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The Keenum Vision for the Bulldogs

The Keenum Vision for the Bulldogs

Mississippi State football has long been somewhat of an anomaly on the SEC landscape.  They’re one of those teams that had great potential at times but were never quite able to reach the summit.  As a result, the Dawgs have not been afforded the respect they might have deserved in the conference. This surely hasn’t gone down well for State’s president, Dr. Mark Keenum, who has lived through these feast-or-famine seasons for the last 15 years of his post. The 2023 season just proved to be an exclamation mark to this fact and he feels something needed to change. Can the changes being made help realize the Keenum vision for the Bulldogs?

Is Greatness a Stretch?

Many may not be aware that Keenum has been in a unique role since 2018, as chairman of the College Football Playoff (CFP) Committee. In fact, several committee members credit him as the driving force behind the expansion to the 12-team playoff model that kicks off this season.  In a press conference following the unanimous vote back in 2022, SMU president Gerald Turner said it might not have happened at all without Keenum. “Mark deserves much of the credit,” Turner said. “I would describe his leadership style as smooth and effective. Certainly, there were other presidents who spoke up and were also influential, but Mark, more than anyone, got it done.”

Keenum may have an ulterior motive when it comes to getting the playoffs to 12 teams with Mississippi State in mind.

Fast forward to November 2023 and the press conference introducing new head coach Jeff Lebby. Keenum made it clear what he was thinking. “As we were working on that over the last few years, I can tell you, I worked as passionately as I did to expand that playoff with one reason in mind,” Keenum paused looking at Lebby. “That Mississippi State University would be in this expanded playoff,” Keenum said. “We’ve been there, coach. We want to get back there again.”

He was alluding to the 2014 season when Dan Mullen was head coach, Dak Prescott was quarterback, and the Dawgs were number one in the polls for five weeks.  In fact, they were the first team ever ranked at number one in the CFP poll. Remember feast or famine? That year, both were the case, the latter exasperating fans yet again as the Dawgs sputtered later in the season.

Better Sooner Than Later

Lucious, Lee Roy, and Dewey Selmon are legendary in the lore of Oklahoma football. There is a statue of the three on campus, paying homage to what they mean to the Sooner nation. The Selmon brothers are mentioned here because Keenum named Zac Selmon, son of Dewey, as the new Athletic Director at MSU in January of 2023. His family heritage alone makes him clearly aware of what winning football looks like. But he also understands what it means from a player’s perspective. He was a four-year starting tight end at Wake Forest, part of the ACC champion Demon Deacons in 2006.

When it comes to the administration part of sports, he came to State after serving as associate athletic director and special assistant to the athletic director at Oklahoma, starting in 2015. You might say he is as well-rounded a candidate for the AD job as one could get.

It’s certainly not a stretch connecting the dots in how Lebby came to be the new head coach. The former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and Selmon knew each other quite well, and Lebby was poised to make the leap to head coach in his career. But the hiring represented more of a different direction for State.

An Offensive Approach

The Dawgs haven’t had a top-five offense in the SEC since 2015 when Mullen was head coach. In order to achieve Keenum’s vision, a shift in concentration from defense to offense had to be the change that could work. It happened for arch-nemesis Ole Miss and Lane Kiffin in each of his four seasons. Two of those, by the way, were led by Lebby as offensive coordinator for the Rebels. This did not escape Selmon and surely not Keenum.

It was evident in the Bulldogs’ spring game as they put on quite a show. It was a new offense that didn’t huddle, and a quarterback who could throw and pass, wearing down the defense as it was meant to do. Lebby had brought in players to fit the offense, as opposed to the previous regime, who brought in an offense and hoped to shoehorn the players to fit. It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work.

A Cultural Shift

The hiring of Lebby, along with his track record, is an opportunity to change the perception of Mississippi State as the groomsman, but never the groom.

The program has long been considered “blue-collared” and “hard-nosed”. Those are not bad qualities to have, but now it is time for something new. After all, trying the same thing, hoping for something different, is a definition of insanity, as some say.

The new phrases “Showtime” and “Swag” are creeping into the culture. Selmon is using them as marketing tools along with branding the school as “State.” The Dawgs have long been referred to that way, but now it’s more formal. A new script-style State logo was quickly painted on Scott Field. The helmets now consistently sport it as well, replacing the block-style logo with the M and S.

Also, Mississippi State is entering the final stages of developing a comprehensive long-term master plan for all athletic facilities. There are monumental changes on the way for Davis Wade Stadium. These are all things that fit the new phrases like Showtime. Lebby even used the phrase “Swag is State” in his introductory press conference.

The offense he brings also goes along with the new marketing phrases since it is quick and flashy. Whether that will work on the field, realizing the Keenum vision for victory in the fall, is unknown.  Lebby believes what he brings to the gridiron will be important to the program as he said in an April press conference. “I want to show the fans that we’re going to play fast,” Lebby said. “We’re going to be fearless. We’re going to be physical in everything that we do. I want to put a product on the field that, again, people are excited about.”


The Keenum Vision for the Bulldogs
Photo courtesy: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports


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