When you’ve watched college athletics for as many years as I have, you learn to recognize and identify those transformative moments in the life of an athletic program as they are happening. The hiring of Ben Howland as Mississippi State’s next basketball coach is one such moment.
This isn’t the first time Mississippi State has experienced such a transformative moment in its athletic program. In December 1990, MSU AD Larry Templeton hired Jackie Sherrill, an experienced and proven winning coach to take over a football program that had languished in irrelevancy. Eight years later, Sherrill’s Bulldogs found themselves playing in the SEC championship game, a high water mark in modern program history, perhaps surpassed only by the 2014 team’s five week reign as the #1 team in all the major polls.
There are a number of interesting parallels between the hiring of Howland and the hiring of Sherrill. Both Sherrill and Howland are experienced head coaches who have enjoyed a high level of success at other major programs. (Interestingly, both coached at Pitt.) Both briefly left the coaching profession immediately prior to returning to coach at Mississippi State. And both replaced a relatively inexperienced young coach that was in his first head coaching job.
Despite a proud basketball history that includes six overall SEC championships, three SEC tournament championships, ten NCAA tournament appearances, three sweet sixteen appearances and one final four, the Bulldog basketball program had fallen on hard times lately. Three consecutive losing seasons resulted in declining attendance and an overall lack of enthusiasm for the program. A program that not too many years ago sold out its entire coliseum in season tickets hasn’t seen anything close to a packed house in nearly four years.
Unlike football, where rebuilding a program back to respectability often takes many years, basketball can be turned around relatively quickly, especially when there is a nucleus of experienced players in place. Such is the case with this Bulldog program.
Mississippi State has one Final Four appearance in school history. Ben Howland has been to the Final Four three times with UCLA. He knows what it takes to put a team in a position to win a national title. All that is lacking at Mississippi State are a few pieces to the puzzle. The question is not if, but how quickly, can Howland put the Bulldogs back into the post-season?
A lot of that depends on Howland’s ability to land some early recruiting coups. The most obvious name on that list is Malik Newman, the all-everything phenom from Jackson’s Callaway High school and son of former MSU standout Horatio Webster. Newman continues to list MSU among his finalists, although few recruiting analysts believe he will ultimately sign with the Bulldogs. Does Howland’s hiring increase the Bulldogs chances of landing Newman? That remains to be seen, but early indications are it certainly hasn’t hurt.
Perhaps more than anything, Howland’s hiring has injected some enthusiasm into a program which has been lethargic for several years. A raucous home court advantage is probably good for 2-3 additional wins per year. The Bulldogs will need that home court advantage in order to return quickly to the days of being relevant as a basketball program.