STARKVILLE, Miss. – This is a really bold statement I’m about to make, but here it goes:
No athlete in the history of the Southeastern Conference loves his or her alma mater more than Rockey Felker loves Mississippi State.
Want to argue about it?
Do you know anyone who quarterbacked their team to a bowl game, was that school’s head coach for five years and then 12 years after resigning under pressure returns to that school to join the coaching staff again?
There is no one, because there’s no one like Rockey Felker, as unassuming, as gracious and as humble a human being as you’ll ever meet. No one with any kind of ego would go back to a place that essentially fired him.
But Rockey did 10 years and three Mississippi State head coaches ago. The reason he came back is as clear to him today as it was when he told his wife Susan about then-State head coach Jackie Sherrill’s persuasive offer to return to Starkville in 2002.
“It’s just home,” says Rockey, 58, currently State’s director of player personnel and high school relations. “I guess everybody has that one place where you feel totally comfortable.”
For Rockey, that place has been Mississippi State, ever since he was a kid being raised in Brownsville, Tenn., the son of the late Babe Felker.
Babe, who grew up in Corinth, Miss., and played football at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., was an assistant coach at Brownsville High where Rockey was a five-sport letterman. Because Babe was a Mississippi State fan who’d sit by his radio on Saturdays listening State’s distinctive play-by-play announcer Jack Cristil, so did Rockey.
“Dad talked about Mississippi State, he supported Mississippi State, he took me to Mississippi State games, especially the ones in Memphis against Memphis State," Rockey recalls. "I remember seeing (Memphis State quarterback) Russell Volmer getting knocked into a dugout at old Crump Stadium. I have a love for Mississippi State that goes way back.
“So when I left home to go to college, I felt like I was going home.”
As a quarterback from 1972-74, Rockey’s State career culminated with a senior season that produced a 9-3 record, a No. 17 final national ranking in the Associated Press poll and the school's first bowl win since 1963.
Rockey was the SEC's Player of the Year after leading the league in total offense.
“It just clicked for us that year,” Rockey says. “We went to a Veer offense. We started recruiting black athletes and they became a big factor.”
Rockey was drafted as a defensive back in the 10th round of the 1975 NFL draft by the NFL’s Cincinnatti Bengals. He talked to Bengals’ officials, but never reported.
“I didn’t see myself butting heads with Larry Csonka (then the most feared physical running back in the NFL),” Rockey says. “The Bengals timed me at 4.6 seconds in the 40. I just couldn’t see myself being there for a long time.”
Plus, Rockey knew he wanted to coach.
“Maybe it was the fact that my Dad was a coach,” Rockey says. “But I always loved the strategy side of football. I’d really study quarterbacks and I had a lot of coaches influence me.
“Dad didn’t want me to coach. I was in business and he wanted me to get a business degree. But I remember going to accounting class at State and drawing plays the whole time I was in class. I wasn’t worried about accounting.
“When I went into coaching, starting out here as a graduate assistant, I think that made my Dad feel good about me going into coaching.”
Twelve seasons after Rockey’s playing career ended, after assistant coaching stints at Mississippi State, Texas Tech, Memphis and Arkansas, he took over as State's head coach at age 33 in 1986.
He was the youngest field boss in college football, opening his first season at State winning his first six of seven games to earn the Bulldogs a No. 13 ranking.
But sadly, it never got better than that.
The Bulldogs lost four straight to end his first season, including back-to-back-to-back losses to top-11 teams Auburn, Alabama and LSU by a combined 120-9.
That 6-5 season was Rockey’s only winning season in his five years. In the end, he had a career record of 21-34 overall, 5-28 in the SEC.
It didn’t help Rockey that State never had sparkling new facilities to attract top-notch recruits to take on the SEC powerhouses. He also admits he second-guessed himself on everything from staff hires to personnel decisions, things that happen to any head coach searching for more wins than losses.
One of the toughest days of former Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton’s life, and Felker’s also, was when they met at the end of the 1990 season and concluded Felker’s head coaching career at State was over.
“Rockey and I were best of friends, and that made it worse," says Templeton, a Starkville native raised in the shadow of the State campus. "Neither one of us liked it, but we knew it was what had to happen.
"It was tough to separate our friendship and the employer-employee relationship. In fairness to both of us, we were doing what we knew best for Mississippi State. It was difficult between us for three or four years after that, but our friendship never broke. We've always had some real confidential conversations."
Still, as expected, Rockey and his family were crushed.
But as time passed, as he sandwiched two tours of duty as an assistant first and then offensive coordinator at the University of Tulsa (1991-92, 97-99) around his three seasons (1993-96) at Arkansas as running backs and quarterbacks coach, Rockey and his wife realized how consumed he’d been as head coach.
