August 30, 2018 10:53:43 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
Time has eroded some of Rockey Felker's recollections of his tenure at Mississippi State, both as a player and head coach.
That's understandable. It's been 44 years since Felker took his last snap at the Bulldogs' quarterback and 28 years since he last prowled the sidelines as MSU's head coach.
Wednesday, at the Columbus Kiwanis Club luncheon, Felker shared his thoughts on his association with the Bulldogs which goes back to the 1960s when he attended Bulldog football games with his father, a big MSU supporter. After four years playing quarterback for the Bulldogs, followed by 28 years as a coach, and later serving in a variety of jobs with the program, Felker retired last June.
Some memories are naturally hazy. Some remain vivid in his imagination.
Following the luncheon a Kiwanis member shared his favorite memory of Felker as the MSU quarterback.
"I'll always remember the Memphis State game in 1974," he said. "You drove 95 yards in four minutes to win the game."
"It was 98 yards in 3 minutes and six seconds," Felker said, smiling.
All these years later, Felker still holds a special place in the hearts of MSU fans, joining the list of quarterbacks that stretch back as far as Jackie Parker in the early 1950s and include John Bond, Dak Prescott and, perhaps, Nick Fitzgerald, as MSU's "best."
In 1974, MSU went 9-3 and then beat North Carolina in the Sun Bowl. It was one of the Bulldogs best seasons ever.
"Back then, if you won more games than you lost, beat Ole Miss and went to a bowl game, that was a great season," Felker said "The expectations are a little different now."
After his playing days, Felker began his career in coaching. In 1985, he was an assistant coach on Ray Perkins's Alabama staff when his alma mater came calling.
At age 33, Felker was chosen from a group of five finalists -- a list that included Steve Spurrier -- to become the Bulldogs head coach.
But after a 6-1 start in the 1986 season that ended with four consecutive blow-out losses to Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss, Felker never managed to turn the corner at State and was fired after the 1990 season, compiling a 21-34 record with just five SEC wins in as many seasons.
The parting was painful, both for Felker and MSU fans and his contributions to the Bulldog program weren't fully appreciated for some time. When Jackie Sherrill took over as head coach, Felker had left him well-stocked with talented players, especially defensive linemen. As a result, Sherrill's success was instantaneous. The Bulldogs posted back-to-back winning seasons and played in bowl games.
In 2002, Sherrill convinced Felker to return "home" to MSU in the position of director of football operations.
Twelve years after his painful departure, Felker acknowledged it wasn't an easy choice.
"Coach Sherrill had offered me a job two times before and I turned him down both times," Felker said. "When I got fired, I didn't want to move back to Mississippi. But when Jackie called in 2002, I felt like it was time, but I had to convince my wife. She still wasn't sure she wanted to come back."
For the next 15 years, Felker has served in a variety of roles in the program. His humility and good nature has endeared him again to MSU faithful, many of whom had no recollection of his playing days or head coaching days.
His status as one of the Bulldogs' best loved alumni is forever secure.
"The game has changed so much," Felker said, reflecting. "When I got the head coaching job, I was making $30,000 a year. I got what I thought was a big raise, to $120,000."
Today, the salary for a head coach in the SEC ranges from $2,350,000 (Missouri's Barry Odom) to $11,132,000 (Alabama's Nick Saban).
"The money is unbelievable," Felker said. "It's not just the pay. It turns up in everything -- facilities, staff. Compared to what things were like when I was playing and coaching, it's just a different world."
Felker is not a man who is big on regrets. It's contrary to his nature.
"I was the youngest head coach in America when I was hired and I wish I had been able to stay longer than the five years," he said. "But, now, I look at it in a different way. Today, five years is a lifetime for a head coach."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]