The eternal optimist
by Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
March 8, 2004
It is a good, beautiful place, and better than the numbers claim. But it is also poor and small, and the sunsets down on the gulf can only take you so far.
That's the stark reality in the state of Mississippi.
Which brings us to Starkville, where Mississippi State just captured its first outright SEC title in 41 years. The Bulldogs are headed to their third consecutive NCAA Tournament. They climbed to No. 4 in the national polls on Monday, ahead of every other state institution in the country.
This is an amazing journey for what was a below-average program for decades that few believed could ever aspire to the middle, let alone the top, of any rankings.
Which is why the architect of this Mississippi Miracle, head coach and eternal optimist Rick Stansbury, is such a rallying figure not just for Bulldog fans but for the entire state.
This is a guy who talks refreshingly about what he and his state have going for them rather than what they don't, what they can do and not what people say they can't.
When he was hired as an assistant in 1990, he started telling people that MSU could win a national championship. Since the Bulldogs hadn't even been to the NCAA Tournament since 1963, he was understandably laughed at. Even within the athletic department.
But he didn't stop saying it. And instead of claiming the school needed better facilities, he hyped up what was already there. Instead of complaining about the state's small population, he talked about the quality of its people. Instead of pouting about the program's comparatively meager budget, he talked about the joy of doing more with less.
By 1996, State was in the Final Four. In 1998 he took over as head coach. Now the program not only is better than ever, it is better than few even dreamed possible.
After all, how could the school with arguably fewer advantages than any in the SEC be consistently pushing longtime bully Kentucky for supremacy? Or how can you recruit to little Starkville (population 21,000), often mockingly referred to as "Stark-Vegas" because of its decided lack of nightlife?
"Starkville is a huge city ..." Stansbury said Monday, pausing for effect and awaiting laughter. "Now wait, let me finish. It's a huge city compared to a lot of the small towns in the South that kids come from.
"This is where kids in the South are comfortable," he continued. "It's a big enough adjustment to come to college, this makes it [easier]. And yes, there is trouble out there, but in Starkville you have to go looking for it. In a bigger city it comes looking for you. That is appealing to parents, you know.
"This is as beautiful of a campus as there is in the country," he said, pausing again. "For a Southern kid who likes grass and space and isn't all about concrete and pavement."
Anyone who can make Starkville sound like Shangri-La – let alone sell it to teen-agers, who may not fully appreciate the "Rockwellian charm" of the Starkville Cafe downtown – can accomplish just about anything.
But that's Stansbury, 44, who grew up on a farm in Kentucky. He makes humble sound hip. He thinks his adopted home state can be No. 1 in just about anything it wants. The guy is a one-man Mississippi cheerleading crew.
Which is one reason that, unlike so many of his peers, you never hear about Stansbury campaigning for a better job. Instead he appreciates what he has. Even though he could afford to build something big and outlandish, his family lives in a nice but relatively modest home.
He just likes things simple.
"I love Mississippi State," he said. "I'm from the country. I live seven miles from campus and on a bad traffic day it takes eight minutes. On the way I can see deer and foxes and squirrels. I love this."
He believes in the state of Mississippi. He believes in Mississippi State.
He thinks he can win a national championship there. He always has. And now, at 25-2, others do to.
"It used to be, make the postseason, and I mean NIT, every four, five years and you've done OK," Stansbury said. "Now it is, 'I sure hope we're a No. 1 seed.' "
Imagine that, something in Mississippi that is top-ranked on the national stage.
Impossible they all said. All but the dreamer, that is.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Monday, Mar 8, 2004 7:40 pm, EST