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SPECIAL to FWTCT: How MSU Competes in the SEC

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While some schools in the SEC have a massive budget for their athletic program, Mississippi State has managed to build success without the money of some of the big boys. Jon R. LaFollette, a graduate student at the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University in Indianapolis takes a look at how.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

SPECIAL To For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: The following was not written by the staff of FWtCT and does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of our staff.

By; Jon R. LaFollette (@JonFilet) Email the Author at jonlafol@umail.iu.edu

When Mississippi State freshman wide receiver Jesse Jackson needed advice on which college to play football for, he relied on a WNBA player and former college athlete - his mom, Angela.

"She knows the whole process," Jackson said during a phone interview. "She taught me to watch out for certain things and certain flashes (schools) use to try and get you to come there."

The 6-foot-1 receiver from Petal High School in Petal, Mississippi relied heavily on his parents throughout the experience. A four star recruit according to ESPN's ranking system, Jackson was sought after by Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and other institutions. However, he chose to sign with the Bulldogs - first program to recruit him.

"I had a couple people pushing me to go there," Jackson said. "There are a bunch of State fans from here."

Aside from the modest hometown connection (Petal is 179 miles south of the university's campus) it was Jackson's familiarity with his future teammates which made picking the Mississippi State a no brainer.

"Everyone just felt like family," he said. "I know pretty much 95 percent of all the teammates I'll be joining next year. It wasn't much of a big jump for me."

Jackson disregarded the illustrious history of some of the other programs which solicited his services, and instead chose to maximize his opportunity on the field.

"I looked past the championships," Jackson said "It doesn't mean anything if I don't get to be a part of it."

A bevy of upper echelon players who are willing to take their talents to Starkville is unheard of. Jackson is only one of 15 four star players to commit to the university since 2012. For comparison, their Southeastern Conference neighbors at Alabama landed 17 such recruits in 2014 alone.

Doing more with less is the de facto mantra for Mississippi State's football program. From financial figures obtained through revenue and expense reports from the SEC's 13 public universities, the Bulldogs generated a combined $80 million in revenue through the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons, the lowest rate in the conference and 45 percent below the conference average.

The team's expenditures mirror its comparatively small revenue stream. On average, the annual operating cost for the Bulldogs is $15 million, tied with Kentucky for last in the SEC.

Mississippi State and Kentucky find themselves in similar economic situations in terms of their ability to compete on the gridiron. Each school, however, has seen drastically different results. Where the Wildcats are often the conference punching bag, finishing last in their division four of the previous nine years, The Bulldogs have played in four straight bowl games, winning three.

Mississippi State's success despite their financial handicap goes against the accepted belief that a bloated athletic budget will equate to more victories. As the average cost to play football in the SEC jumped from $23 million in 2011 to $26 million in 2012, the Bulldogs' bottom line remained relatively steady, as did their winning ways.

"There's not a perfect correlation between the money you spend the wins you get," said Steven Turner, the university's faculty athletic representative. "When there are things like competition, you don't have to spend the most money."

One factor which contributed to the rise in spending was coaching salaries. In 2012, the average payroll for SEC coaching staffs rose three percent to $7.1 million - or roughly $700,000 per staff member.

Mississippi State Athletic Director Scott Stricklin is uneasy about escalating contracts, and wonders if institutions are getting their money's worth.

"If we're paying a linebacker coach $250,000 a year and (another school) pays $600,000 on their linebacker coach, is their linebacker coach more than twice as good as ours? I would argue that's not the case," said Stricklin.

For the Bulldogs' athletic department, which receives no state or federal subsidies, it's about maximizing limited financial capital than senselessly chasing more lucrative programs.

"It's a matter of spending the money we think we need to spend to be successful without just copying what everybody else is doing and blindly following their lead," said Stricklin.

That's not to say Stricklin runs his department with a miser's frugality. Head coach Dan Mullen and his staff earned a combined $5.4 million in 2012, a sizable sum despite being the third lowest compensated staff in the SEC.

Since Mullen's arrival in 2009, the Bulldogs have gone 36-28, the most successful coaching tenure since the era of Darrell Royal in the mid-1950s. Mullen, a quarterbacks coach under Urban Meyer at Utah and Florida, played a role in the development of Alex Smith and Tim Tebow, duel threat quarterbacks who led their respective programs to the upper crust of college football and helped revolutionize the position.

It was this kind of pedigree which attracted freshman quarterback Elijah Staley. Staley is a graduate of Wheeler High School in Marietta, Georgia and committed to play for Mullen in June, 2013. Staley takes pride his in ability to beat opposing defenses with his arm as well as his feet, and hopes to receive tutelage similar to that of a certain NFL quarterback.

"(Mullen) coached Cam Newton. He's my favorite player" Staley said in referencing Newton's brief stay at Florida before transferring to Auburn. "(Mullen) sat down with me and went over the playbook and compared me to similar players he's coached. He said I was better than Cam Newton coming out of high school."

