson Tide rather easily in Starkville, the Razorbacks were being cursed by a Clint Stoerner fumble in Knoxville. I remember watching the Mississippi State and Alabama game and immediately flipping over to CBS to watch Arkansas and Tennessee. Tennessee was number 1 in the country, and the only real hope Mississippi State had in getting to Atlanta that year was a Tennessee victory over Arkansas in Knoxville. I thought it would be a given. Arkansas was really good, but Tennessee was undefeated. It was in Knoxville. The Vols should have rolled. Yet, with just under two minutes to play in the game, the Razorbacks had the ball and needed a first down to simply run out the clock and preserve a 24-22 victory. Inexplicably, Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner would step on his center’s foot, causing him to trip and fumble the football. Tennessee picked it up and returned it for a touchdown and a Vols 28-24 win. I was too shocked to be overjoyed. I remember thinking the college football gods were shining upon Mississippi State for once in their life.
So that set up the most important game to be ever played at Scott Field (not known as Davis Wade Stadium yet). Mississippi State could win the West with a victory over the Razorbacks and the Rebels. The Bulldogs got off to a slow start in the game with the Razorbacks, and trailed at the half. The Bulldogs chipped away and found themselves down two points with a little over three minutes to play. Mississippi State almost put my heart into full cardiac arrest on a few occasions at this point. Early in the drive, the Bulldogs faced what looked like an impossible 3rd and 18. Wayne Madkin was able to find Kevin Prentiss for a first down. A few plays later, I was just convinced the Bulldogs were done when they faced 4th and 15. Wayne Madkin came up clutch one more time and found Kevin Cooper for a first down. The Bulldogs eventually drove inside Arkansas territory to set up a game winning field goal by Brian Hazelwood. If you ask Arkansas fans today, they will still tell you that Hazelwood’s field goal went over the upright and not between them (trust me, my wife is from Arkansas and I hear about it from complete strangers whenever I wear Bulldog stuff a lot when we go back to her parents). I went bananas.
A relatively easy win over Ole Miss meant the Bulldogs were headed to Atlanta for what is currently their only trip to the SEC Championship Game. The Bulldogs took on heavily favored Tennessee, and thanks to a Kevin Prentiss punt return for a touchdown, led the Vols in the 4th quarter. For a brief moment, I thought Mississippi State was going to win the SEC Championship. They weren’t able to hold on, and the Vols would win the SEC Championship and eventual national championship. The Bulldogs would head to the Cotton Bowl and got crushed by Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams and the Texas Longhorns. It was my second least favorite bowl to watch the Bulldogs play in. It was topped by the Gator Bowl in 2012.
August 1999 was the year that I started attending Mississippi State. I would attend for 2 1/2 years and graduate in December of 2001. It was a good time to start from a fan perspective. Mississippi State had their first ever 8-0 start in football that year led by the top ranked defense in the country, and an offense that was charged with simply not making mistakes. Two of the most memorable games in Mississippi State history were played that year, the improbable comeback led by Matt Wyatt on the Plains of Auburn and the just as improbable comeback over Ole Miss at Scott Field that same season. Mississippi State was in the driver’s seat for the SEC West title that season, but those dreams would die in Tuscaloosa just like they did this past season.
2000 was a special year to be a student as well. The Bulldogs had a disappointing loss at the start of the season against South Carolina in which almost all Bulldogs’ fans are still hoping that Kendall Roberson will turn around just a second earlier to bat away the go ahead touchdown for the Gamecocks. I had a class with Roberson that semester, and he came into class and could barely look at anyone. It was the first time I realized that college players have the unenviable task of having to walk and intermingle with the fans that cheer them on every week. It’s a daunting task for those guys. The Bulldogs rebounded nicely though. The next week, the Bulldogs were heavy underdogs to the visiting Florida Gators. The Gators were ranked number 3 in the country and the Bulldogs were outside all of the polls. What happened was an absolute beat down of the Gators. This was the game that became famous for 3rd and 57 in which a sack on first down and a terrible snap over the head of Rex Grossman on 2nd down led to 3rd down coming inside the Gators’ 5 yard line with 57 yards to go for first down. The Gators used three different quarterbacks that day. I decided not to storm the field with everyone else. It was fun to watch from the stands. The Bulldogs would then run their record 4-1 and looked to be in command of the SEC West.
Then came the LSU game. The Bulldogs had ended their long losing skid against the Tigers in 1999 and LSU was in the first year of the Nick Saban era. They didn’t appear to be much of a threat on paper as they were 4-3 and struggling to find consistency. They found it against the Bulldogs. Mississippi State had one of the best run defenses in the country entering that game, but the Tigers gashed Joe Lee Dunn’s crew. The game ended with the Tigers winning in overtime by a touchdown.
The Bulldogs rebounded again and were 7-2 entering the final two games against Arkansas and Ole Miss. The Bulldogs came out flat in both games and suffered disappointing losses to both teams. The season would be salvaged in the 2000 Independence Bowl, more famously known as the “Snow Bowl” against Texas A&M. My Mom, brother, and sister-in-law had left for Disney World the day after Christmas that year and we weren’t coming back until New Year’s Day. So I had to con them all in to letting me watch the game in the hotel when we got back from everything we were doing in the park that day. We got in after the game started, and I had to check the channel a couple of times because I was so shocked to see the sheer amount of snow falling Shreveport, LA of all places. It was a great game that went to overtime that ended in one of the most bizarre ways possible. Texas A&M went ahead on a touchdown on the opening possession of overtime, but the Bulldogs would block the extra point attempt and return it for two points of their own. That meant the Bulldogs would be down by 4 when they had their possession and the game was ending one way or another. I don’t remember if it was the first or second play of the possession, but Wayne Madkin would run in for a touchdown and seal the win.
The 2001 season was my last season as a student since I was going to graduate that December. It was supposed to be the year the Bulldogs established themselves as a legitimate football program that was going to elbow their way in with the big boys. Mississippi State entered the season ranked and picked by most to finish second, and some thought they might actually win it. What happened was a disaster. The Bulldogs couldn’t beat anyone and looked awful in the process. The only bright spot was the surprising win over Eli Manning and Ole Miss in his first year as a starter for the Rebels. Sherrill would stick around for two more years and be forced to retire after the 2003 season. This would usher in the Croom years.
Tomorrow: The slow torture of the Croom Years