JACKSON – Dr. Mark Keenum wondered for years why Mississippi State and Southern Miss stopped playing each other in football. He never found a good answer.
So, they will meet again.
Keenum, MSU’s president since January, announced on Thursday the renewal of the series, an announcement he called “the worst-kept secret in the state of Mississippi.” The teams will open the 2014 and 2015 seasons against each other, first in Starkville, then in Hattiesburg.
Keenum, an MSU alumnus, attended several State-USM games growing up and in college. It was a rivalry he cherished, but the rivalry ended in 1990.
“Yeah, I was disappointed quite a few of those games, but I can also remember how excited, elated I was the other games that we won,” Keenum said during a press conference at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.
Talk of renewing the series began before Keenum took office. MSU Athletics Director Greg Byrne and his USM counterpart, Richard Giannini, discussed it the first time they spoke last year after Byrne’s hire.
On the day Dan Mullen was introduced as MSU’s football coach in December, he and Byrne talked about it. Mullen liked the idea immediately.
“This is a great deal for Mississippi State football as we move to the future,” Mullen said in a statement. “We want to play as many games in this region as possible so our fans have the opportunity to attend and our recruits have the opportunity to see us play.”
Discussions between the schools grew “hot and heavy” about three or four months ago, according to Byrne. In recent days, rumors of the rivalry renewing were rampant, and reports surfaced Wednesday saying it would become a reality.
The series, which USM leads 14-12-1, lapsed after State’s 13-10 win in Starkville on Sept. 22, 1990. The USM contingent has largely been in favor of renewing the series, but a vocal opposition among MSU’s fan base have claimed the Bulldogs had nothing to gain and much to lose by playing the Golden Eagles, a Conference USA school.
That lose-lose argument doesn’t hold water with the current MSU administration. Keenum said State’s new leadership – namely, him and Byrne – could be a reason for MSU’s willingness to take on USM.
“I think once we took a step back and looked at all the positives with it – we looked at the challenges with it, too – we thought it made sense to do this,” Byrne said.
The schools believe the games make financial sense. The visiting team will get a $200,000 guarantee, and the home team will keep its entire gate.
School officials expect sell-out crowds, and USM President Dr. Martha Saunders called the deal a “stimulus package.” Byrne jokingly suggested MSU start getting season ticket packages ready for 2014 and ’15.
MSU, which signed its part of the contract Thursday morning, is making an effort to play more in-state schools. The Bulldogs opened the 2009 season with Jackson State – winning 45-7 – and Byrne said he’s in talks with Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State about future dates.
MSU has booked its non-conference schedule through 2016.
“[W]e view ourselves as a leader in the state of Mississippi, and we have tried to be very progressive and have a different thought process as far as scheduling goes,” Byrne said.
USM has a long history of playing SEC schools, having matched up several times with Alabama, as well as meetings against Auburn, Florida and Tennessee. The Golden Eagles will open the 2010 season at South Carolina.
MSU, in turn, has played several C-USA schools. It will host Houston on Oct. 10 of this season and has games against UAB set for the near future.
Scheduling games closer to home is a growing trend in today’s economic climate. So why not an old rival?
“For all of us who love the game so much,” Giannini said, “this is what it’s all about.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal