July 26, 2011 10:07:00 AM
Let the arms race begin.
On one hand, you have Mississippi State, which announced last week that its athletic department received a school-record $37.6 million in gifts and pledges through the Bulldog Club and Bulldog Foundation in the 2010-11 fiscal year.
On the other hand, the University of Mississippi announced it would have a "major announcement" Aug. 9 regarding the unveiling of a capital campaign by the athletic department and the school''s Athletic Association Foundation.
The timing of Ole Miss'' announcement most likely was a coincidence, but the news from both schools underscores the ever-increasing pressure to outdo not only schools in your state, but also the ones in your conference.
You need only to look at MSU -- with the construction of a new basketball practice facility and the upgrades to the track and field facility -- and to Ole Miss -- with the opening of a new basketball practice facility and renovations and improvements to the school''s tennis venue -- and it''s easy to believe college athletics is immune to the economic maladies that ail many of us.
It shouldn''t be surprising, though, because college football season is raring to go and to give fans throughout the nation the fix they have needed ever since Auburn University beat the University of Oregon for the Bowl Championship Series title.
But we should pause before that rush hits us.
MSU, Ole Miss, and, for that matter, Southern Mississippi, never should settle for second best. MSU and Ole Miss are fortunate in that their association with the Southeastern Conference, the nation''s premier conference, reaps both schools untold millions it otherwise wouldn''t receive if it was in another league.
The windfall MSU and Ole Miss get as SEC members brings with it intense pressure to win in every sport.
That''s why MSU and Ole Miss (Southern Miss, too) have new softball coaches.
That''s why Rick Stansbury and Sharon Fanning-Otis and Andy Kennedy and Renee Ladner will face even more pressure to get their men''s and women''s basketball teams back to the NCAA tournament this year.
That''s why MSU football coach Dan Mullen and Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt chatter about directions and ownership when they discuss their biggest rivals.
As much as Mullen and Nutt have raised the profiles of each school in the past few years, fans should take caution as they follow their teams into another season. How far will MSU go to keep Mullen? In December, the third-year coach agreed to a four-year, $10.6 million contract extension. Has he been worth it? The answer is a resounding yes. While many were involved in helping MSU increase the total amount of gifts received from $17.4 million in 2009-10 to more than $37 million in 2010-11, Mullen''s success in guiding the football team to a 9-4 record and a crushing win against the University of Michigan in the Gator Bowl last season has been a driving force.
The reality is many coaches want a chance to prove themselves in the "big" time, and while MSU is in the SEC, its size and location prevent it from packing the clout of a school like the University of Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, UCLA, Southern California, and a handful of others.
Does that mean MSU should start working on a list of candidates to replace Mullen? No. It just means that other schools that face even more financial pressure than MSU will fall over themselves at the end of this season to make a big splash with a new coach.
The University of Maryland is one school that followed that pattern when it hired former University of Connecticut coach Randy Edsall to spark its stalled football team.
With work already under way on the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex, MSU also has will have to address issues about its softball, baseball, and tennis facilities if it is truly serious about helping those programs join or maintain their place in the national picture.
The same is true at Ole Miss. Talk already has started on plans for a new home for the basketball teams. If talk about expanding Vaught-Hemingway Stadium hasn''t started, it is bound to pop up if Ole Miss'' fortunes this season exceed its expectations. The Rebels were picked to finish last in the Western Division in the preseason poll.
All of the talk about expansion and construction makes coaches uncomfortable. The men and women who lead programs already have enough to do to juggle compliance, academic, and fundraising issues that things can get lost in the shuffle. That''s when mistakes happen and the NCAA intervenes to hand out probation and other program-crippling penalties.
Many people thought Jay Miller was safe in his job as MSU''s softball coach. While Miller didn''t win enough in the past few years, he ran a solid program and was respected nationally. In past years, that might have been enough to help him save his job.
These days, though, wins and losses and postseason appearances matter most. Does that mean MSU''s Neil Macdonald (women''s soccer) and Jenny Hazelwood (women''s volleyball) are in tenuous positions if their teams don''t have successful seasons? Both programs have struggled for the past few seasons, but they also face unique challenges in recruiting and in building their programs from within the state that have been key factors in their win-loss records.
Let''s hope MSU and Ole Miss don''t get too far ahead of themselves in the race to compete and begin shuffling coaches in an attempt to create a winner.
Let''s hope MSU and Ole Miss can balance the forces that push and pull their coaches and athletic programs so they don''t become the next schools in the NCAA''s sights.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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