STARKVILLE – Few men truly get to live out their dreams.
Richard Akins counts himself among those lucky few.
For more than 30 years, Akins has served as strength and conditioning coach for men’s basketball, women’s basketball and “every sport but football,” according to him. So earlier this summer, when Akins retired, it left the Ethel native in a reflective mood.
I lot of people don’t get the opportunity to fulfill a dream, to work at this level and stay in one place for so long,” said Akins. “I grew up in a small town 65 miles west of here. And to be able to work all these years at a university like this, to be able to come to work every day and work with athletes like this, I’ve been very fortunate.”
A self-proclaimed Navy brat as a kid, Akins and his family eventually settled in Ethel, where he became a sports enthusiast and an unabashed Mississippi State fan. So when, in 1982, he was given the chance to become the university’s strength and conditioning coach, it was a no-brainer.
“It was a perfect situation for me,” said Akins. “I worked in everything. I’ve done basketball every year and I did soccer, volleyball, tennis…Pretty much every sport. And you learn quickly it’s about the university, it’s about the kids. It’s a very rewarding job.”
Akins worked for four MSU basketball coaches during his time in Starkville, including former MSU coach Richard Williams.
“Richard was more than just a great strength and conditioning coach, he is a special friend to me,” said Williams. “He had a bond with the kids and he built that through hard work. But he had a bond with everybody else, too, because he’s just a great guy. I’m happy for him in his retirement but he’s a guy I will miss seeing at Mississippi State.”
MSU’s coaches aren’t the only ones who will miss Akins.
“He worked you hard,” said former ALL-SEC forward Greg Carter, how the coach at Starkville High School. “But he respected you and if you gave him the effort, it paid off. He knew what he was doing, treated you like a man. That’s all you want as a player.”
‘They were excited’
For the most part, a strength coach’s job is finished before a player hits the court. But when the games do begin, Akins still played a pivotal role as “Probably the biggest cheerleader they had.”
Asked to recount highlights from his career, the 30-year veteran immediately recounted 1996, starting with when he last had hair on his head.
Prior to the 1995-96 basketball season, a year that saw MSU ranked in the top 15 in the preseason, Akins made a promise to MSU’s players.
“I told them if they won the SEC, then they could shave my head,” said Akins. “Well, they didn’t win the SEC, we won the conference tournament. So I wouldn’t let them do it.”
But the Bulldogs had a backup plan. Two weeks later, atfer MSU’s 84-73 upset win over No. 1 Kentucky to win the Southeastern Conference tournament, the Bulldogs found themselves in another big spot.
Traveling to Lexington, Kentucky, MSU, the No. 5 seed in the Southeast Regional of the NCAA Tournament, was set to face No. 1 seed Connecticut, led by star guard Ray Allen. If the Bulldogs advanced, they’d likely meet No. 2 seed Cincinnati for a berth in the Final 4.
MSU took care of business against Connecticut, earnng a 60-55 victory to move to the Elite 8, and to once again put Akins’ hair in jeopardy.
“After we beat UConn, we were in the locker room after the game,” said Akins. “Dr. Collins, the team doctor, came up to me and said ‘They want to know if you’ll let them shave your head if we go to the Final 4.’ I said yes.”
Two days laters, the clippers came out.
“We finished off Cincinnati and I’ll never forget it,” said Akins. “We went to the dressing room and did it. We won a huge game to go to the Final 4, and all they’re worried about is shaving my head. That was special I haven’t had hair since.”
The head-shaving was more than just a ceremonial celebration. It was evidence of a bond between Akins and the MSU players.
“Richard played a pivotal role every year, like all strength coaches,” said Williams. “But he especially played a big role with that team. He would work those kids, whipping them into shape physically and mentally, and he had that team in great shape. His training was huge for us that year.”
When he started with MSU full-time in 1982, the idea of using strength and conditioning coaches was still relatively new. But through the years, Akins adapted, learned and adapted again to keep up with changes in the field.
“Back then, it was very simple,” said Aikens. “It’s gotten more scientific. The nutrition aspect has gotten much bigger, there’s a lot of new toys. Back then, it was just making sure they were in shape.”
Asked to list some of his toughest players through the years, Akins again leaned heavily on that FInal 4 team.
“Marcus Bullard was a guy who was as tough as they come,” said Akins. “I wish everybody knew Marcus the way I got to know him. Darryl Wilson, Russell Walters, Erick Dampier, they were all not only physically tough by tough-minded.
“There’s been so many memorable guys over the years. TImmy Bowers, Ontario Harper, Derrick Zimmerman…All of those guys were true Mississippi State guys. WHat I mean by that is that they played for the name of the front of the jersey, that’s why they put the work in. Those are the guys that are a joy to coach.”
Basketball isn’t the only sport that Akins will remember.
“One of the big ones was from the women’s soccer team,” said Akins. “The year they won the west, they all showed up to the weight room together and presented me with a championship ring. That was special.”
‘I will miss it’
Williams became MSU’s color commentator for basketball broadcasts before last season. That not only put the former coach back near the sidelines for MSU games, it also allowed him to work with Akins once more.
“When I found out he was retiring, I called him,” said Williams. “And I asked him ‘Who is going to be there on road trips? Who is going to come to the hotel lobby first thing in the morning to harass me? Richard just said ‘You’ll figure it out.'”
For Akins, the prospect of stepping away after 30-plus years was not difficult.
“As a strength coach, you just know when it’s time,” said Akins. “Will I miss it? Absolutely. But I’ll be around plenty.”