By Joe Lee
Photos provided by Mississippi State Athletics
You probably couldn’t imagine it today, but Scott Field – now known as Davis Wade Stadium – didn’t have lights back in 1982. Which posed a problem when ESPN asked Mississippi State (MSU) to move their home game with LSU from Saturday afternoon to Thursday evening for a nationwide broadcast.
“Capacity of Scott Field prior to expansion was just under 32,000,” said Larry Templeton, Director of Athletics Emeritus at MSU and consultant to the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Commissioner. “It was (then-athletic director) Carl Maddox’s idea to rent the lights with the assistance of ESPN. No question that game created a great atmosphere for the university and athletic program. Winning the game just added icing on the cake.”
Times have certainly changed. Davis Wade Stadium seats over 60,000 today, and the game day experience on campus brings people from throughout the southeast who make a weekend of it in Starkville. Templeton, who graduated from MSU in 1969 and began working in the athletic department while in high school, credits the city of Starkville and the MSU student body as well as Maddox for the early push to grow.
“It was also his concept to expand the west side upper deck in addition to adding lights for night games. The project would not have happened if the City of Starkville had not stepped up by allowing the university to use its bonding capability. Starkville not only floated the obligation bonds but paid a portion of the revenue bonds used for the stadium project.
“Equally important was the MSU Student Association leading a vote to increase student fees earmarked for the project. Needless to say, our Bulldog fans stepped up with a commitment to pledge and pay for a 10-year commitment on chairback seats in the 100 and 200 levels. The ability to have night games and chairback seating totally changed the atmosphere of home football games.”
Jim Ellis, the play-by-play voice of the MSU football team for the past six seasons and part of the football broadcast unit for over three decades, said that while big-name opponents certainly fired up the fans when Bob Tyler, Emory Bellard and Rockey Felker all coached, the hiring of Jackie Sherrill in 1991 drastically changed the game day experience.
“Tailgating became a big deal,” Ellis said. “The team walk – coming down the side street – became a big deal. We went to bowls most years (during the Sherrill era). For ten years, we had big crowds and lots of excitement.”
“(The hiring of Sherrill) allowed us to send a signal to all of college football that Mississippi State was prepared to move football to the highest level,” Templeton said. “And Jackie won some really big games to quick-start us.”
Among them were wins over national power Texas in 1991 and 1992. Sherrill’s 1998 team played in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. But the Egg Bowl returning to Starkville in 1991 marked the first time the annual Ole Miss-MSU tilt had been played on either campus in two decades. And it helped set the stage to further expand the stadium with club seating and sky boxes.
“It did not make sense for us to expand the east side if we were going to continue to play our big SEC games – and, more importantly, the Ole Miss game – in Jackson,” Templeton said. “I had always felt the Egg Bowl needed to be played on the campus. I also was well aware of the political pressure the athletic department would place on the university, and the difficult position it would put (then MSU) President (Donald) Zacharias in.
“Man, did Dr. Z stand tall with us. In every conversation, he would tell me to do what was best for the university. It wasn’t an easy decision, and certainly one that ruffled feathers in the capital city area.”
But excitement ebbed a bit as Sherrill’s final three teams weren’t as competitive and the Sylvester Croom squads from 2004-2008 were up and down. Likewise, the game day experience in those years hardly had the electrified atmosphere it does today. Former athletic director Scott Stricklin, who graduated from MSU in 1992, was well aware of the situation long before returning to his alma mater.
“When I was at Auburn and Kentucky, I got to see MSU from a different perspective,” said Stricklin, now the athletic director at the University of Florida. “I tailgated with my brother in 2006 and it was kind of subdued. It entered my mind that the fans needed a hug. They needed to be encouraged.”
Stricklin was hired as associate athletic director in 2008 and worked for Greg Byrne. Two years later he replaced Byrne and served until October 2016. He points to a conversation he and Byrne had – over iced tea at Barnes and Noble in the Cullis Wade Depot – that shaped the direction the game day experience would take.
“Greg and I agreed it had to be an event people wanted to come to, regardless of the wins and losses,” Stricklin said. “Greg put the video board in the south end zone, which was the first time MSU had an idea that was really unique, that other folks weren’t doing.
“He showed great leadership in terms of getting a new thought process going, as well as bringing in Dan Mullen. We needed to be different from the way we’d been in the past. Dan is kind of brash and not afraid to put himself out there, which I admire. (MSU President) Dr. (Mark) Keenum did a great job of working with the other SEC presidents to get cowbells allowed in the stadium again.”
“You can’t help but feel proud,” Stricklin added. “Larry Templeton, going way back, deserves a lot of credit for making the decision to move the Egg Bowl back to the campuses. That laid a lot of the groundwork for the success of the last 8-10 years. The MSU environment isn’t the biggest, but it is one of the most unique in all of college football.”
“The east side expansion would not have happened had Mr. Davis Wade and Mr. Cullis Wade not stepped up with a terrific lead contribution,” Templeton said. “These two great Bulldog men put their money up front to get us started. A lot of Bulldog supporters – and I mean thousands – responded by buying sky boxes, club seats and season tickets. We finally had a competitive stadium to compete with our fellow SEC members.”
Current athletic director John Cohen played baseball at MSU from 1988-1990 and went to the College World Series his final year. While the baseball fan experience has always had the aura of the Left Field Lounge (as well as elite teams most years), Cohen knows that Game Day during football season has come a long way since his undergraduate days – and that maintaining momentum is a must to keep excitement high among fans.
“If you’re not moving forward in the SEC, you can get behind,” Cohen said. “We’re looking at every possible opportunity to serve our fans, alumni and student-athletes at a higher level. We’re always experimenting. Nothing is off the table.
“(This year) the team will run right by the loge section in the south end zone, which seats about 100. I think the loge section will be a great experience – it offers something we’ve never had in the south end zone. We’ll see how it goes and make some decisions after the season.”
Ellis, who’ll begin his thirty-ninth season as the voice of the MSU baseball team next spring, will continue to enjoy the game day experience at Davis Wade Stadium. It’s something he sees as beneficial not only to the university, but to the throng of fans who make it a priority to be there.
“I go to all the venues in the SEC, and I think we’re right there among the best in terms of atmosphere with anyone in the league,” Ellis said. “As someone who has watched all my life, there’s a lot of pride. We’ve arrived. We’re respected around the country.
“What’s best is that people tailgate together, see each other each weekend, build those friendships over the years, and celebrate life at the football game.”