But for Staley, as with Jesse Jackson, the ultimate appeal of Mississippi State was an opportunity to compete.

"I want to play early. I don't want to go to college and be somebody's backup or know I'm going to be a backup," Staley said.

A Georgia native like Staley will find himself among the minority in the locker room this fall. Of the 113 players who made the 2013 roster, 60 were in-state recruits. Of the 21 incoming freshman, Staley is only one of eight who does not reside in the Magnolia State. The Bulldog's reliance on home grown talent is a product of necessity. Since Mullen seldom lands elite players from the national level, his recruiting staff utilizes the school's convenient geography located in the heart of football country.

The south is the breadbasket for the sport and produces world class players at a rate unmatched by other regions in the country. According to a report from Sporting News, six SEC states claim the highest turnout of NFL players per capita: Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Georgia. The region's deep pool of football recruits has been a catalyst for the conferences' recent dominance - which has won seven of the last eight BSC championship games.

Lacking a national brand, however, Mississippi State rarely gets first pick of the litter.

"They target a different style of kid," said John Talty, a recruiting reporter for The Clarion-Ledger. "They know more often than not they're not going to beat out Alabama or LSU for kids. So they go for guys in that three star (recruiting) range, a lot of those coming from within Mississippi."

Predominately scouting within state borders is conducive to the Bulldogs' blueprint of getting the most out of finite resources. With the bulk of recruiters traveling in-state, the university saves on the cost of signing kids. In 2012, the school spent $468,000 on recruiting, second lowest in the SEC after South Carolina.

For Mullen and his staff, the goal is long-term gains: Sign four-year players - some of who may be diamonds in the rough - and coach them into stout SEC form.

"There are a lot of raw kids who come through Mississippi (State)," Talty said. "Some of these (high) schools are really poor and may not have the best weight room or best equipment. But once (these kids) get into a college weight room with college fitness and college diet, they really transform."

The transformation takes place in the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex, which opened in 2013. The building sports a new weight room, locker room and coaches' offices. It is named after the successful Mississippi banker whose foundation donated $12 million of the building's $20 million construction cost. It was the largest donation in the history of the school's athletic department. The remainder of the budget was paid for by other donations.

The university also spent $75 million to renovate Davis Wade Stadium in time for the upcoming season - - $60 million of which is borrowed through a bond issue. The project added luxury suites, installed a pair of high definition score boards and made room for 6,000 new seats, bringing stadium capacity to 61,000 - still third lowest in the SEC.

For Scott Stricklin, the purpose of the project was twofold: give a facelift to the nation's second oldest football stadium, and use sports as a means of selling the university.

"I would argue that the marketing capability of a strong athletic program of a university in the South helps the university achieve their goals," Sticklin said. "I don't think there's any coincidence that we've had four straight successful football seasons and we've had four straight years of record fundraising to nonathletic parts of campus. I think there is a correlation there."

A sticking point for critics concerned about the rising cost of college sports questions the emphasis educational entities place on sports. When does success on the field or on the court begin to conflict with academic endeavors? For a self-sustained athletic department like Mississippi State, the criticism is a nonissue.

"Athletics is generating all the revenue to pay for this project," said Stricklin. "We're not tapping any university dollars to pay for construction. None of this is impacting the university's ability to hire faculty, conduct research or improve facilities on campus."

For a school ever-mindful of the bottom line, to spend $100 million on two buildings for one sport may seem extravagant, but it's just the cost of doing business.

"There's a threshold you have to have in order to compete in the SEC," Turner said. "When a kid goes to Alabama and sees their facilities, we need to be at least in the ball park, because (kids) are impressionable."

Although Mississippi State is methodical in how and where they spend money, they do not hesitate to cut checks to other institutions.

In 2012, the Bulldogs paid Jackson Sate, Troy, South Alabama and Middle Tennessee a combined $1.6 million to show up in Strakville and play football. Mississippi State won all four games by the total score of 161-46. Coach Mullen and crew soundly trounced each "cupcake" team, the school made the check payable to the respective athletic department and the losers returned to the bus a few hundred thousand dollars richer.

The practice of paying for guaranteed wins is pervasive in college sports. SEC football teams handed $26 million to other institutions in 2012 alone. For schools like Mississippi State who are lumped in the most punishing conference in the country, guarantees play an essential role in helping them secure a bowl birth and the added money that comes with it.

Officials at Mississippi State shrug off any claims of the university exploiting the system to inflate the appearance of success.

"It helps Troy." Turner said. "We give Troy $300,000. Troy likes it. We didn't force Troy to come. We pay Jackson State, which is a historically black institution. What we have tried in the last three or four years is to play teams within Mississippi, to help Mississippi institutions and their athletic departments."

Since 2010, the Bulldogs have swept all 15 guarantee games while going a tepid 13-19 in the SEC - where they play in the same division with powerhouse programs in Alabama, LSU and Auburn.

For Turner, guarantees comes with the privilege of being a capable athletic institution, and sees any win as a good win.

"How else are you going to get in the newspaper?"