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Delta State, in many ways the most successful college athletics program in Mississippi, will celebrate much of that rich sports history Friday night at the Grammy Museum in Cleveland with its annual Hall of Fame celebration.
When I write “most successful in Mississippi,” I mean it. Delta State has won national championships in baseball, football and six — count ‘em, six — in women’s basketball. In all sports combined (including swimming), Delta State athletes have claimed 14 national titles, 37 regional championships and 68 conference crowns.
Not bad for a rather remote school of about 3,500 that receives precious little publicity outside of Bolivar County. As traditional newspapers have reduced staffing and the size of sports sections, much of what Delta State has achieved has gone under-publicized, to say the least. Nevertheless, the Deltans keep winning.
It is an amazing story that dates back to when the legendary and gentlemanly Boo Ferriss returned home from the Boston Red Sox in 1960 to take over the Delta State baseball program, carve out a baseball field out of a bean field, and create a national powerhouse. And it dates back to when Delta State decided to revive women’s basketball in 1973 and handed the reins to a graceful lady named Margaret Wade.
And it includes the 2000 national football championship and one of the most perfect offensive performances in the history of the sport at any level. Today, we’ll concentrate of that achievement since Steve Campbell, the head coach of that team, and Mark Hudspeth, who was the offensive coordinator, are among Friday night’s Hall of Fame inductees.
And I know what many readers are thinking: those are mighty big words: “one of the most perfect offensive performances in the history of the sport.”
Yeah, well, listen to this: In its 63-34 national championship demolition of Bloomsburg (Pa.) State at Florence, Ala., Delta State rolled up 36 first downs and 524 yards rushing. You’ve heard of “three yards and a cloud of dust.” This was “10 yards and a grass stain.” With quarterback Josh Bright leading the way, the Statesmen averaged nearly a first down per play. Delta State scored on nine of its first 10 possessions and then ran out the clock on the 11th. Nobody’s perfect.
We’re talking precision here. Campbell and Hudspeth directed an option offense executed to near perfection. The Statesmen possessed remarkable speed at the skill positions behind an offensive line of stout, muscular linemen, most of whom had been judged as a couple inches too short to play Division I football.
That team, it should be noted, had been picked to finish sixth in the Gulf South Conference in a pre-season poll. It finished first in the nation.
Campbell, the head coach, had served as an offensive line coach at Delta State earlier in his career. Indeed, that was his first full-time job in 1990 when he was hired by Don Skelton. Thirty-two years later, Campbell remembers knowing, as a 24-year-old, that he had come to a special place to work.
“You knew there was greatness there,” Campbell said by phone Wednesday from his home in Mobile. “You knew where the bar was set. You could see the banners and the pennants and all the trophies. Coach Ferriss was still in the building every day and the way he went about his business permeated the place. It wasn’t just his success; it was the way he went about his business, the attention to detail and the way he treated people. Margaret Wade was retired but still around and you went into the gymnasium and you saw all those championship banners. It was — it is — a special place.”
I know that many who read this will say something like, “Yeah, but it’s Division II, small stuff.”
Yes, it is Division II but it’s not necessarily small stuff. The athletes may be an inch or two shorter or a few pounds lighter, but they can play. Look at the history.
Ferriss’ baseball teams competed with much success against Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Southern Miss and Alabama. Between games of a doubleheader Delta State swept at Alabama one day, Bear Bryant dropped by the Delta State dugout. “Boo, we’re going to have to quit playing you if you keep beating us like this,” Bryant told Ferriss.
To which Ferriss replied, “Bear, if everybody felt that way, you wouldn’t be able to find anybody who would play you.”
Wade’s Lady Statesmen routinely defeated national powerhouses. LSU was the victim in her last championship victory. In 1990, Delta State played Southern Miss in football and had a chance to win in the fourth quarter before USM scored late to preserve a 12-0 victory. The next week, Southern Miss beat Alabama. The 2007 Jackson State football team that won the SWAC championship lost by two touchdowns to Delta State.
Gerald Glass helped Delta State to a men’s basketball victory over Mississippi State and to the Division II Final Four before transferring to Ole Miss and becoming one of the greatest players in Rebel basketball history.
It’s still true, in many respects, today.
In 2021, pitcher Hunter Riggins achieved a 9-4 record and 2.97 earned run average for Delta State. In 2022, as a graduate transfer at Southern Miss, Riggins has a 3-2 record and a 2.71 ERA. Yes, the level of play is a little bit higher at Division I, but the emphasis is on “a little bit.” The Gulf South Conference, in which Delta State competes, is the Southeastern Conference of Division II athletics.
Jeremy McClain, who directs Southern Miss athletics, once held the same job at Delta State. Before that, he was probably the best pitcher in Delta State history. He was asked recently about the historical excellence of Delta State athletics.
“Well, number one, look at the coaches that been through there,” McClain said. “Just unbelievable — from Coach Ferriss, Bill Marchant and Mike Kinnison in baseball, to Margaret Wade and Lloyd Clark in women’s basketball and Horace McCool, Red Parker, Steve Campbell and Ron Roberts in football. That’s pretty amazing right there. Plus, you’ve got great athletes in the Delta area. And Delta State has made great use of Mississippi’s junior college system in recruiting in all sports.
“It’s a special place, always has been.”
The 2022 Delta State Athletics Hall of Fame Induction will be held Friday at 7 p.m. at the Grammy Museum. Sixteen new inductees will be honored, including, because of COVID delays, the classes of 2020 and 2022.
In the class of 2020: Jennifer Artichuk Beckert (swimming and diving), Michael Eubanks (football), Nicole Trotter Francis (women’s basketball), Lardester Hicks Green (football), Mark Hudspeth (football coach), Edwin Maysonet (baseball), Clyde Muse (men’s basketball) and Jeremy Richardson (men’s basketball).
The Class of 2022 includes Bobby Barrett (football), Steve Campbell (football coach), Micah Davis (football), Dusty Hughes (baseball), Josh Melton (baseball), Chico Potts (men’s basketball) and Tanya Redmond (women’s basketball).