Stadium expansions, lackluster seasons

by Lynne W. Jeter

Published: December 16,2002

The buzz has been terrific. In offices and pubs throughout the state, the question on everyone’s lips has been the same: What the heck happened to football teams at Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss this year?

Mississippi State ended the year 3-9 overall and 0-8 in Southeastern Conference (SEC) games, representing the school’s worst finish since Rockey Felker coached the team to a 1-10 season in 1988. Under Sherrill’s leadership in 1995, the Bulldogs finished the season 3-8.

Ole Miss fared only slightly better, ending the season 6-6 overall and 3-5 in the SEC. With quarterback favorite Eli Manning at the helm, the Rebels beat the Bulldogs 24-12 in Egg Bowl 2002, which was nationally televised from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Thanksgiving night.

After two embarrassing performances by Southern Miss on national television, losing 20-7 to Alabama on Sept. 21 and 37-7 to TCU on Oct. 30, the Golden Eagles ended the season with a respectable 7-5 overall and 5-3 in Conference USA games, and landed a bid as the conference representative to play a Big 12 team in the Houston Bowl on Dec. 27.

The bowl game will give senior standout Derrick Nix, who accumulated 3,584 yards rushing in his career, an opportunity to tack on at least 12 yards needed to become USM’s all-time rushing leader and 53 yards needed to become the conference all-time rushing leader. Earlier this month, junior middle linebacker Rod Davis became the first defensive player and the first Southern Miss player to receive the Conerly Trophy, sponsored by Cellular South since 1995 and given annually to Mississippi’s top football player.

“Football season does play a part of the tourism industry in Mississippi, especially in Tunica, which has the largest hotel base closest to Oxford,” said Webster Franklin, president of the Mississippi Tourism Association and executive director of the Tunica CVB. “We draw customers from all over the Southeast and Midwest, and while they’re here, they’re interested in their hometown football team. We see a lot of University of Memphis teams staying here to go to those games, as well as Ole Miss teams. Perhaps with Mississippi teams having poorer records this year, out-of-state visitors have been more likely to travel to the games, especially if they’re more confident of a victory.”

Mississippi State shakes up staff

Total attendance was 289,748 for the first full season since the expansion was complete at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. The most attended game in the 55,082-seat capacity stadium was MSU vs. University of Tennessee, with 54,807 fans. The last home game, against the University of Arkansas, was the poorest attended game, with 40,108 fans.

“After a losing season, you’ll always see a little drop-off with contributions to the Bulldog Club, depending on what folks feel like the long-term atmosphere for the program will be,” said MSU spokesperson Mike Nemeth. “If they believe it’s temporary, not much will change. You’ll lose a little fringe from fair weather fans. It’s one of those chicken-and-egg things. Do you win first and then get support, or get support and then win? We’ll see what happens over the next six months.”

Arma de la Cruz, interim executive director for Starkville CVB, said businesses reported brisk sales for home games, with the exception of Thursday games and the last home game on Nov. 23 against Arkansas, when hotel occupancy dropped from 95% to approximately 70%.

“Some people didn’t come early enough to eat dinner before Thursday games,” she explained. “On Friday and Saturday nights for weekend games, it was packed. Mississippi State is unusual because its diehard followers will be there tailgating, eating and shopping, no matter what kind of season we’ve had.”

Before the Egg Bowl, rumors circulated that despite having two years left on his contract, 12-season MSU head coach Jackie Sherrill would not return in 2003. Those rumors were laid to rest before the nationally-televised football game when news spread that Sherrill would return — with some changes. Soon after the game, Sherrill announced five assistant football coaches, including offensive coordinator Sparky Woods, a 27-year collegiate coaching veteran, and defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn, a 31-year collegiate coaching veteran, would be reassigned.

“A lot of people were surprised by that,” said Nemeth. “Bottom line, I don’t think anybody associated with MSU was happy with a 3-9 football season. Obviously, Jackie Sherrill is taking steps now to alleviate that problem.”

Ole Miss headed for Shreveport

Total attendance for the first full season since the expansion was complete at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium/Hollingsworth Field was 400,520. The 60,580-seat stadium was filled beyond capacity for games against the University of Florida and Auburn University. Standing room only tickets were sold for both games, with attendance of 61,140 and 60,635, respectively. The Rebels will cap off the 2002 season at the Independence Bowl Dec. 27 in Shreveport, La.

“Heck, on football weekends in Oxford, you can’t find a hotel room,” said Franklin, an Ole Miss graduate who attended every home game. “You can’t get a reservation in a restaurant regardless of what the team is doing. When you put 60,000 people in the stands in a town of 20,000, it triples the population, and you can’t just put a hotel or a restaurant in Oxford for a few weekends every year.”

Max Hipp, executive director of the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation, said hotels were “pretty doggone full all season.”

“The stadium expansion was a blessing for retailers,” he said. “The Ole Miss campus is a hard place to maneuver. Once you get in, it’s hard to get out. But the university has done a good job of rerouting traffic. Additional parking spaces for another 10,000-plus cars and new accesses into the area have helped.”

Retailers report better sales on days when football games are held at night, said Hipp.

“For day games, most people tailgate in the Grove and that puts a damper on retail spending, but they tend to hit the restaurants at night,” he said.

Southern Miss games have an impact

Total attendance for all six USM home games was 161,766 at the 33,000-seat capacity M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg. The most attended game ever at “The Rock” was the Aug. 31 season opener against Jackson State University. Seats were placed in the end zone to accommodate the 35,169 ticketholders.

After USM’s second straight loss late in the season, when a winning season was in doubt, speculation circulated about why the football team led by Jeff Bower in his 12th season as head coach was unpredictable. Could it be that new USM president Shelby Thames was not as avid a supporter as his longtime predecessor Aubrey Lucas? Recognized by his trademark straw hat, Lucas was known to sit front and center at every USM home game. Fans didn’t mention Horace Fleming, who served as president for five years in between Lucas and Thames.

“Where is this insanity coming from? This is funny because it is just so far from actuality. Shelby Thames is one of the most competitive people I know,” said USM spokesperson Lisa Mader. “He loves to win and doesn’t really love the alternative. He gets so ‘into’ games in the president’s box it is humorous to watch. He attended every game, including away games, except for one, which I think was his grandson’s birthday. As a matter of fact, I think he made at least one presentation during some portion of each game on the field.

“He and his sons gave a large sum to the athletic program about two years ago, and his sons just gave additional money and had the baseball fie
ld house partially named after them. He and USM athletic director Richard Giannini have a great relationship and Dr. Thames is very supportive of athletics and student athletes.”

Other speculation has

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