Rick Cleveland has recently bought three new suits.
That’s a big deal. The last time he did that, it was 1999, and it was for Mississippi author Willie Morris’ funeral. The occasion is a bit more pleasant this time around.
On May 1, Cleveland will become the second ever director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.
Cleveland retired last week as the Clarion-Ledger’s only sports columnist after nearly 40 years at the newspaper. He was part of a group of employees Gannett Corp. offered an early retirement package.
Cleveland’s selection to move the hall of fame museum forward is fitting, because a column he wrote 20 years ago had a lot to do with it being built in the first place.
Cleveland was covering the high school basketball tournament at the Mississippi Coliseum when he noticed that ringing the interior were plaques with familiar names on them.
“People like Bruiser Kinard, Archie Manning, and they were just gathering dust,” Cleveland said in an interview last week. “It was crazy. So I wrote a column saying what a shame it was that we had no place to display our rich sports heritage.”
The day the column ran, Cleveland got a call from former commissioner of agriculture Jim Buck Ross, who liked Cleveland’s idea of a museum and had a plan to make it happen.
Ross told Cleveland to be at his office in 10 minutes — “I only had to run one red light to get there in time,” Cleveland said — to discuss the proposal: The State Fair Commission owned the soft drink rights to the Coliseum, Veterans Memorial Stadium, the Fairgrounds and the Mississippi State Fair. Those rights would soon be open for bid, and the funds would serve as seed money. The rest is Mississippi sports history.
>>SEE VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH RICK CLEVELAND>>
A big part of Cleveland’s new job description will be raising money, something he hasn’t done since he sold advertising as a child for Southern Miss football game programs for his father, who served as sports information director for the Hattiesburg school. Ace Cleveland is also a member of the hall of fame. “I didn’t last too long at that,” Cleveland said of his ad sales career.
Before accepting the job, Cleveland called former Delta State baseball coach and Mississippi sports legend Dave “Boo” Ferriss, whose first job at the school was fundraising for the athletic department.
“He said, ‘you knock on doors, you look people in the eye, you tell them you why believe in what you’re doing and the worst thing that can happen is they say no,’” Cleveland said. “I wouldn’t be comfortable doing this if it wasn’t something I’m so passionate about. I couldn’t ask people for money for just anything, but this isn’t something I’m intimidated by.”
Calvin Wells, a member of the hall of fame’s board of directors, who chaired the search committee to replace Michael Rubenstein, who died suddenly late last year, said there were 15 face-to-face interviews of candidates who had applied for the job.
“We had candidates who had experience in the development field, and who had worked at halls of fame in other states,” Wells said. “And honestly, there were candidates who had more experience on the fundraising side of things. But a lot of fundraising is getting in the door, getting in front of people. Rick assured us he would be comfortable doing that. It’s not all about money, but we thought Rick could grow into that. Rick had as much connection with the athletes as anybody in this state. Michael had that, too, and we thought it was important to continue that. I speak for the search committee, and I think I can speak for the whole board, when I say that Rick will put all of his heart and soul into this.”
Cleveland’s column will now be available on hall of fame website
At the top of Cleveland’s immediate to-do list is to modernize the hall of fame’s website. The goal will be to make it more interactive, he said, and to turn it into a clearinghouse for Mississippi sports history, with everything leading back to the portion of the site that houses membership applications. “I don’t know what the actual membership is, but it’s nowhere near where it needs to be,” Cleveland said. Cleveland also plans to keep up a blog and to write regular columns for the site.
Cleveland provided figures that showed 35,000 people went through the museum last year, which isn’t enough, he said, when you consider nearly three times that number walked through the natural science museum and the ag museum, which sits adjacent to the hall of fame. Officials from each are working on linking the facilities together so one ticket will allow access to all of them. For example, Cleveland said, the hall of fame and museum would ideally be included in the rounds schools make during their field trips to Jackson.
“One thing we’re talking about, and we’re in the process of finding out if it’s legal, is naming rights for the actual museum. Another thing I’d like to do is to do an annual roast. That’s a no-brainer. Especially if you start talking about getting coaches, like a guy who’s coached for 40 years. Just his former players alone could probably make you $50,000 bucks.
“I want to try to sell it as, this is something we do really well — along with our musical and literary heritage — and we need to make sure we preserve it,” Cleveland continued. “People always talk about how divided Mississippi is. This isn’t Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State or anything like that. This is Mississippi, and this is something we need to showcase. And, of course, I’m open to other ideas. I’m not going into this thinking I’m the only one with all the answers.”
What is singular to Cleveland is his institutional knowledge of Mississippi sports history. He has total recall of names and details from his earliest days as a sportswriter in the 1960s to games he covered last month. It’s a dynamic Kyle Veazey saw firsthand when he worked with Cleveland from 2006-2011.
“I think Rick’s biggest attribute will be, when he walks into the office of a CEO or a marketing executive, and there’s a picture from a Mississippi sporting event on the wall, Rick will have a story about it,” said Veazey, the sports enterprise reporter at the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “He’ll probably have covered it. And he’ll enjoy telling that story so much, he’ll probably forget to ask them for money. I’m kidding, kind of, but his knowledge and his natural storytelling ability are just remarkable.”