February 5, 2012 1:02:00 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- A two-way commitment was put in place when Mississippi State University chose Vann Stuedeman as its new softball coach this past summer.
Stuedeman was hired to return the Bulldogs to postseason play for the first time since 2009. Athletics Director Scott Stricklin made a commitment with additional financial resources to help the program compete in the Southeastern Conference, arguably one of the nation's two toughest leagues.
"Scott Stricklin hands down is why I took this job," Stuedeman said. "He is the most innovative, visionary person I have ever met. He has so many new ideas. He has the ideas necessary to help carry Mississippi State in the next level in all sports.
"He convinced me right off the bat he was committed to softball. He told me he was ready to raise the bar in a sport I dearly love."
With the additional financial resources, an overhaul of softball facilities is in the works. Stuedeman said she is ready to hit the donors aggressively as the school plans to break ground on a new softball-playing facility after the completion of the 2013 regular season.
"We have some plans from a facilities standpoint," Stricklin said. "We will have a new grandstand. We plan to play in the same location and use the same field. However, we are going to invest the additional resources necessary to make our program comparative to others around our league."
Presently, the Bulldogs play at the MSU Softball Field. The facility opened for business with the start of the 1997 season. The stadium includes seating for about 750 on aluminum bleachers. An eight-seat press box sits atop the stadium. In 2009, the Bulldogs added an indoor practice facility and locker rooms just outside the left field fence. A year later, a new scoreboard was put in use, complete with magnetic scroll along the bottom.
The 2011 Bulldog Softball Fan Guide calls the facility "one of the finest facilities in the nation." Annually, many league coaches considered the playing surface one of the best in the league. However, Stuedeman knows the truth about the overall structure. She also knows a new home is badly needed to help the program compete for prospects on a national level.
"We have hired architects for a brand new stadium," Stuedeman said. "(Stricklin) is out right now all the time trying to find donors so that we can get a top-notch facility. In the meanwhile, we are in the process of putting up a new graphics package which will be installed for this season.
"We will break ground on a new stadium after completion of the 2013 season. So, we are calling all donors. (Stricklin) has been very receptive to what we are trying to do to move this program forward."
The driving force behind this renovation may have come innocently enough from the SEC. MSU is slated to host the three-day SEC Tournament for the first time in 2014. The eight-team tournament rotates among the conference members. The Bulldogs have passed on the event before due to substandard facilities.
"Every game of the SEC Tournament is broadcast by one of the ESPN networks," Stuedeman said. "On the first day of the tournament, you have eight hours of exposure of your campus. You cannot beat the advertising that it gives your university and your program.
"We will be making our changes at a good time. We have already had some people with ESPN help us with some of the early designs. You want a fan-friendly stadium. Past that, you want this to be a facility that is very conducive to television broadcasts. You want those type of people to come here and more importantly, you want them to come back."
The new SEC television package which went into effect in the fall of 2010 opened the door for many more broadcasts of the minor sports. The ESPN family of networks, Comcast Sports Southeast and Fox Sports are all broadcast partners for regular-season softball games. After the SEC Tournament, the ESPN family of networks broadcasts select regional tournament games and all super regional tournament games, as well as the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, Okla.
The growth and popularity of the sport makes this a great time for investment.
"The way the sport is now covered, if you are playing in the late season, you cannot beat the exposure for your university," Stricklin said. The sport of softball can now be a return on your investment. It was not always that way in the past. However, I know Vann and she is not going to wait around for a new facility.
"She is planning on putting an entertaining and competitive product on the field this year."
The SEC has six teams in the first Top 25 national rankings for this season. The Bulldogs will be facing a challenging non-conference schedule, in addition to the SEC heavyweights, when the 2012 season starts Thursday at the University of South Alabama-hosted Mardi Gras Classic in Mobile, Ala.
To reach and maintain a level of competitiveness within the league, the Bulldogs know the necessary changes which lie ahead.
The University of Tennessee, University of Arkansas and Louisiana State University have each moved into new stadiums in the past five years. The University of Mississippi did minor structural changes when it hosted the SEC Tournament last May.
Each of the new facilities includes chairback seating and expansive press boxes. Arkansas has 18 suites for big-money donors which sit atop sparkling new Bogle Park. Also boasting a recent coaching change, the University of South Carolina is scheduled to break ground on a new stadium at the completion of the 2012 season.
Ole Miss, Alabama and Tennessee each have high-resolution video boards. In the case of Ole Miss, the Rebels' softball program benefited when baseball's Oxford-University Stadium got a new video board and UM softball got the old one.
Stricklin knew he would have to up the ante when the school chose to replace Jay Miller after his nine seasons as head coach.
"I am competitive," Stricklin said. "When we got into a market for a new coach, I wanted to find the best coach possible. To get the kind of coach we wanted, it takes a commitment. We have to do some things facilities-wise. Our No. 1 goal in all sports is to make the experience the best possible for the student-athletes and the coaches.
"Academically, socially, athletically, when a player sets foot on our campus, we want this to be a unique experience. After an athlete spends four years here, we want them to say they wish they could do it all over again."
Stuedeman was an assistant coach at fellow SEC rival University of Alabama for 11 seasons. She understands the holdbacks and also understands the school's previous commitment to softball. Already strides are being made, and she is quick to compliment the school's administration for allowing for renovation of dugouts, Internet video streaming of home games this season and new uniforms. While the stadium is a bigger piece of the puzzle, Stuedeman knows full well a stadium will not win any games.
"I am really blessed that Scott put faith in me," Stuedeman said. "From the very beginning, I thought this was a place where we could compete for championships. We have a plan in place to try to get that done. As long as everybody is working together, we can do some great things right here."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter