Thursday September 9th, 2010

Eric Vlietstra has to feel like a distiller at the end of Prohibition.

For the past 10 years, the Mississippi State graduate has sold custom cowbells to fans of his alma mater through his website, The cowbells were then smuggled into the stands at Scott Field and clanged in defiance of the SEC's ban on artificial noisemakers. Thursday night, when the Bulldogs face Auburn on national television, Mississippi State fans won't have to bootleg their bells. They can carry them into the stadium in plain sight thanks to an amendment to the noisemaker policy passed this summer that allows fans to ring Bessie's bell at certain times (after a touchdown, during a timeout, etc.).

That's especially good news for Vlietstra, a Chattanooga, Tenn., resident who quit his job as an engineer at Suburban Manufacturing on July 30 to try to make a career of selling cowbells. "I think [the rule change] has boosted sales," Vlietstra said.

Naturally, Mississippi State's cowbell tradition has an only-in-the-SEC origin story. According to legend, the Bulldogs were playing Ole Miss during the '30s when a cow wandered onto the field. Following the bovine intrusion, Mississippi State laid the wood to the snobs from Oxford, and fans have clanged cowbells at Mississippi State sporting events ever since.

Vlietstra got into the cowbell business in 2000 when he moved to Chattanooga from the Mississippi Delta. The Web had just gone mainstream, and Vlietstra figured he could order some new cowbells from a budding e-tailer. "I couldn't find any source for cowbells," he said. "I thought surely somebody on the Internet was selling them. It was a much harder task than I thought." Vlietstra finally found a mail-order service that sold cowbells, so he ordered a maroon one and a white one. "When they arrived, they weren't in the best condition because they weren't even individually wrapped," he said. "I had some maroon on my white and some white on my maroon. I thought, 'Heck, I could do better than that.'"

So Vlietstra resolved to sell cowbells and to use the profits to start a college fund for his son, Conner, who was 2 at the time. Vlietstra taught himself to build a website. He researched search engine optimization, the science -- some would deem it an art -- of using keywords that keep a particular site atop the Google or Yahoo! search page. Vlietstra's foray into SEO worked; within days, his first order rolled in. That football season, he posted fliers in Starkville advertising his new business. The fliers included pictures of several cowbells, including some with trademarked Mississippi State logos. The first response to the fliers wasn't pleasant.

"I think it did more harm than good," Vlietstra said. "That Monday following the game, I got a call from the MSU licensing office. ... They told me I needed to remove those logos immediately. You have to understand. My background is in engineering -- not marketing."

Vlietstra removed the logos and kept on selling. Orders increased steadily throughout the years. In 2009, he set a record by selling 821 cowbells. Over the years, only about 30-35 percent of his sales went to Mississippi State fans. The rest went to high schools, who bought bells at a bulk discount rate to use for fundraisers. (And really, what commemorates a cow plop fundraiser like a cowbell?) Along the way, the idea of quitting his job and selling cowbells full-time popped into Vlietstra's head. "I started daydreaming about it," he said. "But that's all it was. It was daydreaming."

Earlier this year, Vlietstra stopped dreaming and did the math. He figured he would need to sell about 3,000 cowbells a year to make a suitable income. So in July, he took the plunge. Sales so far have been brisk. A story by Kyle Veazey in the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger helped. So did the rule change. In August, Vlietstra sold more than 600 cowbells. A 10-inch white bell sells for $17.99, while an 11-inch bell costs $19.99. A custom paint job costs an extra $4. For those who want a little more bling on their bell, Vlietstra now offers chrome cowbells for $34.99 (10-inch) and $37.99 (11-inch).

"One day I wanted to tell people that I put my son through college selling cowbells," he said. "I think I'll still be able to tell that story."

When Vlietstra entered Mississippi State in 1988, the SEC let the bells slide. In the '90s, the league forced the bells underground. "They were pretty lenient. You could just walk in with one and they turned a blind eye," Vlietstra said. "But I guess during the [Jackie] Sherrill years when we started winning some games, it started attracting more attention. Then we had to start hiding them. People would stick them in their shorts with their shirttail undone or put them in their purses or find any way they could to smuggle them in."

Vlietstra won't have to smuggle his bells Thursday when the Bulldogs face Auburn in their first SEC game since the rule change. He'll clang them proudly. He also intends to clang them responsibly. Like many State fans, he has perused, a site commissioned by athletic director Scott Stricklin to educate fans on SEC-approved cowbell etiquette. Still, Vlietstra worries a groundswell of emotion might cause those in maroon and white to clang afoul of the rule and draw a fine. "I didn't understand why they told us when we can ring them," Vlietstra said. "I'd rather they told us when we cannot ring them." He fears a 95-yard bomb that ends with the receiver tackled at the one-yard line will inspire a clanging calamity that isn't approved by the SEC. "I'm not going to ring my cowbell after that?" Vlietstra asked.

So Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen will have to make sure the most exciting plays reach the end zone. And it wouldn't hurt if the band sprinkled in a little Blue Oyster Cult with the fight song. Because Mississippi State fans have a fever. And we all know there is only one prescription for that particular ailment.

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