STARKVILLE, Miss. – Many football recruits sign with colleges because they are swept off their feet by silver-tongued head coaches.
Other blue-chippers are swayed because of an immediate chance of playing time, while others may simply like a school’s uniform, that sweet-looking helmet or the fact the weight room has flat screen TVs with a bone-rattling sound system.
But choosing a school because of cowbells? What a simply moovelous reason!
“One of the reasons I signed here was the cowbells,” Mississippi State senior defensive tackle Pernell McPhee says. “You just fall in love with them.”
McPhee says this with a straight face, and much conviction. I believe him, partly because he’s 6-4, 275 pounds, and could flick even a big guy like me like lint off a lapel.
The long-standing tradition of ringing cowbells at Mississippi State home games is finally legal again, 36 years after the SEC passed a rule banning artificial noisemakers. It was an edict that had been annually ignored by the Bulldog brethren.
At the league’s annual business meetings this past June, in an effort to give State a chance to self-police the ring-a-ding-dinging, the presidents of the 12 SEC institutions agreed on a one-year experimentation. The rule allows institutionally controlled artificial noisemakers to be used in pregame, halftime, timeouts and post-game.
In August, the league instituted a system of fines if the rule is not followed. But as the Bulldogs prepare to play their third home game of the year on Saturday against Georgia, it seems the State faithful are getting with the program.
Quick history lesson: The widely accepted origin of cowbells at Mississippi State starts in the late 1930s. Supposedly, a jersey cow wandered on the field at State’s home game against Ole Miss. State won big that day and its students immediately considered the cow a good luck charm. Four-leaf clovers would have been more practical, but it’s a good bet the cow ate those for lunch.
The students kept bringing the cow to games until they finally discovered hauling the beefy lucky charm wasn’t cost effective and maybe a bit messy.
Well, probably extremely messy, especially if the cow was on the sideline. I’m guessing there probably wasn’t much enthusiasm to run end sweeps.
Finally one day, an enterprising State student surely figured, “I’m taking the bull by the horns. The cow stays here in the pasture. But I’m bringing his bell to the game.”
While civilization marched on with inventions created to advance mankind, the focus in Starkville was on building a better cowbell. In the 1960s, Mississippi State professors Earl W. Terrell and Ralph L. Reeves came up with the idea of welding handles on the bells.
The scientific formula may have read: Big handle = sure grip = violent arm motion = deafening cowbell ringing = the opposing team jumps offsides again.
Soon, the popularity of the cowbell spread throughout the Bulldogs’ faithful. Nothing says “I love you” from one State fan to another than buying them a cowbell, or passing on the bell generation to generation.
Wedding. Anniversary. Birthday. Graduation. This bell’s for you. Just ask Mississippi State President Mark Keenum, a State grad.
“I remember the pride I felt at age nine upon receiving my first cowbell from my father, and when I was presented a shiny chrome cowbell upon becoming president of Mississippi State (in January 2009),” Keenum says.
Jan Gwin, a State 1971 graduate who played offensive line for the Bulldogs from 1967-70, was given his first cowbell in the ninth grade. It was handed down from his older brother by their dad. Gwin has since passed on his cowbell to his son, but he’s never forgotten what a boost he got as a player when the cowbells started a clangin’.
“It meant the world to our team to hear thousands of cowbells,” said Gwin, 61, a past president of the M-Club and the Bulldog Club who lives in Memphis and is a managing director for Morgan Keegan, one of the nation’s largest regional investment firms. “Every SEC school has noisemakers, like LSU’s live tiger.
“We’d sit in our locker room at Tiger Stadium and hear that tiger roar over the loudspeaker, because the LSU cheerleaders would beat on his cage. Then, they’d park the cage next to where the visiting team ran out and the tiger would still be growling.
“We didn’t have a tiger. We had cowbells.”
Fast forward to the present, and McPhee, a Florida native, didn’t hear his first cowbell until just a few years ago when he visited State as a recruit for a home game against Arkansas.
The closer he got to Davis-Wade Stadium, the more his ears buzzed from a cacophony of cowbells.