"When we left here (Starkville), we went to Tulsa, and Rockey had time to coach our two older sons Jay and David in Little League baseball," said Susan Felker several years ago. "You talk about fun!
"I thought, 'Good grief!' If we would have had success at Mississippi State and stayed there as head coach, we may not have become as close as a family as we became. And I'm grateful for the chance to go other places for the experiences we've enjoyed before getting a chance to come back here."
It took a while, but Rockey was able turn frayed feelings into gratitude.
"I think it took me time to realize how thankful I was to have had the opportunity to be head coach at my alma mater," Rockey says. "I was naive to think maybe I could stay here the rest of my life as head coach. It was tough when it happened, but I look back and it was a blessing in disguise. It was time for me to move on."
For just two years since 1971, when a young Rockey stepped on the Mississippi State campus, he has been part of a college football program. Only in the 2000 and 2001 seasons, when Rockey was between jobs at Tulsa and his second tour of duty with State, did he not slip on a coaching shirt.
He was in the insurance business in Fayetteville, Ark., and he’d tried his best to block out football. He thought after being fired a second time at Tulsa that he was burned out on coaching.
“For years you have that routine of going to practice and going to games starting in August,” Rockey says. “Then in February, you’re grinding in recruiting.
“Suddenly, I had all this free time, because I wasn’t coaching. I decided the best thing for me to do was get away from football totally. I think I went to maybe two Arkansas games. I enjoyed selling insurance. If I was a young guy starting from scratch, I think I could have done well with it.”
But that was Monday through Friday. What about Saturday, especially in the fall?
For two seasons, a man who spent most of those Saturday afternoons and nights right in the middle of the action, thriving on the competition, feeding off the roaring crowd, became a. . .gardner?
“I just worked in my garden, keeping busy,” Rockey says. “I made flower beds, built rock gardens. I had to get my mind away from it. I did read the Sunday paper to see who won.
“And honestly, I didn’t want to have to get tickets, get in traffic, be an actual fan. I was used to having a bus drop me at the stadium. I wasn’t used to tailgating and all the fan stuff, because coaches get so wrapped up in game preparation.”
Rockey didn’t go completely cold turkey from coaching while in Fayetteville, if you counted him handling youngest son Stephen’s sixth-grade elementary school team.
When Sherrill, the man who replaced Rockey at State, had a coordinator of football operations vacancy open after the 2001 season when Dave Wilson left to join Georgia Tech's staff, Sherrill wanted only Rockey. He’d tried hire to Rockey several times before, and this time he wasn’t go take `no’ for an answer.
“When I left Mississippi State as head coach, I was 38 years old and not sure what was going to happen,” Rockey says. “But I never thought we’d come back to Starkville or even Mississippi. I never saw that coming.”
Sherrill, who coached at State from 1991-2003, recalls how thrilled he was to hire Rockey.
"It takes a big, big person, a secure person, to come back to a place where they let him go, and it was a case where if a few more plays had been made in Rockey’s last year as (State's) coach, I might not have ever been head coach (at State)," Sherrill says. "I couldn't have hired a more qualified guy than Rockey."
After Sherrill left, subsequent head coaches Sylvester Croom and now Dan Mullen made it a priority to keep Felker, and Croom even put Rockey back on the field a couple of years to coach running backs.
The trio of coaches was smart enough to realize what assistant athletic director and former football trainer Straton Karatassos has always said about Rockey.
“He’s the greatest ambassador Mississippi State has ever had, he's one of the golden boys," Karatassos maintains.
It’s hard to argue that. To Bulldog fans, he’s every bit as loved as Billy Cannon is at LSU, as Herschel Walker is at Georgia and as Steve Spurrier is at Florida.
Cannon, Walker and Spurrier are all Heisman Trophy winners. Rockey’s unwavering devotion to his alma mater is how he’s forever judged by the Bulldogs’ faithful.
“I don't know of anybody in recent times that the Mississippi State family loves as much as they love Rockey for what he did as a player and a coach,” Templeton says. “He's never missed a step in his love and his commitment to the university."
Rockey says it has been “a good deal” to return to Starkville for a second time, hoping to run this extended gun lap all the way to retirement.
“I was a little skinny high school player in West Tennessee, the last player that Mississippi State offered that year in 1971,” Rockey says. “And I’ve been able to be head coach here. I’ve been able to come back here and be on the staff again.
“Mississippi State has been very good to me.”
And you’ve been good to State, Rock.
No, you’ve been exceptional. Ol’ Babe would be proud, but then again, you already knew that.