The Night the Lights went out in Starkville
A bungled parachute jump, a sawed-off goal post, a mascot landing in a tree and one of the greatest wins in school history. This is the story of the 1996 Mississippi State-Alabama game.
Exactly 23 years ago this Saturday, Joe Cowart pulled off the greatest heist of his adult life. Rest assured, no crime was committed, and judging Joe — the quintessential good American who fulfills his civic duties, goes to church and doesn’t fudge on his taxes — it’s probably the one wild thing in college he ever did.
Today it’s an uncommonly bright and windy afternoon in downtown Louisville, Mississippi, where Joe is sitting in a booth at Market Cafe, chomping on the locally famous Down South burger. He’s an older relic of the college boy who was once known as a man who could fix things, and if someone walked by to speak to him, they might not notice the mysterious item resting by his side. At first glance, the item appears to be a large PVC pipe or some sort of cylindrical tubing, but a closer look reveals two imperfect cuts, perhaps made in haste.
Turns out, that item is about a 16-inch long chunk of Davis-Wade Stadium goal post, torn down after Mississippi State’s improbable 17-16 upset of the Alabama Crimson Tide at Scott Field on Nov. 16, 1996. All these years, Joe has kept a rolled up newspaper stuffed inside of it, the headline reading, “Hell raised and posts lowered.”
After the game that night, Cowart and a friend lugged a portion of the upright out of the stadium, loaded it into the back of his truck, and, for the next several hours, sawed off pieces of it to hand out to friends and football players as a memento of one of the greatest nights in Mississippi State history.
How Joe came into possession of it is another story.
Fifteen consecutive years of misery
If college football has proven anything, it’s that it only takes one game to become a legend. Mention the 1980 Alabama-Mississippi State game and the first name spoken aloud won’t be Alabama’s famous coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. The first name mentioned will be John Bond.
That immortal day, Bond, appearing like 007 on the football field, led his Bulldogs to an astonishing 6-3 victory over Alabama at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson. The win broke a 22-year streak of consecutive losses to the Crimson Tide and served as only the 11th MSU win in series history. And although the game would go down as perhaps the greatest in the history of the program, Mississippi State learned firsthand that you don’t poke the Bear, as Bama rattled off the next 15 consecutive games.
State, as did Alabama, went through several coaching changes throughout the next decade. After that titanic win in 1980, head coach Emory Bellard coached for 5 more seasons before being fired in 1985. Mississippi State then turned to Rockey Felker, a former Bulldogs player and assistant coach under Alabama’s Ray Perkins, to lead the program. But to describe it best, Rocky Felker’s tenure at his alma mater was, well, rocky.
Then in 1991, State athletic director Larry Templeton brought in Jackie Sherrill — a hardnosed coach who had played for Bryant at Alabama and coached Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino at the University of Pittsburgh. His last stop was at Texas A&M before taking 2 years off of coaching amid an NCAA investigation that exonerated Sherrill personally.
At the time of Sherrill’s hire, Mississippi State losing to Alabama had become as much as an autumn formality as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Pull back the curtain on the rivalry, however, and one would discover that although Alabama had dominated, the games had, for the most part, been remarkably close. And if you asked anyone who came within sniffing distance of this game, they’d tell you that Mississippi State-Alabama was no cakewalk, always a brawl in the trenches.
If Sherrill’s first season in 1991 was any indication of how MSU would fare against Alabama moving forward, things were looking up. That year, State held a 1-loss Alabama team, coached by Gene Stallings, to 13 points on its home field in Tuscaloosa. After the game, State cried foul, asserting Alabama used an illegal tactic to draw a State player offsides on a crucial 3rd down near the goal line, which, State argued, helped to seal the victory for the Crimson Tide. Thought it was a tough loss, Sherrill served notice: We may be ‘Dogs, but we won’t roll over.
