Love 'em or hate 'em, the ringing cowbells at Mississippi State inside Davis Wade Stadium are one of the most prominent—and noisy—traditions in the SEC.
Never have those cowbells been so loud as last Saturday, when the home-standing Bulldogs topped then-No. 2 Auburn 38-23 to improve to 6-0 and ascend to the top spot in both major polls.
The combination of the big-game atmosphere and the clanging of the cowbells created a raucous environment rivaling that of any stadium in any sport, as evidenced by this tweet from USA Today's Dan Wolken, who was in attendance for Saturday's win over Auburn:
Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports called the atmosphere inside the stadium Saturday an "ear-splitting slice of hell for the visiting team."
Don't believe me?
Check out this vine of Mississippi State taking a knee to end the game from Michael Bonner of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger:
"That's our spirit symbol," athletics director Scott Stricklin said. "That's what we rally around, how we show our emotion and share our joy with one another."
Just where did the tradition come from?
As the old legend goes, it dates back to the 1930s and, according to Mississippi State's tradition page, a football game against intra-state rival Ole Miss. A cow roamed near the field as the Bulldogs were toppling the Rebels, and a tradition began where cows were present at all Mississippi State home games.
As stadiums grew bigger, fans realized that cows being at games may not be the best idea in the world, and substituted the cow's bell instead.
Times evolved, and two professors in the 1960s began welding handles on bells. In 1964, the bookstore started selling them with some proceeds going to the Student Association and Industrial Education Club, which helped mass-produce the cowbells.
"It's a very personal item," Stricklin said. "Which is why they're given as gifts. They're handed down through generations of families. People decorate them with stickers and paint. Your Mississippi State fan identity is embodied in that one piece of metal."
The cowbell is not only a statement of each individual's Bulldogs fandom but a reminder of the heritage of the school itself.
"The cowbell is special to MSU folks for two reasons," said Brian Hadad, a Mississippi State fan and host of The B&B Show on Bulldog Sports Radio on VSporto. "One, it plays at our heritage as an agricultural school. Two, it's one of the few things that is uniquely ours, that other fans identify with us. Everybody has a special chant, or a communal tailgate area. Not everybody has that symbol."
The SEC banned artificial noisemakers in 1974—a rule that stayed in place through 2010.
Stricklin, who is a Mississippi State graduate in addition to its athletics director, got the job in May 2010, a few weeks before SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Florida. His first order of business was lifting the ban.
"There had been some conversations leading up to it, but when I interviewed with Dr. [Mark] Keenum in late April , one of the questions in the interview was, 'how are you going make sure we keep the cowbell?' When he hired me, it was 'OK, you have spring meetings in three weeks, you better figure this out. It wasn't exactly the easiest jumping-off point, but Dr. Keenum deserves a lot of credit. He was a big part of that effort."
Through the "Ring Responsibly" campaign, Mississippi State was granted an exemption that allows fans to bring in artificial noisemakers, so long as they coincide with times in which music is allowed to be played through the stadium's public address system.
In years past, that meant only during and coming out of media timeouts and other times in which play is stopped. That changed this year, when the SEC allowed stadiums to play music up until the center touched the ball.
"We actually used this offseason to educate fans on that, hoping that will get people recalibrated to the rule," Stricklin said.
Save for one minor hiccup against Texas A&M, Stricklin has been pleased with the responsible ringing of Mississippi State fans.
"At the Texas A&M game, I thought we had about three-quarters of the stadium doing it the right way," he said. "But when you have that many people who aren't, it sounds like a lot more because of the noise that they make. It was important that we had a heart-to-heart with the fanbase to let them know where we need to be, and I was pleased with the response. I thought we did an outstanding job on Saturday."
They certainly did—on the field, and off of it.
"The change from bells to voices when Auburn would get over the ball was incredibly noticeable," said Hadad. "When it was time to ring, Mississippi State fans went all out. My ears hurt well into Sunday afternoon."
The cowbells have now taken on the persona of the team they represent, which, at 6-0 and ranked No. 1, is used to doling out punishment that persists well into Sunday.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.