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Cleveland: On Mississippi State’s 1979 Game in Maryland

RickClevelandThis was September, 1979. Mississippi State’s football team was playing Maryland at College Park, Md. The late, great Orley Hood and I covered the game for the Jackson newspapers.

We spent all day Friday and Saturday morning touring our nation’s capital. Orley was — and I am — a history buff. We probably set a record for time spent by sports writers touring the Lincoln Memorial.

Saturday afternoon, we made our way over to Byrd Stadium at College Park and another history lesson we hadn’t really expected. In the press box, I found my seat right next to Sen. John C. Stennis, a former State yell leader, and the man who had replaced Theodore Bilbo in the U.S. Senate 32 years earlier. (For the record, and this is the history buff talking, we got a lot better right there.)

I timidly introduced myself to the Senator. He said, in that pronounced Kemper County drawl of his, “Ah read your stuff all the time. You must be Ace Cleveland’s boy.”

I was and am.

My dad much admired Sen. Stennis and had sung his praises to me for years and years. I was in awe of Stennis. I couldn’t believe I was sitting by him. I mean, I was 27. Stennis had become a U.S. Senator five years before I was born.

The 1979 Mississippi State football season was not one fondly remembered by Bulldog fans. It was my first year at The Clarion-Ledger, the late Emory Bellard’s first as head coach at State. Bellard was trying to run the Wishbone offense without a quarterback suited to run the option offense. The results were as predictable as they were dismal. State opened with a 14-13 loss to Memphis. Then came an open date, and then Maryland. The Bulldogs were decided underdogs.

The Senator, nevertheless, was optimistic. I told him I wasn’t. He told me he didn’t want to interrupt my work, but he wanted to ask me some questions. He scanned the State depth chart and came across the name of Kent Hull, the future NFL great.

“Kent Hull from Greenwood,” Stennis said in that syrupy drawl of his. “That must be ol’ Charlie Hull’s boy. Is he?”

I told him Kent was, indeed, Charlie Hull’s boy. I also told him that Kent, an under-sized freshman who wasn’t shaving yet, would make his first start at center that afternoon against Maryland’s All-American nose tackle who was five years older and 80 pounds heavier than Kent. I mentioned that it might not be a good matchup for the Bulldogs — or for Kent.

The truth is, Bellard had wanted to red-shirt Hull and give him another year to develop. Injuries forced his hand. Kent had been a basketball star (as was his dad, Charlie) in high school. He had never really concentrated totally on football and was lean and under-sized for Division I football. It would have been hard to predict then that Hull would become one of the greatest centers in the NFL. Hull, whom Bellard would later call “as tough as a rolling bunch of butcher blades” just wasn’t big enough — yet.

So the game began and on the first play from scrimmage the Maryland All American bowled Kent over with a vicious forearm to the chin. Both the Senator and I had our binoculars trained on Kent. I looked over at Stennis, just as he peered over his spectacles at me.

Said the Senator, “Ah don’t believe Ah’ll mention that play to ol’ Charlie.”

Final score: Maryland 35, State 14. The game was forgettable. My afternoon sitting between Orley Hood and John C. Stennis, watching Charlie Hull’s boy make his first college start, was not.


Rick Cleveland is a syndicated columnist and historian at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. His email address is rcleveland@msfame.com.

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