The next year, on a night in Starkville where cowbells clucked unceasingly and Sherrill almost pulled off the unthinkable, State gave undefeated Alabama — which marched on to the 1992 national title — its biggest scare in a 30-21 loss. It was a game that prompted Stallings to admit, “it was the toughest spot we’ve been in.”
Then in 1994, it took two 4th-quarter touchdowns (and a little pixie dust by quarterback Jay Barker) for undefeated Alabama to Houdini itself out of Starkville with a 29-25 win. After the game, Sherrill attributed State’s inability to achieve victory in the rivalry to the paranormal, alluding to reporters that his team was spooked by Alabama’s ghost.
In 1996, those ghosts would be eradicated.
Matt Wyatt knew it when he saw the film. If Mississippi State’s record didn’t give him confidence against Alabama, the videotape did.
Now a talk show host based out of Tupelo, Wyatt was Mississippi State’s backup quarterback when the Bulldogs faced Alabama in 1996. Wyatt says that, despite MSU’s 3-5 record, he knew the team could whip Alabama. “That particular week, I remember watching film and all the film study stuff. Our coaches, our team … we were just really confident,” Wyatt said. “We were watching film going, ‘man, we’re as good or better than these guys. We just really are.’ There can be outside perception with media and fans, but you can’t fool coaches and players once they watch the tape.”
In his pregame speech to the team, Sherrill reminded his players of State’s overall grit in the rivalry, despite the losses that had compiled over the years. “I remember before the game, going over a 10-year history and the difference in the points,” Sherrill told SDS. “If you averaged the scores out, they were very close.”
Sherrill knew from his own playing days that Alabama always hated to play Mississippi State. “We may win the game, but we would be beat up for 2 or 3 weeks,” he said.
On the chalkboard before the game, Sherrill noted several things: the physicality it would take to overcome Alabama, the necessity of the running game and the importance of special teams. Those were his bullet points to a hungry squad that included players like Derrick Taite, Paul Lacoste, Robert Isaac, Earnest Garner, Nakia Greer and Greg Favors. Many of them had been passed over by the elite programs, and if they weren’t superstars individually, for one night they could be superstars in the collective.
As Sherrill’s players narrowed their minds on Alabama, a hive of activity buzzed outside the locker room. For weeks, the athletic department had been preparing to face the mighty Crimson Tide, and this year’s contest called for particularly outstanding pomp. First, since the game was held close to Veterans Day, it would only be fitting that parachutists land on the stadium’s turf before the game, right? And while they’re at it, why not bring Bully, the school’s mascot? As it would turn out, that plan, one that went seriously awry, would have both a serious and comical aftermath. Let’s tackle the former first.
Back then, parachutists landing on a football field was certainly not the norm, and because it was a particularly windy night on Nov. 16, accuracy was threatened. Initially, fans, awed by the spectacle, grew concerned when one of the divers appeared to be coming in too fast. That concern upgraded to the status of grave when parachutist Bill Wasser slammed onto the field — legs first. As medical staff rushed to aid him, many feared that Wasser was dead. Fortunately, he was alive but in severe pain. He was quickly rushed to the emergency room at Oktibbeha County Hospital with multiple leg fractures. It was a scary moment indeed, and one that would serve as a portent for things to come.
Now to the comical. When Daniel Roberson arrived at Mississippi State, one of his brother’s roommates served as the lovable MSU mascot, Bully. From afar, Robertson enjoyed the creativity that came as an accompaniment to good mascoting, like the construction of the famous “Bonemobile” made out of chicken wire and paper mache. But when Robertson decided to accept that responsibility for himself, jumping out of airplanes didn’t come with the job title.
As Roberson recalls, prior to the Alabama game, ROTC informed him that Bully would be jumping out of the plane. “And I was going, ‘wait a minute,’ because at the time most of the SEC schools had only one person doing the mascot,” Roberson told SDS. “So I said, ‘Hmm. How is that going to work?’”
The plan was for an expert parachutist, dressed as Bully, to land on the field. From there, Bully would run inside M Club, where Robertson — the real Bully — would pull the ol’ switcheroo and run back out onto the field. Unfortunately for Roberson, Bully never arrived.
