By Rick Cleveland
JACKSON – Mississippi State reached the championship series of the College World Series last week, and the immediate question comes to mind: Where does that rank among the biggest stories in Magnolia State sports history?
Know this: In some states, it wouldn’t even be a legitimate question. In most states, probably, the answer would be: It’s just college baseball. It’s not part of the conversation.
That’s just the way it is in most of the country. Not Mississippi.
Here, college baseball matters. Both State and Ole Miss rank in the top five nationally in attendance. Southern Miss ranks in the top 20. Delta State is one of the elite Division II programs. Millsaps reached the Division III World Series this season.
In my mind, State’s 2013 baseball run is in the top five all-time. It’s oh-so-hard to rank them, but here are some others for consideration:
• 1959 Ole Miss football: The ‘59 Rebels, one of the best college teams in history of the sport, clobbered No. 1-ranked LSU 21-0 in the Sugar Bowl to finish second in both major polls. Those Rebels, who featured so many Hall of Famers, finished 10-1 and gave up only 21 points in 11 games. If not for Billy Cannon’s fabled punt return, in a 7-3 defeat in a regular-season game at Baton Rouge, that 1959 team probably would be ranked as the best in college football history.
• 1996 Mississippi State basketball: Richard Williams’ Bulldogs defeated eventual national champion Kentucky in the championship of the SEC Tournament, then won four straight NCAA Tournament games, knocking off UConn and Cincinnati in the Sweet 16, to reach the Final Four.
• 1962 Ole Miss football: The Rebels finished as the only undefeated team in Division I in the history of Mississippi football with a 10-0 record, 6-0 in the SEC. They beat Arkansas 17-13 in the Sugar Bowl and finished No. 3 in the final AP rankings. Keep in mind, that Ole Miss season was played with federal troops occupying the campus as a backdrop.
• Delta State women’s basketball (1975-77). Don’t snicker. Naismith Hall of Famer Margaret Wade led tiny Delta State to three straight national championships. Over Wade’s first four seasons, the Lady Statesmen won 109 games and lost only six.
• The 1962-63 MSU men’s basketball team won the SEC and then defied state government to fly to East Lansing, Mich., to play eventual national champion Loyola of Chicago in the NCAA Tournament. Babe McCarthy’s State teams had been invited to three NCAA tournaments before, but always had to refuse because they would face integrated teams.
There have been countless other huge stories, including national titles. Mississippi Southern, now Southern Miss, won two national “small college” championships in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The Golden Eagles also won an NIT championship in 1987. Mississippi College and Delta State have both won Division II football titles. Delta State also has won the Division II World Series in baseball.
We’ve had Olympic gold medalists, Super Bowl and NFL MVPs and so many other remarkable Mississippi sports stories. Add these 2013 Diamond Dogs near the top of the list.
Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@ msfame.com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.