Essay: Mississippi State and Vanderbilt in NCAA Super Regional

by BoCarter | Posted on Thursday, June 7th, 2018

Mississippi_State_Bulldogs.svg

vanderbilt-logoBy Bo Carter

Special to Sports Page DFW – June 6, 2018

Essay: Mississippi State, Vandy Go Back Five Decades in Postseason – Historic Series

DALLAS – For many of us, 1971 was a breakthrough year – especially for college baseball.

It also enhanced a long and intertwined history of Mississippi State and Vanderbilt baseball.

These two now-powerhouse programs met in the two-team (yep, that’s two-team Southeastern Conference playoffs) with a NCAA District 3 trek to Gastonia, N.C., and possible voyage to a first-ever NCAA World Series (at that time celebrating its 25-year anniversary) for both schools.

Those also were days if civil unrest, Vietnam protests, coed residence halls, the famed Good Woman Bar and Grill in the baseman of Vanderbilt’s Carmichael Towers, and the beginning of the fad of streaking, which reached a high point (if you can call it that) a year or two later.

Somehow, though, MSU and Vandy baseball brought a calming effect and great pride to two programs not noted fgor their national success. In fact, it was 2009 women’s bowling that brought the Battling Commodores their first of four NCAA team crowns, and State still is seeking that elusive, first NCAA team title in spite of near-misses in the last two NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships.

But SEC and national success aside, the ’71 SEC playoffs brought a virtual new era of circuit diamond activity, though State won conference trophies in 1948, 1949, 1965, 1966, and 1970. The Bulldogs of coach Paul Gregory almost were building a loop dynasty with a possible fourth championship over a seven-season period.

Vanderbilt, meanwhile, had not sniffed SEC success over 38 previous seasons with a plethora of underfunded teams, volunteer coaches, hand-me-down uniforms, and a baseball facility that also served as football practice fields – complete with a large drainage ditch running through the outfield, football light poles inside the temporary fences, folding tables behind the backstop fence, and the top of the third base dugout as media facilities.

That made the ’71 series even more intriguing, and add in the fact that VU had three of the top pitchers nationally – Mike Willis, Doug Wessel and Jeff Peeples – and it looked like a low-scoring tossup that might go the maximum three games (best of) that spring. Willis and Wessel incidentally tossed what is believed to be the initial college doubleheader no-hitter with back-to-back gems against Belmont.

Vanderbilt’s fourth-year head coach Larry (Smokie) Schmittou (nicknamed to give the VU program more pizzazz by later award-winning columnist “Iowa Boy” Chuck Offenburger – then the sports editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler student newspaper) had assembled a VU collegiate squad built around some of his local youth league teams he had coached in the Nashville area since the current players were in the 10-12-year-old age groups.

Add in Mississippi State’s lefthanded ace Mike Proffitt (who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1972 but retired from pro baseball after three seasons with arm problems), power-hitting Phil Still and Ted Milton, and a contact-making support group, and the recipe for a classic series was intact.

And the series before overflowing crowds at both MSU’s new (and developing) Dudy Noble Field with a capacity of some 2,500 but berm and outfield grass/pickup seating to expand to 7,000-plus and Vanderbilt’s somewhat-quaint McGugin Field with temporary bleachers and sections GG (for green grass) down both foul lines and the outfield, plus the top row of then-Dudley Field (VU’s football stadium) produced just that drama and more.

Game One was the anticipated pitchers’ duel with Proffitt outdueling Willis in a 5-1 MSU triumph. Some pickup trucks and other contraptions started to show up at then-six-year-old Dudy Noble Field, and a rowdy crowd greeted Vandy’s nine. MSU CoSIDA Hall of Fame publicist Bob Hartley was official scorer for the game and was backed by then-assistant and later longtime State director of athletics Larry Templeton.

Game Two took place at packed McGugin Field with numerous MSU news media on hand, and a special broadcast team of regular radio play-by-play voice the late Dennis Hudson (nervously twitching his foot and holding a cigarette under the folding table) and future NFF Chris Schenkel Award recipient and 53-year voice of MSU football and basketball the late Jack Cristil holding court. “Blowtorch” clear channel station WSM Radio aired both Vandy games with former Iowa catcher and beloved Nashville and Little Rock (later radio voice of the Arkansas Razorbacks) Paul (Double E) Eells calling the action.

Your author was a frightened freshman student assistant helping set up an Army surplus public address system with four speakers pointing in various directions above the third base dugout’s makeshift pressbox and then getting both lineups and reading them aloud to the gathered sweltering media seated at folding tables behind home plate.