But where did Bully go? Legend has it that the parachutist dressed as Bully airmailed Davis-Wade Stadium and landed somewhere on sorority row. “Bully ended up landing, I believe in front of the Zeta (Tau Alpha) house,” Roberson said.
Back at the stadium, Roberson was unaware of Bully’s fate as he watched the sky for a ceremonial arrival. “I was told to stand under the goal post and wait for Bully to land and help escort him off,” Roberson recalled. “When that guy landed and tumbled and there go the paramedics, I had a person tap me on the shoulder and go, ‘you’re coming out now.’ I don’t even have a suit on. I was like, ‘what are you talking about?’”
Bully’s “come out” music was always George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” and when Roberson heard the song crank up over the stadium’s PA system, he knew that was his cue. There was one problem: Roberson was still in street clothes, and slipping into the Bully mascot was more than cumbersome. “So I run back in to start putting this thing on, because it takes a minute,” Roberson recalled. “All I’m told is that Bully had to miss the drop and go to a different spot and you’ve got to come out right now. I was like, ‘I can’t come out right now. I’ve got to get this thing out of the bag and put it on.’”
As Roberson was fussing with the suit, Bad to the Bone played in its entirety, and the crowd, anticipating Bully, grew perplexed. “Later I had people say, ‘Why didn’t you come out when they were playing Bad to the Bone?’ Uhhh, don’t worry about it,” Roberson said.
Eventually Roberson did emerge. Echoing the parachutists, Bully was dressed in military fatigues to underscore a “battle mentality” for the big game. Regardless of the snafus, as Roberson stepped out onto the field, he could tell there was something different about that night.
“You could tell there was just an energy, that something was going to happen,” he said.
Game of all Games
Fresh off a 26-0 annihilation of LSU in Tiger Stadium, Alabama swaggered into Starkville with a record of 8-1 and the benefit of being Alabama. Stallings, firmly ensconced in the Crimson Tide’s football tradition, was looking forward to his 4th SEC Championship Game appearance in the past 5 seasons. But Stallings knew that anything could happen on the road in the SEC, especially at night.
The game had a syrupy quality to it, like two flatfooted heavyweight boxers of the Golden Era going toe-to-toe. It would not have been a game for those who adored offense or an elite passing assault. In total, quarterbacks Freddie Kitchens of Alabama and Derrick Taite of Mississippi State threw for only 245 yards. And though Alabama boasted a pair of 100-yard rushers, Shaun Alexander (106 yards) and Dennis Riddle (103 yards), the Tide gained only 334 yards on a night where real estate was hard to come by.
In the first quarter, the teams bruised one another early, and no scoring occurred until Bulldogs running back Robert Isaac, who appeared to be bottled up, freed himself from a cluster of white jerseys and darted into the end zone with 14 seconds remaining. That run capped an 80-yard drive that drew a smile from Sherrill, who was an admirer of severe, smashmouth football. Mississippi State 7, Alabama 0.
But the lead was short-lived. In the second quarter, the Crimson Tide put together a nice drive, punctuated by a touchdown courtesy of Riddle, the shifty Tide tailback, with 11:39 to play in the half. Special teams would come into play, as Sherrill predicted, and after Alabama placekicker Jon Brock footed the extra point, the score was knotted at 7.
Alabama then appeared to be seizing control of the game after forcing a Mississippi State punt, but on the ensuing possession Kitchens forced a throw and was picked off by the maroon-shirted Izell McGill. Taite then linked up with Lamont Woodbury in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead score. Kicker Brian Hazelwood’s extra point was deflected but somehow wobbled through the uprights to make it Mississippi State 14, Alabama 7.
Stallings, frustrated with Alabama’s offensive output, pulled a struggling Kitchens and inserted backup quarterback Warren Foust, who promptly directed the Tide down the field, not with his arm, but with large doses of Shaun Alexander. The broad-shouldered running back would eventually punch it in from the 11, but Brock shanked the extra point and Alabama trailed heading into halftime 14-13.
