Interim coach Gary Henderson and Bulldog players at Wednesday’s game at Jackson State University. Centerfielder Jake Mangun, No. 15, stands next to Henderson.

Mississippi State had just completed a flawless, 12-1 trouncing of Jackson State late Wednesday night when interim head coach Gary Henderson entered the Bulldogs’ traditional post-game huddle out in left field of Bob Braddy Stadium on the JSU campus.

Before Henderson could begin to talk, applause broke out. State players were clapping for their new head coach.

Rick Cleveland

You don’t see that every day in college baseball.

But then you also don’t see such a stunningly peculiar start to a season as these State players have experienced this February.

“Tonight was big for our team,” Henderson later told reporters.

It was. The Diamond Dogs badly needed for something good to happen in this oddest of early seasons. State is opening the season with a 10-game road trip because of the reconstruction of Dudy Noble Field. The road trip began with the Bulldogs being “punched in the mouth,” Henderson said, three times by Southern Miss this past weekend. Then came the forced resignation of popular, second-year coach Andy Cannizaro, announced Tuesday morning.

Neither Henderson, nor his players, wanted to discuss Cannizaro’s departure, other than to call it “unfortunate.” Reports on what happened have centered on marital infidelity issues, but the guess here is reasons for his forced resignation are far more complicated.

The good news for State would appear that, in Henderson, State can turn in-house to an interim coach who has experienced head coaching success at the highest level of college baseball. Henderson, a former college pitcher, won 258 games and lost 199 as the head coach at Kentucky, where he succeeded Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen. In 2012, when Kentucky won 45 games, Henderson was named SEC Coach of the Year.

It was presumably an easy choice for Cohen to turn to Henderson, a highly respected pitching expert whom he has known and worked with for years.

In fact, Henderson said he and Cohen talked only briefly before the move was made for Henderson to replace Cannizaro. “I would term it a short conversation,” Henderson said. “It was pretty black and white what needed to happen. At least that would be my take.”

Henderson first met with the team as head coach on Wednesday morning. Then came the bus trip to Jackson and a 90-minute rain delay before Mississippi State became the first SEC team – or nationally ranked team – to play a game on the JSU campus.

The Bulldogs played well against a JSU team that opened its season the night before with a 4-0 victory over New Orleans at New Orleans. State pitched well, fielded well and hit well – and seemed focused and upbeat about it all.

Said Jake Mangum, the team’s centerfielder and clearly one of the team’s leaders, “”I trust Coach Henderson 100 percent. … I respect him so much.”

Andy Cannizaro, during his last game as MSU coach, Sunday at USM

Mangum, nor Hunter Vansau (the other Bulldog player made available for post-game interviews), wanted to dwell on Cannizaro’s departure.

“It’s unfortunate, but we have to move on,” Mangum said. “I hate it, but we’ll be all right. We have a lot of baseball to play.”

Details of all the circumstances surrounding Cannizaro’s dismissal/resignation likely will surface over the coming days and weeks, but Mangum said he and his teammates will stay focused on the task at hand.

“We’re about to win a bunch of games,” he said.

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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.