For the past 10 years, the Mississippi State graduate has sold custom cowbells to fans of his alma mater through his website,
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,
"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
"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 [
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
So Bulldogs coach