State was the first team to threaten in the second half, but Bama’s Chris Hood pounced on an Isaac fumble on the Tide 18-yard-line to flip possessions. To Stallings’ chagrin, however, Alabama could not seem to generate anything on offense, as all throughout the third quarter ball carriers were met immediately by convoys of maroon jerseys, the backs of them reading LACOSTE, FAVORS, and GARNER. Because the Tide could muster only 27 yards of total offense and no points, Mississippi State entered the fourth quarter leading Alabama.
The Tide found a way to recapture the lead. Riding Alexander, the prodigious runner who went on to a splendid NFL career, Alabama marched down like pretty stallions through a field. A 39-yard run by Alexander the Great put the Tide in Bulldogs territory, but then the MSU defense stiffened. Alabama had to settle for a field goal, which Brock split from 42 yards out.
With all that had happened, Alabama might narrowly escape this eerie night in Starkville if its defense could hold.
On the other side of the ball, State went to work silencing the ghosts. Taite found tight end Reginald Kelly for the biggest play of the game — a 69-yard touch pass that put MSU in business at the Alabama 11. The Bulldogs were forced to try a field goal after Taite was sacked, and Hazelwood sank the attempt to put the Maroons ahead 17-16 with less than 9 minutes left in regulation.
Kitchens, hoping for heroics now, eventually returned to action with less than 5 minutes left in the game. Again, he could not conjure up any sort of offensive mojo, and the teams traded punts until late in the quarter.
Finally, with 1:54 remaining, Kitchens trotted back onto the field. Everyone watching, both in the stands and at home, knew that this was it. This was the ballgame. Alabama’s fate rested in the hands of Charles Frederick Kitchens of Gadsden, Alabama, who wore number 9, but all he wanted was 6.
On the first series, Kitchens found receiver Marcell West on a critical 3rd-down play to continue the Crimson Tide’s penetration in Mississippi State territory. But then the offense stalled, and Alabama was faced with a 4th-and-3 with 35 seconds left to play.
Out of a 4-wide receiver set, Kitchens snapped the ball and dropped back, looking for his preferred target, West. He fired downfield and West appeared to make an underhand grab, but the ball shot out of his grasp and skidded across the turf.
The crowd witnessing the incomplete pass went berserk. Forty-thousand MSU fans, eyes glazed with pure ecstasy and wearing incredulity on their faces, could now stop holding their breath. Fifteen years of bottled-up frustration spilled out as joy.
It was over. Thirty-three seconds now stood between Mississippi State and victory.
Sherrill tossed his cap to the heavens and pumped his fist as a chorus of cheers rang like a soundtrack to his coaching life. After hugged his daughter, Bonnie, who had sung the national anthem before the game, the ESPN announcer said, “Boy, oh boy, they’re going to party in Starkville tonight!”
There was so much jubilation on the Mississippi State sidelines that several times, Sherrill had to keep his coaches and players from spilling onto the field.
As the clocked ticked down and Sherrill was assured of victory, he began walking toward Stallings at midfield. The camera panned to Stallings, who cracked a faint smile as he approached his former player and closed a 34-year gap of time from when he’d found a recruiting gem in Duncan, Oklahoma, and brought him to Alabama.
The scene was reminiscent of one 28 years previous, when Stallings, then the Texas A&M head coach, met Bear Bryant at midfield after an upset victory over Alabama in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. There is an iconic photograph that shows Bryant, hat askew, lifting Stallings into the air.
So what did Stallings say to Sherrill at midfield on the night the lights went out in Starkville and the roles were reversed? “Coach Stallings didn’t pick me up, I’ll put it that way,” Sherrill laughs.
As the men converged inside a sea of people, Stallings was gracious and offered his congratulations. By then, the stands were emptying and the goal posts on both ends of the field were falling catastrophically. People were climbing onto the horizontal portion of the uprights while others were tugging at any part of the post they could grasp. Others just stood and watched as the large aluminum cylinders danced in the night.
