John Clay

More cowbell! The history behind Mississippi State’s maddening tradition.

This is how you prepare for a trip to Starkvegas.

Near the end of Kentucky’s football practice on Tuesday, you could hear the distinctive first few chords of the rock band Blue Oyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper playing through the loud speakers at the Joe Craft Football Training Facility.

And what do listeners remember most about that 1976 hit?

The cowbell, of course.

And when Mark Stoops’ Wildcats take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville on Saturday they will be once again treated to the calamitous cacophony that is the MSU fan base incessantly ringing its cowbells.

“Cattle bells, “ UK’s redshirt freshman tight end Keaton Upshaw mistakenly called them Tuesday.

He’ll learn. He has no choice. The cowbells are an unavoidable MSU tradition, one that dates back to sometime between 1930 and 1940 when — no one is quite sure of the exact date — a Jersey cow wandered onto the field when Mississippi State was playing archrival Ole Miss. Mississippi State triumphed. The MSU students promptly adopted the Jersey as a good luck charm. And gradually Bulldogs fans began bringing cowbells to games.

A couple of Mississippi State professors came up with the idea of welding handles to the top of the cowbells to make them easier to ring. By 1964, the MSU bookstore began offering cowbells for sale. And as years passed, the ringing at home games seemed to get louder and louder and louder.

This was all to the chagrin of Mississippi State’s opponents, especially their member institutions of the SEC. By 1974, legendary Auburn coach Shug Jordan had had enough. He sent a handwritten letter complaining about the cowbells to the conference office. And just like that, starting in 1975, the league banned artificial noisemakers, including cowbells.

Banned but not forgotten, of course. MSU fans kept finding ways to sneak their beloved cowbells into Davis Wade and other stadiums to make their tradition heard. Why in 1981, a Mississippi State professor filed a civil suit against Auburn for confiscating his cowbell when he was entering Jordan-Hare Stadium.

All along the way, Mississippi State argued that cowbells were different. There was nothing artificial about them. They were a part of the university. Why it is customary for MSU fans to receive their first cowbell as a gift, perhaps from their parents, or an alum.

“What’s your identity?” former Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill (1991-2003) asked Saturday Down South. “When you think of Mississippi State, you think cowbells.”

Finally, in 2010, the league relented. It ruled that for a one-year probation period, MSU fans could ring the cowbells during pre-game, timeouts, halftime and after Mississippi State scores. The fan base passed the probationary period and the cowbells have been a staple at Davis Wade ever since, even to the point where the league now only prohibits the ringing of the bells “from the time the offensive center is over the football until the play is whistled dead.”

And State has made the most of it, often using its giant video board to play a clip of the famous Saturday Night Live skit in which Christopher Walken, playing Blue Oyster Cult’s producer, tells band member Will Ferrell that the song needs “more cowbell!”

Not that everyone is happy about it.

“Cowbells are redneck vuvuzelas,” an Ole Miss grad told the Clarion-Ledger in 2014.

That may be, but Mississippi State opponents still must deal with that crescendo of clanging, something you don’t hear at any other stadium.

“With some young guys going on the road, going down there, (MSU fans) will be rocking their cowbells,” Stoops said Monday. “We’ll try to get ready for that this week.”

Thus the artificial crowd noise normally piped in through the Craft Football Facility speakers has been turned up a notch or three.

On Tuesday, a media member asked offensive coordinator Eddie Gran how much it helps to practice in all that noise.

“Huh?” answered Gran with a hand to his ear and a smile on his face.


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Next game

Kentucky at Mississippi State

When: 4 p.m. EDT Saturday

TV: SEC Network

Records: Kentucky 2-1 (0-1 SEC), Mississippi State 2-1 (0-0)

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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