From left, Anriel Howard, Teaira McCowan, Jazzmun Holmes,coach Vic Schaefer, Zion Campbell and Jordan Danberry smile for a photo after their win against Clemson during their NCAA tournament game at Humphrey Coliseum.

HOUSTON – So, I am en route to Oregon with the perfunctory 4½-hour delay at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. I have some time to tell you what I’ve been thinking about. So here it is, as I head (eventually) to Portland to watch the Mississippi State Bulldogs play in the NCAA Women’s Sweet 16 for the fourth straight year:

These State ladies and their coach, Vic Schaefer, have given people like me much to write about in recent seasons, including that they have played in the national championship game for the past two seasons and seem hell-bent on getting there again.

More to today’s point: These State women have given this old sports writer some inkling of what it must feel like to cover, say, Alabama football or Kentucky basketball. These State women win. That’s what they do, they win. They are the windshield, the opposition are the bugs.

Rick Cleveland

Said Schaefer the other night after State smacked Clemson 85-61 to advance in the second round: “It’s reached the point where when we lose a game it’s like the sky is falling. Our people expect us to win.”
Yes, just like Crimson Tide football and Big Blue basketball. And even those teams don’t win at the rate State’s been winning in recent seasons.

State has won 158 games – and counting – over the last five seasons. Over the last three seasons, the Bulldogs are 103-9. That’s right, 103 and 9. Usually, they don’t just defeat people, they flatten them. Just like Alabama football and Kentucky basketball. They win championships. They win Coach of the Years, Player of the Years. They dominate All-Conference teams. They do it with class. Often, they follow a victory by going up into the stands to hug fans, sign autographs pose for photos.

In Mississippi, they have become rock stars.

There’s been nothing else quite like this in my 50-plus years of writing sports in the Magnolia State. I wasn’t working during the real glory years of Ole Miss football with Johnny Vaught. It must have been something like this: always in the Top 10, always in the hunt for a national championship, nearly always winning, often by huge margins. I didn’t cover Delta State when their women were winning the way State’s women are winning now.

During my career, State baseball has had its moments. Indeed, Ole Miss, State and Southern Miss have all had moments in the national spotlight. There were those great Davey Whitney-coached teams at Alcorn. But there hasn’t been the sustained, national, top-level success these Bulldog women have achieved. Mostly, I’ve watched my friends who cover Alabama football and Kentucky basketball chronicle stuff like this. And, yes, I have watched sometimes with envy.

We’ve been teased at times. I was there when State beat No. 1 Alabama and Bear Bryant 6-3 in 1980, ending so many years of consecutive domination. I was there in 1996, when Richard Williams led State to an SEC Tournament championship, beating proud Kentucky and Rick Pitino, in the finals.

But those moments have been fleeting. You want proof? I spent Christmas in 1980 covering State in the Sun Bowl at El Paso, where the Dogs were swamped by Nebraska. Days later, Alabama clobbered Baylor on New Year’s Day in the Cotton Bowl. See?

And you should know what happened in ’96, when State beat Kentucky in the SEC Tournament and then went to The Meadowlands to play in the Final Four. You do, don’t you? Kentucky won it all. Syracuse beat State and then Kentucky slammed Syracuse for another Natty. That’s what happened.

Often, I’ve wondered about those Kentucky and Alabama writers: Do they get tired of all that winning? Does all the travel to regionals, big bowl games and national championships get old? Do they run out of superlatives to describe it all?

Now I know.

They don’t. It doesn’t hurt one bit to use the word “splendid” over and over.

For State’s women, there’s one big step left to take. I am just along for the ride, flight delays and all.

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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.