Fans frantically searched for any sort of memento they could find. A patch of stadium grass, a shaker, a tuft of sideline hedges, a cheerleader’s megaphone. Any equipment lying on the field was considered abandoned and therefore alienable. “People were trying to grab the pylons in the end zone. Just anything they can grab. One of the cheerleaders had a windbreaker — they grabbed the windbreaker. There was a towel from the team — they grabbed the towel,” Roberson said.
The pandemonium continued for a long while. As fans continued to empty onto the field, each and every one was in the process of making a story to tell to their future posterity. Here are a few of them:
“I remember jumping the fence and battling through the sticker bushes, watching fans take down and parade the goal post on the field,” remembered Chris Riles, who was a junior at Mississippi State in 1996.
“I left with my date before the game was over because she was cold and I assumed we were going to lose,” recalled Joshua Robinson. “And then, as we were walking onto sorority row, I heard the stadium erupt and I looked at her and said, ‘go to the (fraternity) house!’ And I took off running back to the stadium like my hair was on fire.”
Jeffery Broocks, a junior that year, remembers that one of his fraternity brothers, Sean Monte, who was originally from Birmingham, changed out of an Alabama shirt and into a Mississippi State one by game’s end — “and celebrated with all us lowly MSU fans,” Broocks jokes.
Shaun Cade of Kosciusko remembers jumping into the bushes with his friend, Nick Strickland, and “Derrick Ware almost getting crushed by the goal post.”
Finally, Scott Meek, putting it succinctly, said, “All I remember was total euphoria.”
While others were battling the cold and the wind, Daniel Roberson was sweltering inside his Bully costume. He had already lost almost 50 pounds that semester “cause that suit was an oven,” but now his body was tired from having to perform for several hours now. So when the game ended and fans rushed the field, Roberson panicked, thinking, “How in the world am I going to get out of this stadium?” What he hadn’t planned on was that before he could leave, he would be taken for a ride.
“I got picked up and carried like a player,” he said. “I was saying, ‘I’m just the mascot, why are y’all carrying me?’”
Later, Roberson was assisted out of the stadium by friends. He was every bit as exhausted as the players.
The postgame box score told the tale of a team effort. MSU linebacker Paul Lacoste had been an absolute beast, recording 19 total tackles — 11 unassisted. Isaac did a yeoman’s job on the ground, rushing for 96 hard yards on 21 carries. Fullback Nakia Greer labored for 26 yards of his own. Tim Nelson, Andelsoa Badon, Eric Daniel, Eric Brown, Terry Day, Michael Lindsey, Raymond Gee, Eric Dotson, Izell McGill and Chauncey McGee all chipped in with tackles. Lahitia Grant had 1 catch for 9 yards, John Jennings 1 for 26, and Matthew Butler 2 for 25. Hazelwood had 2 extra points and the biggest: the game-winning field goal with 8:49 to play.
Alabama retired to its locker room, but many of the Mississippi State players were still on the field, participating in the celebration. Sherrill and his assistant coaches eventually corralled them, and inside the locker room offered words of encouragement to the happy victors.
“You don’t have to tell people you are winners. People know you are,” Sherrill said.
Then Sherrill went to find Stallings, whom he greatly respected. “I went into his locker room after the game and visited with him. He was (happy).” Sherrill said. “He was not very happy he lost, but happy one of his former players was able to win.”
The next week, the Mississippi State student newspaper, The Reflector, printed a commemorative issue for the Alabama game, the front page boasting “Hell raised and posts lowered.” Inside, readers found advertisements for Rick’s Café Americain (including a performance by Law of Nature) as well as an ad taken out by Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, congratulating its new initiates but no mention of a parachutist in a tree.
