GENE PHELPS: MSU’s Omaha journey joins ‘96 Final Four run

By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Mississippi’s college athletic teams seem to suffer from an identity crisis when it comes to the national media, official and unofficial apparel vendors … heck, even the NCAA.
Maybe, just maybe, that all changes this week when Mississippi State’s storied baseball program plays for its first national championship at the College World Series in Omaha.
The last time MSU found itself in this bright of a national sports spotlight was in 1996, when the men’s basketball team – coached by Richard Williams and powered by Dontae Jones, Erick Dampier and Darryl Wilson – reached the Final Four.
Those Bulldogs qualified for a trip to East Rutherford, N.J., and the NCAA tournament semifinals with four consecutive wins in the Southeast Regional.
During the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 sessions in Lexington, Ky., T-shirt vendors had “Road to the Final Four” apparel available for three of the teams – UConn, Cincinnati and Georgia Tech. “Don’t have one of these for Mississippi State,” a vendor outside Rupp Arena told me.
Are you kidding?
In Big Blue’s backyard, this state’s March Madness reached an all-time zenith when the Bulldogs toppled favored Cincinnati by 10 points. MSU’s excited players were given the ceremonial regional championship baseball-style caps postgame. Unfortunately, they had just “Mississippi” embroidered on the back.
Not even the printing faux pas could dampened the players’ spirits that day. At least the caps didn’t say “Ole Miss.”
One side note: The NCAA did make good on the caps, sending a corrected version to the players.
MSU lost to Syracuse in the national semifinals, but the team’s journey from Starkville to college hoops’ biggest stage has not been forgotten.
Neither will this year’s run by the Bulldogs baseball team to the pinnacle of its sport.
The Diamond Dogs sealed their first-ever trip to the title series with a Friday win against powerful Oregon State at TD Ameritrade Park. And no matter what happens in the title series, the names Cohen, Girodo, Holder, Rea and Renfroe will certainly be held forever in the same esteem by MSU fans as Brantley, Clark, Palmiero, Polk and Thigpen.
Oh, and a note to the NCAA’s championship vendors, just in case: It’s B-u-l-l-d-o-g-s.
Gene Phelps is senior sports writer for the Daily Journal. He covered MSU’s Final Four team.