Unfortunately at the time, Milton and Still provided RBIs, and the Commodores could muster but one run as the Bulldogs moved onto Gastonia with a 29-9 record. In those days, the NCAA chose between 24-32 entries (depending on the selection committee’s desires – this was way before the famed Ratings Percentage Index began to be utilized in the selection process), and Vandy was left at home as SEC Eastern Division champ with a 33-19 overall mark at the Commodores’ inaugural divisional trophy tucked away at McGugin Center.

State rolled through the District 3 tourney at Gastonia with a final 5-2 win over Georgia Tech (after falling the game before 20-8 to Tech in the double elimination format) and advanced to the first of nine eventual NCAA World Series. The Battlin’ Bulldogs fell to Tulsa and ace pitcher Steve Rogers 5-2 before dropping a 3-1 decision to BYU and tying for seventh place in the eight-team national finals.

Couple of historic anecdotes: Schmittou later became managing partner of the Nashville Sounds and multiple minor league teams before moving to the Texas Rangers as vice president from 1983-86 and was an advocate for Nashville to become a Major League Baseball expansion city for 1993. Denver and Miami edged out Music City in that process.

Gregory never realized that MSU glory again after losing the sterling 1971 senior class and retired after the 1974 season. Longtime MLB third base coach (Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine and Montreal) Jimmy Bragan replaced Gregory for one year, returned to pro baseball and eventually became Southern League commissioner.

Bragan, an All-SEC second baseman for the 1948 and ’49 Bulldogs and brother of legendary MLB manager and philanthropist Bobby Bragan, was replaced by MSU’s winningest coach all-time in any sport – ABCA Hall of Fame head coach Ron Polk who took State to six more NCAA World Series and 10 combined regular-season or SEC tournament championships.

Both Gregory and Schmittou laid the groundwork for two of the school’s most successful teams. Vandy advanced to the NCAA World Series in 2011, 14-15 under another legendary head coach Tim Corbin (winning the title in ’14 and falling to Virginia in a championship series rematch with Virginia in ’15). Interestingly, the Commodores made their first two postseason NCAA Regional/District 3 appearances in school history in 1973 and ’74 at neutral-site Dudy Noble Field in Starkville. State and Vandy also met in the first multi-team SEC tournament at Oxford, Miss., in 1977 with the Bulldogs rolling to a 15-3 triumph.

MSU later has made 14 NCAA Regional appearances from 1979-2018 and closed as runnerup to UCLA in the 2013 NCAA World Series.

Yours truly helped with media operations for three more SEC playoffs with the Commodores from 1972-74 as Vandy won an unprecedented four consecutive SEC Eastern Division crowns. Archie Manning at shortstop from 1968-71 helped lay the groundwork for future Ole Miss QB-shortstop the late Norris Weese in ’72 to win the SEC West and conference title over Vanderbilt, but the Commodores broke through with SEC playoff triumphs over Alabama in both ’73 and ’74.

Many of the friendships and contacts from that 1971 SEC event helped lead your author to a position as assistant sports information director under Hartley in 1974, and a 1974-86 stint in MSU publicity included publicizing the likes of Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark, Bobby Thigpen, Jeff Brantley, and dozens of other All-SEC and All-America standouts before the Carter family moved to the Dallas area to work with the Southwest Conference in 1986.

And this weekend two squads who have overcome more than their share of adversity throughout the season face off in the NCAA Nashville Super Regional beginning Friday at 7 p.m. (CDT).

MSU (35-26 overall, 15-15 SEC and making the 2018 conference tourney as a play-in opponent to LSU) and Vanderbilt (36-25, 15-13 SEC and yet another play-in occupant against Texas A&M) have gotten sizzling at the right time and have the NCAA World Series bid awaiting one of these over-achieving, late-arriving nines. Interim head coach Gary Henderson helped the Dawgs overcome a 0-3 start with 35 victories in the last 58 outings. VU swept the initial, three-game SEC series between these longtime foes in Starkville.

Though they now have met 118 times since facing off for the first time in 1913 and with MSU holding a 69-47-2 advantage, many observers see this matchup as a true tossup. Pitching has been a string point in postseason for both crews with MSU ace Ethan Small (5-3, 2.94 earned run average, 107 strikeouts in 85-plus innings) and a standout bullpen by committee behind him. All-SEC OF Jake Mangum provides plenty of offense with a .354 batting average, three homers and 29 RBI.

Vanderbilt’s mainstays for the supers are pitcher Drake Fellows (7-4, 3.52 ERA, 102 strikeouts in 92 innings) and spay-hitting Austin Martin (.335-1 HR-18 RBI-21 stolen bases).

Just don’t ask this essayist to make any bold predictions – it’s a win-win situation in the Carter casa with better half Dr. Joanne Pryor-Carter holding two MSU degrees but sometimes sympathizing with the Commodores – maybe except his weekend…

###

Tags

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these html tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>