Richard Russo, a high school football coach in Mississippi, was once an aspiring journalist who worked for The Reflector. That week, his column for the commemorative issue, entitled “The battles and the war go to Bulldogs” took on a war theme. After listing several reasons for victory, Russo concluded his piece by praising the fans. “Last, but certainly not least,” Russo wrote, “was the support and atmosphere the fans gave the team during the entire game. For a change, the stands remained packed until the final buzzer. This kind of support was lacking all year. When the players waved, asking for noise, the fans responded. … Now, let’s direct some of this excitement toward those Razorbacks!”
But one of the best stories is one the papers didn’t print.
A piece of history
Remember our friend, Joe Cowart? Joe had once been a member of the football team at MSU but became disillusioned because of personal injuries he’d sustained and coaching turnover at the O-line position. He ultimately decided to give up football, but because he was known as “Mr. Fix It” among the players, athletic trainer Paul Mock figured he could use Joe’s services in some capacity. Joe got a little scholarship money out of it, so it worked to his benefit as well.
When Joe was on the field amid the postgame pandemonium, he noticed that several students were attempting to carry a section of the goal post out of the stadium. Along with one of his buddies, Joe approached the students and said, “Guys, this is a safety hazard and we can’t let you take this outside of the stadium.”
Now, it should be noted that Joe had no real authority to tell them what he told them, but he was leveraging his position with the team to his advantage. “I’ve learned that if you look like you know what you are doing and you sound like you know what you are doing and you do it confidently, you can get away with a lot,” Joe laughs.
Inside his mind, Joe had another plan: confiscate the goal post for himself.
After he convinced the students to drop the goods, Joe and his friend tucked away the goal post in an inconspicuous part of the stadium. Then, after everyone had cleared out, they loaded it into the back of Joe’s truck, strapped it down as best they could and drove away in the middle of the night.
The goal post was hanging out of the tailgate as Joe’s truck rumbled through downtown Starkville. Fortuitously, he had a buddy who worked at Raspet Flight Research Lab off of Highway 12, where inside was a band saw that was capable of carving that sucker up. Joe and his friend worked for several hours chopping up the goal post into 4-, 8-, and 12-inch pieces. “There was no rhyme or reason to it,” he said.
After the whole post had been chopped up, they loaded it into the back of Joe’s truck — “it’s much easier to transport that way,” Joe chuckles — and the next day, Joe indiscriminately doled out several portions of the goal post to his friends around the football program. “I know that we gave it to some of the managers. I think even some of the players got pieces of it. I don’t remember who all we gave it to. Pretty much whoever wanted a piece we tried to cut them a piece,” he said.
A Final Thought
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 23 years since that incredible night in Starkville, Mississippi, when the ghosts were erased. After the 1996 season, Stallings would retire from coaching while Sherrill continued to elevate the Mississippi State program. Improbably, he directed the Bulldogs to 3 consecutive wins over Alabama from 1996-98 and led the team to the SEC Championship Game against Tennessee in 1998.
Sherrill retired from coaching in 2003, and today, both of the ol’ ball coaches reside in Texas. “Our relationship was very good, and still is today,” Sherrill says. “We talk quite a bit.”
Several months after the game, Daniel Roberson was making a year-in-review tape to give to the Mississippi State cheerleaders, and was given access to game footage throughout the year. As he was watching the aftermath of the Alabama game, he saw something remarkable that grabbed his attention.
“It was of these two men with their arms around each other. And this one man is just balling crying. And you can read his lips: ‘We just beat Alabama,’” Roberson said.
Then Roberson shares a more personal story that reveals how important this game was to his father, a Mississippi State graduate who passed away 8 years ago. “He ended up calling me from Memphis that night after the game,” Roberson said. “He goes, ‘I just want to let you know, of my three sons, I had a son that was on the field with a jersey — he might not have been playing for the team — but was on the team that beat Alabama.’ I’m like, ‘Dad, I’m the mascot.’ He goes, ‘No, no. You are part of the team that beat Alabama. That whole stadium that night was part of the team that beat Alabama.’”