MSU President Mark Keenum (with Halbrook Trophies), flanked by Andy Halbrook of Ruston, La.
MSU President Mark Keenum, right with Halbrook Trophies, flanked by Andy Halbrook of Ruston, La.

NATCHEZ — Mississippi State swept both the men’s and women’s divisions of the annual Halbrook Award for Academic Excellence at the Mississippi Association of Colleges and Universities Conference Tuesday.

Mississippi State had a graduation rate of 87 percent for its women athletes and 72 percent for its men. President Mark Keenum accepted both awards.

Gulf Coast Community College won the Halbrook Award in the junior college division with a 97 percent graduation rate. Rust College won the award for private four-year colleges with a graduation rate of 96 percent. Blue Mountain College won the award for most improved graduation rate in all divisions with a 20 percent increase in graduation rates.

Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland

Mississippi Today sports columnist Rick Cleveland was the guest speaker Tuesday at the Halbrook Awards Luncheon at the 83rd annual Mississippi Association Colleges and Universities Conference at the Natchez Convention Center. Here are his remarks.

Thank you. It is my pleasure to be here in historic Natchez during this historic city’s tricentennial. It is especially gratifying to help celebrate the worthwhile Mississippi tradition that is the John C. and Ernestine McCall Halbrook Award for Academic Achievement.

We all know that junior college and college sports are an indelible part of Mississippi society. My good friend Marino Casem who coached at nearby Alcorn State coined a phrase that capsulizes the passion for college sports in the Magnolia State.

Said Casem, the acknowledged Godfather of the SWAC: “In the East, college football is a cultural exercise. On the West Coast, it is a tourist attraction. In the Midwest, it is cannibalism. But in the South and in Mississippi, college football is a religion, and every Saturday is a holy day.”

It is a fact that sometimes we get so wrapped up in who wins and who loses and who scores the touchdowns that we forget why those athletes are in college in the first place. Which, of course, is to get an education.

David M. Halbrook of Belzoni was big on education. Elected to the state Legislature in 1968, he served for 28 years and for much of the time was chairman of the House Education Committee. He was an extremely strong proponent of education and in fact introduced my hero Gov. William Winter’s historic education reform bill.

David M. Halbrook was also a sports guy. He actually played football as a freshman at Ole Miss under legendary Coach John Vaught, before suffering a career-ending knee injury his sophomore year. Thankfully, David M. Halbrook made good use of his education even if he could not continue in football.

During his tenure in the House, it occurred to Rep. Halbrook that while Mississippi’s student-athletes received all sorts of recognition for their athletic performances, they received very little recognition for their achievements in the classroom.

So, together with his brothers, the Halbrook family endowed the Halbrook Award and named it after their beloved parents who had passed away. The purpose of the Halbrook Award is to recognize colleges and universities that maintain and achieve high academic standards for student-athletes, thus encouraging high graduation rates.

The fact is Mississippi has a long, long history of academic excellence among its athletes.

Dr. Mark Keenum, you will be glad to hear that two of the greatest were Mississippi State baseball pitchers. All of you know surely about David “Boo” Ferriss, Mississippi’s all-time baseball legend, who pitched for Mississippi State before going on to Major League fame and then coming back to Delta State where he was one of the most beloved coaches in college baseball annals.

Boo Ferriss won 46 games his first two seasons in the Major leagues.
Boo Ferriss won 46 games his first two seasons in the Major leagues.

I have known Coach for more than half a century, was fortunate enough to write his biography and am forever blown away by his intellect as well as his pure goodness. At Shaw High School nearly 80 years ago, Coach was the class valedictorian, while he was also a star in football, basketball and tennis, as well as baseball.

He was a straight-A student, whose penmanship was really like artwork. At 94, it still is. He was also an outstanding student at Mississippi State where he played baseball as well as basketball.

When Coach and I did our first book signing together at Delta State, we sold and signed more than 700 books in one afternoon, sitting side by side. It was somewhat demoralizing for me. He signed in this elegant script that was much like calligraphy.

My signature was more like chicken scratch. And he was 30 years older than I.

But scholastic excellence for Mississippi State pitching stars goes much further back than Boo Ferriss. Willie Mitchell was born Dec. 1, 1889, in Pleasant Grove, Miss. Willie was so smart and studious he graduated from high school at age 15. He graduated from then-Mississippi A & M at age 19 but not before he pitched the greatest game in college baseball history.

In the second game of a double header at LSU in 1909, Willie Mitchell pitched a perfect game. That’s right, he retired all 27 LSU batters. Not one Tiger reached first base. Furthermore, he struck out 26 of the 27 batters he faced. One LSU player hit a fair ball and that was a ground ball to second base.

We all know for certain professional scouts were eager to sign Willie. I’ve always wondered if they also decided to sign the one LSU player who hit a fair ball. I don’t know about you, but I think I would have.

From newspaper accounts of that time, we have learned that Willie Mitchell threw a pitch that got once it got to the plate, just kind of dropped out of the batter’s sight. It was kind of like what a split fingered fast ball does today. They didn’t know what to call it back then, so they just called it the Willie Ball.

Willie Mitchell used that pitch to pitch in the Big Leagues later that same summer after the perfect game against LSU. He used it to strike out Babe Ruth the first time the Babe batted in an American League game. He used it for a lifetime Major League earned run average of 2.80.

Academically, Willie must have been All-World. I mean, he graduated at age 19.

I could give you so many other great athletes who were also remarkable students.

Robert Khayat, the splendid former chancellor at Ole Miss, was one while he played both football and baseball and starred in both. Dr. Doug Rouse, a contemporary of mine at Southern Miss, was an outstanding football player and student who became an orthopedic surgeon and now serves on the state College Board.

Clarence Weatherspoon, who went on to a 13-year career in the NBA, earned his master’s in business administration with honors at USM while he was still playing varsity basketball.

Frank Dowsing, the first African American football player at Mississippi State, was the valedictorian of the Tupelo High class he integrated and later a President’s List scholar at State.

And then there’s my favorite on this short list of outstanding Mississippi student-athletes. And a lot of people don’t know what I am about to tell you. Academically, Medgar Evers of Alcorn State was a straight-A student after he served his country as a sergeant in the U.S. Army in World War II.

Medgar Evers
Medgar Evers, a star in the classrooms and on the athletic fields of Alcorn State University.

Medgar Evers served valiantly in the Battle of Normandy, then came back to Alcorn where he majored in business administation, made straight As, captained the football team, competed in track and field, sang in the college choir, competed in debate and was his junior class president. We all know what he went on to do in civil rights. We all know of his courage.

Medgar Evers was an athletic man, but more than that a man of intellect, conviction and courage.

He was very much in the tradition of student-athlete the Halbrook Award exists to encourage, promote and honor.

Our state has produced many of the world’s greatest athletes. Just for starters, pro football’s all-time leading scorer and pass receiver is Jerry Rice, from Mississippi Valley State. Pro football’s second all-time leading rusher is Walter Payton, from Jackson State. The second all-time leading passer is Brett Favre of Southern Miss. The greatest punter in history of the game is Ray Guy of Southern Miss. The patriarch of the first family of American football is Archie Manning of Drew.

But today, it is most important to remember that such athletic excellence is often accompanied by academic excellence as well. All too often, recognition for athletic excellence far exceeds that of academic excellence.

The Halbrook Award exists to promote the latter and to ensure that on at least one day of the year, the tail does not wag the dog.

Thank you.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.