We are in the 75th year of so-called March Madness, which means we are, in Super Bowl terms, about to watch Final Four LXXV.
Do the math and you know that 300 teams will have taken part in the Final Four – only one from Mississippi. In 1996, Richard Williams, a former volunteer junior high coach, took the Mississippi State Bulldogs to The Meadowlands, just outside of New York City.
State’s remarkable run to the Final Four remains a highlight of my nearly half century of covering this state’s sports scene. In retrospect, those Bulldogs were a most unlikely Final Four team.
The 1995-96 Bulldogs included three new starters. They lost an early season game to Arkansas-Little Rock and lost four of their first seven Southeastern Conference games.
The turnaround began in mid-January. Sunday, Williams gave his best guess at what happened.
“Sometimes, I think a team’s so-called chemistry can be overrated, but I thought our chemistry was bad early that season,” Williams said. “We had a lot of new guys, and I don’t think our guys were getting along very well. I think it hurt us as a team.”
The Bulldogs had lost their first two SEC home games and were dressing for a practice on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 15, 1996. Williams delayed practice for a team meeting. As he looked out at his team, he saw city guys and country guys, products of inner city schools and predominantly white academies. He saw a team that argued about lots, including the music played in the locker room.
“We talked about Dr. King and what he stood for,” Williams said. “I asked them how many of them had actually read the entire ‘I have a dream’ speech. Only two of three of them had, and one of those was Whit Hughes, who had gone to Jackson Prep.
“I told them what I knew about Dr. King, how he believed that you could be different and have different ideas but still get along. I remember pointing out that some of them liked country music and some liked rap and that none of them were necessarily wrong. My overall message was that, in the end, we had to be a team.”
From that day forward, Dontae’ Jones, from inner-city Nashville, chose the locker room music on certain days, and Russell Walters, from Myrick in rural Jones County, chose it on others. Jones usually chose rap; Walters, country. But Jones learned the words to Walters’ country songs and often sang along. Said Williams, “I am glad there are no recordings.”
“I don’t know for certain how much difference all that made,” Williams said. “All I know is that we definitely played better after that.”
Bulldog fans will remember how State won the SEC Tournament, defeating eventual national champ Kentucky in the championship at The Superdome. They also will remember how State knocked off VCU, Princeton, Connecticut and Cincinnati en route to The Final Four.
After upsetting UConn and Cincinnati in the Sweet 16, State players and coaches were awarded their Final Four baseball caps. “Mississippi,” the caps read.
“And you guys wonder why I sometimes seem irritable,” Williams said, displaying the cap.
He would love to take that 1996 team back to the Final Four knowing what he knows now.
“I don’t think anybody, including me, was ready for what we saw in New York,” Williams said. “Reporters, photographers, TV crews were everywhere.
“There were just so many distractions. Everybody was looking for tickets. Agents were everywhere we went trying to get to Erick (Dampier) and Dontae’ (Jones). This was our first time; Syracuse had been there and done that. I can see now what an advantage is for these teams who go there seemingly year after year.
“I’m not making excuses; we had our chance to win the game,” Williams continued. “We got off to a good start, but we just didn’t handle the ball well enough. And we couldn’t guard (John) Wallace.”
State’s rags-to-riches story ended in a hail of turnovers and a 77-69 loss. Shortly thereafter, both Dampier and Jones declared for the draft. Nevertheless, the accomplishment stands unmatched in Mississippi men’s college basketball history. Three hundred teams in the history of the Final Four – only one from Mississippi.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.