May 10, 2013 11:06:44 AM
Mississippi State University fans comes in all shapes, sizes, and shades of maroon.
If you had any reason to doubt that notion, you only had to look at the baby-sitting gear Lenny Ring toted with him Thursday morning at MSU's Road Dawgs Tour stop at Lion Hills Country Club in Columbus.
Armed with a certificate that proclaimed his granddaughter, Emma Anne Hopper, a member of MSU's Class of 2031, Ring had an extra advantage over the other Bulldogs fans who gathered to eat breakfast and to meet MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin, MSU football coach Dan Mullen, MSU men's basketball coach Rick Ray, MSU women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer, MSU volleyball coach Jenny Hazelwood, and other school officials. Not only did Ring take a series of pictures with the coaches and get their signatures, he also showed off the wonderful smile of Emma Anne, the daughter of Eric Hopper and Rachael Ring, of Brandon. Emma Anne, who will be 5 months old May 19, who was decker out in a white MSU short, also had a maroon ribbon in her headband and perhaps the best piece of baby paraphernalia, an "I Spit Maroon" towel.
It remains to be seen how many more of those towels Stricklin and the coaches will see on their travels in their custom, branded bus, but Stricklin said the tour, which was re-imagined as a caravan approach when Sylvester Croom was the school's football coach, will continue because it is imperative for MSU to get its message out and to capitalize on the enthusiasm in the state and in the region for the school and its athletic department. At the top of the list, Stricklin mentioned the $75 million expansion to Davis Wade Stadium that continues to move forward at a fast pace. He said the expansion is expected to increase seating capacity at the stadium by about 6,000. He said the athletic department received 29 orders for the 22 new sky boxes, which reflects the passion of a MSU fan base that has helped sell out Davis Wade Stadium 23 games in a row.
"It is just reaching out. It is so easy in the day-to-day activities that go on in the athletic department to get hunkered down on campus and wait for people to come to you," Stricklin said. "It is good to come to see people on their turf and to be accessible."
As much as social media outlets and television are helpful in communicating with fans, Stricklin said nothing replaces the personal touch he and his coaches bring to fans on the tour.
"I think it is very critical, especially for Mississippi State where the family piece of what we do is so important, and the relationship piece is so important," Stricklin said.
Schaefer and Ray, who recently completed their first seasons at MSU, took turns giving recaps of their seasons and continuing the theme of enthusiasm and building momentum. Schaefer said he was part of tours when he was a coach at the University of Arkansas and Texas A&M University. He feels it is a great time to allow fans to develop relationships. He thinks any opportunity to build personal relationships will help MSU and its athletic programs.
Will Cooper, the former director for MSU's Lowndes County Alumni Chapter, said the tour is an ideal way to give fans a taste for the 2013-14 athletic year, especially the football season, which will open Aug. 31 against Oklahoma State University at Reliant Stadium in Houston. He relished not having to give a speech to introduce Stricklin or any of the coaches and feels that the support MSU fans have shown on the tours has increased in the past several years.
"I think when Dan Mullen came to Mississippi State he really increased the intensity level, especially in our rivalry with the University of Mississippi, or 'The School Up North'," Cooper said. "I think that has been healthy for the rivalry and for both schools because it has gotten fans more involved. I think over the last several years the intensity level has really grown. A lot of that comes with the fact that we're actually winning and have been to three straight bowl games."
Mullen didn't back away from those expectations, either. Even though Mullen said the Bulldogs will be young with only 11 seniors, he likes the fact the team has fifth-year quarterback Tyler Russell leading the way. He said he plans to "put a lot" on Russell's shoulders, and he wants fans to continue to expect excellence from him, his program, and everything at MSU.
"Once you change the way you think you can change what you believe," Mullen said. "We embrace the expectations. We expect greatness from our program."
The Road Dawgs Tour started Monday at Hudson's Grill in Atlanta.
The event provides an opportunity for coaches and administrators from the athletic department and the university to visit fans throughout the Southeast. Mullen, Ray, and Schaefer will be featured speakers with Dr. Jimmy Abraham, executive director of the alumni association, who recently announced he will retire this summer after nearly four decades of service to MSU.
Earlier this week, the tour stopped in Meridian, Laurel, Biloxi, Brookhaven, and Greenville. On Thursday, the tour moved to Tupelo following its stop in Columbus. It then moved on to the Church of Holy Communion, Cheney Parish Hall in Memphis, Tenn., for en evening session.
Today, the tour was scheduled to stop at the Getwell Road United Methodist Church in Southaven and at The Wilbourne Building in Batesville.
The tour will be in Houston, Texas, on June 13 at a location to be determined. On July 10, the tour will be in Jackson at the Convention Complex.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.