Starkville—by John Huang
Starkville, Mississippi appears exactly as its name implies. The home to the Mississippi State University Bulldogs is rather stark, much more so than any of the other traditional small-town SEC hamlets you might encounter. There’s a Matty’s Starkvegas Café here and The Little Dooey Barbecue joint, but not much else. Supposedly Tee Ball was invented in Starkville, All-Pro wide receiver Jerry Rice calls Starkville home, and country music legend Johnny Cash was once arrested for public drunkenness and spent a night in the Starkville city jail.
Good luck trying to fly directly into Starkville as the town has no commercial airport. With the closest practical tarmac nearly one hundred miles away, I once again decided to make the long and arduous eight-hour drive down to the Magnolia State just to bring you this coverage. There apparently aren’t enough hotel rooms in Starkville either, as the local Hampton Inn was charging an outrageous $358/night for the dates I requested.
According to the 2010 census, about 24,000 people live in Starkville. On football Saturdays, this number nearly triples as over 60,000 maroon-clad supporters cram into Davis Wade Stadium while ringing their infamous cowbells. I still don’t quite understand how State fans are able to bring these obvious artificial noisemakers into the stadium—a practice deemed illegal at every other SEC venue. Not only does it provide the home team with an insurmountable advantage, it also ratchets up my tinnitus. Such are the ways of justice in the deep South, with the ritual of undying traditions often taking precedence over fairness, common sense, and comfort.
As featureless as my visit to Starkville was, Kentucky’s 45-7 loss to the Bulldogs was even more spartan. Immediately after State’s dominating 12-play 78-yard initial drive to go up 7-0, you knew the Wildcats were in for a long afternoon. Kentucky looked surprisingly sluggish after a bye week, but Bulldog quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was as good as advertised, scoring on a spirit-deflating 40-yd scamper to put State up 17-7 right before the half. For the game, the one man wrecking crew completed 18-26 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown and rushed an additional 12 times for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns. Another heartbreaking defeat will undoubtedly have everyone questioning the Wildcat’s future resolve.
Kentucky now stands at 5-2 (2-2 in SEC) with hopes of an improbable SEC Eastern Division crown fading quickly into the Mississippi sunset. Even prior to today’s defeat, long-suffering UK fans familiar with their ghastly football history, were understandably hesitant to buy into any early-season success. On a recent call in radio show, even Head Coach Mark Stoops lamented the air of negativity still pervading teams, such as Kentucky, with previous unproven track records.
When I gave him the chance to expound and clarify, he diplomatically shrugged off the question. “I just don’t—I don’t need to get into that, but I don’t have the same problems (Nick Saban) does,” he answered with a dismissive chuckle. “I think we all know that. That’s kinda what I meant by that.”
I think what Stoops really meant to say is that he’s frustrated by all the fans and media alike who still don’t give Kentucky the respect he thinks they deserve. In fairness to the fans, it’s hard to give respect when your team had the 30-year losing streak to Florida snapped, only to let the Gators off the hook after a series of coaching blunders. Respect also isn’t garnered when four of UK’s five wins have been narrow escapes over vastly inferior opponents they should have steamrolled. Now with another huge opportunity to move up the SEC food chain squandered, it’s understandable how the focus shifts back to basketball.
Coach Stoops needs to understand that Kentucky football fandom is similar to a faithful friendship. For many True-Blue fans, it’s a sacrificial badge of honor to weather years of futility and still come out to support the team year after year. What other fan base in America can get punched in the face 31 years in a row by Florida and still find it in their hearts to forgive and forget? How resilient, really, is BBN to be taken repeatedly to the precipice of SEC respectability, only to have their hearts ripped out by bone headed plays and clock mismanagement?
The way the season has played out so far, Kentucky could still possibly be favored in four of its last five games. A highly successful season and a top tier bowl game isn’t out of the question. This particular team, however, could just as easily lose four out of its next five. Next up is Tennessee, a program amid chaos with a head coach dangling in limbo. You’d think Kentucky should win this one rather handily, but when you’ve been historically crushed 31 out of the past 32 years by the Big Orange, you can understand why I’m not chalking it up just yet.
Plus, I’m still trying to find my way out of Starkville. And my ears are still ringing from those batty bovine bells.
John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.