Mississippi State senior Victoria Vivians had 12 points and 10 rebounds Sunday for her first double-double of the season. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
December 11, 2017 10:35:01 AM
John Cohen scanned the Humphrey Coliseum basketball court as he talked and liked what he saw.
The Mississippi State Director of Athletics had just watched coach Vic Schaefer's women's basketball team improve to 9-0 with an 86-48 victory against Little Rock. As he talked about the grass roots work Schaefer, his coaches, his players, and the school have done to raise the profile of the program, the MSU players were mingling with friends and fans after the game. Pictures and selfies were being taken. Hugs and handshakes were being shared. Conversations about the latest game, exams, and the upcoming game against Oregon were happening.
It was easy to tell Cohen, MSU's former baseball coach, appreciated the players' efforts to connect with the fans.
"It's phenomenal," Cohen said. "Everything from what happens pregame with the play area for the young kids (Bull's Kidz Kourt) to after the game the way our kids engage the fans, that is not by accident. That is through leadership of Vic and his staff. It is not something you demands of your coaches, but Mississippi State is a family, and when you reach out to that family, they are going to reach back out to you. We have seen the results of that."
A crowd of 5,010 was on hand Sunday to watch No. 6 MSU win its 31st-straight regular-season, non-conference game and its 30th-straight non-conference home game. Those streaks will be put to the test at 6 p.m. Wednesday when MSU plays host to No. 9 Oregon. Schaefer said after the game that the matchup should be a great test to see where his team is with five games remaining before the start of Southeastern Conference play Sunday, Dec. 31, at Georgia.
Big crowds at the Hump have been just part of the Bulldogs' success. On Tuesday, MSU will kick off another part of its grass roots push with its first Hail State Hoops luncheon at 11:30 a.m. at Mize Pavilion. The luncheons were part of Schaefer's plan to build his program. They involve a meal, a breakdown of the season with video highlights, a preview of the next game or games, and a segment in which players or coaches answer questions. Door prizes are given away. There usually also is a light-hearted segment. On Tuesday, the MSU players likely will sing "12 Days of Christmas" with a special Bulldog twist.
"You have to keep your product rolling," Schaefer said. "You have to keep recruiting and getting quality young people in here and embrace what we do and how we do it."
At $12 a luncheon -- or $60 for all six -- the MSU women's basketball program isn't going to get rich from the events. That isn't the point. It never has been for Schaefer, who has taken a page from his former boss, Gary Blair, and has worked tirelessly to reach out to the community to connect with fans. The MSU fans have reciprocated the efforts of Schaefer, his coaches, and his players by packing the Hump. Last season, MSU finished seventh in the country in attendance. Prior to the start of the 2017-18 season, MSU sold 3,689 season tickets, including all of its reserved season tickets. MSU accomplished the same feat last year, but it added four more sections for this season and it sold those seats, too.
The initial connection those fans made with seniors Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson helped give the Bulldogs the push they needed. At home, the Bulldogs were nearly unbeatable as they rolled to a program-record 34-win season. Big crowds followed MSU to Oklahoma City for games in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Those fans made up significant portions of the crowds at the American Airlines Center for MSU's historic victory against four-time reigning national champion Connecticut in the national semifinals and in the national title game against South Carolina.
Schaefer said he would like to have an elementary school day game. He said he would like to see MSU bus in 5,000-6,000 kids from Columbus, West Point, and Starkville to pack the Hump and create possibly the loudest crowd that has ever been in the arena. Schaefer said a game like that would make his student-athletes even more accessible to a wider group of fans.
"I don't want to price those kids and those families out of being able to come and have role models," Schaefer said. "That is the important thing we have been able to do. It is not about making $1 or $2 or $3. I want those kids in our building. No. 1, they provide an atmosphere. No. 2, it is a way for us to give back to our community by providing their kids a role model. I think that is what you do in a community our size."
Cohen knows how much that support means to a program. He also realizes how many other things Schaefer could be doing to make sure his team is prepared. Still, Schaefer and his coaches continue to try new things to extend the program's reach. Earlier this season, MSU played a game at Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. Schaefer said earlier this season the program is looking at playing a game next season in Tupelo.
"It is just so easy to get wrapped up in your own world after a game and go do your own thing," Cohen said. "You have to watch game field and all of this other stuff, but Vic makes sure his entire program takes time for the fans. We're not the only program in the country that does it, but the consistency of the way we have done it and the genuine nature of the way our kids and coaches treat it is top notch. I am really proud of the way they do it."
MSU also will hold luncheons Wednesday, Jan. 3; Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018; Friday, Feb. 2, 2018; Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018; and Monday, Feb. 26. Fans can RSVP for the luncheons by calling 662-325-0198 or e-mailing [email protected] Cohen has attended the event in previous years, so he might be on hand Tuesday or early next year to help drum up support for Schaefer's team. Cohen's support and attendance are more signs Schaefer and the MSU women are doing things the right way.
"There is no question you're going to cheer harder for somebody you know," Cohen said. "How do you get to know somebody just by watching them or reading about them? When you shake their hand or you give them a hug, you just know them better. Our fans know this group of athletes very, very well. In the postseason, you look at the big win against UConn and Washington, even after those games, it might have been more important to get them in a bed and get them rested, but they are out there for 45 minutes to an hour showing appreciation. Every one of those kids says, 'Thank you for being here tonight.' That is not a coincidence, either. Vic has done a tremendous job."
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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