“I was thinking, `What IS that?’ ” McPhee recalls with a quizzical smile. “And when Anthony Dixon broke loose for a touchdown, it got real loud. But I really didn’t know how loud it was until I got here playing defense out on the field. When everybody is ringing those cowbells, you can’t hear a thing. It’s the 13th man – the fans plus the cowbells. It’s crazy.”
Which is precisely the dilemma the SEC has faced all these years. In 1974, the conference passed a rule prohibiting the use of artificial noisemakers, and that didn’t stop Bulldog fans one iota.
As the years passed, the SEC, short of hiring a specially trained security squad armed with cowbell-sniffing dogs (which, come to think of it, might be quite entertaining), found it couldn’t enforce the rule, because they didn’t know how to frisk an entire stadium for cowbells.
In the last three decades as SEC stadiums grew into 80,000 to 100,000-seat and beyond spaceships, featuring video boards the size of small Caribbean Islands outfitted with skull-rattling sound systems that can be heard on Mars, almost every school, in essence, had acquired artificial noisemakers.
That was former Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill’s argument for years, and still is.
“A lot of schools would place these huge public address system speakers right behind the visiting bench,” Sherrill says. “To me, that was worse than cowbells.”
The league never publicly agreed with Sherrill, but the lack of enforcing the artificial noisemakers rule spoke volumes.
“How can you enforce it?” current SEC commissioner Mike Slive ponders. “Let me say the rule was put in place before I got here (in 2002).”
Even an NCAA rule several years ago in which a team could be penalized for its crowd disrupting play with artificial noisemakers was erased from the rulebook.
Georgia coach Mark Richt says he never saw the SEC’s old artificial noisemaker rule enforced to the point where it made a difference.
“Almost every place we play gets loud enough to where you can’t operate unless you’re using hand signals and using silent snap counts,” says Richt, who’ll have a couple of guys sending in plays via hand signals so fast to quarterback Aarom Murray on Saturday that it will look like a kung-fu movie.
The SEC’s new one-year experimentation rule means State fans can hold their cowbells high as they enter stadiums without fear of confiscation. They can’t ring cowbells during live play, but only when sound is played over loudspeakers, such as during timeouts, before the game, between quarters and after touchdowns when the clock has stopped.
A prime example, if retroactively applied to last year, was when State’s Jonathan Banks intercepted a pass thrown by Florida legend Tim Tebow and roared 100 yards for a touchdown just before halftime that cut the Gators’ lead to 13-10.
By the time Banks scored and handed the ball to a ref, the cowbells were so loud that an asteroid could have hit Humphrey Coliseum and no one would have noticed.
“When I got to the sideline, it was like the stadium was shaking,” McPhee says. “Everybody was standing screaming and ringing cowbells. It gave me goosebumps.”
Mississippi State alum Scott Stricklin was on the job as State’s athletic director less than a month this summer when he had to lead the cowbell legislation charge at the league’s business meetings.
“As an alum, it was a badge of honor to explain to other league schools why the cowbell is so important to us,” he says. “When you turn on TV and hear the cowbells, you know it’s Mississippi State. I’ve had fans of other schools tell me, `Never lose the cowbells.’ Every team in our league has a tradition. Ours just happens to make a lot of noise.”
In exchange for walking through the gates without having to hide their cowbells – “I used to stuff mine in my back pocket and put a sock in it so it wouldn’t ring,” Gwin says – Stricklin believes his fans are intent trying to follow the new SEC guidelines.
It’s why he helped create the “Ring Responsibly” campaign through a State website respectthebell.com. It is aimed at educating fans when it is legal to ring their beloved cowbells.
A video played several times per game on the Davis-Wade Stadium replay board (which is so big you can see it in Tupelo) spells out the guidelines. On the video are Sherrill, current State coach Dan Mullen, former State stars John Bond and Anthony Dixon, and Miss MSU Fenly Akers.
Also, to make it perfectly clear for any State fan confused when to ring, the video board reads, “Bring the Ring!” at the appropriate moments.
“When we ring our bells has to become part of our tradition,” Stricklin says. “It’s going to be a growing process. We all have to learn this rule to do it the right way. Cowbells are part of who we are as an institution.”
State alums everywhere agree and rejoice.
“The Bulldog nation is free at last,” Gwin says proudly.
Let freedom, er, cowbells, ring.