CLEVELAND, MISS. — Under beer bottle chandeliers and a Last Supper-style mural of the Blues masters, faculty and staff prepared for the fifth and final night of “Department Trivia” at Hey Joe’s, a dive-y bar just down Sunflower Road from Delta State University.
The competition, one of several community events at Hey Joe’s, is exactly how it sounds. Every last Wednesday, from January to May, faculty (and some non-university regulars) vie on behalf of their department. At stake are two prizes: The “Stanley Cup,” a perforated metal sculpture named for its creator, Michael Stanley, a former art professor at Delta State, and a sweepstakes check for $1,000 in funding.
Justin Huerta, the owner of Hey Joe’s, started the competition in 2009 with his friend and fellow Delta State grad Kirkham Povall. It was the Great Recession, and Huerta thought his regulars, who were largely faculty, would appreciate the money as the state made deep cuts to higher education.
For his part, Povall said he just “wanted to hang out.” He volunteered to host when no one else wanted to.
“I’m just a guy who had time to do it,” he said during a break between questions Wednesday night.
“That’s like a lot of things in Cleveland,” interjected Don Allan Mitchell, an English professor at Delta State. “You get roped into it. And then it becomes your life.”
Mitchell had arrived at Hey Joe’s a little after 7 p.m. wearing a Delta State shirt and baseball cap, both okra green. He was going to meet a professor in the history department, but they had stayed home to process the shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
At Delta State, Mitchell said school shootings remind faculty of Ethan Schmidt, a professor who was shot and killed on campus in 2015. He floated around before joining a team named “The Department of Irrelevant Studies” that had five members, including Jess Szot, a math teacher at Cleveland Central High School.
Trivia got started shortly after 8 p.m. The stakes could have been higher. All five teams knew the Athletic Department was going to win, as it had for the last two times. Teams accumulate points over the semester, and the Athletic Department, with 142 points heading into Wednesday’s round, had far outpaced its competitors. (Trailing in second: The Alumni Department with 104 points.)
“It’s a war of attrition,” Mitchell said.
The English department has won four times before, Mitchell said, and they’ve used the prize money for a scholarship in memory of Schmidt. In 2019, most of Mitchell’s teammates stopped playing regularly after catching another team (not the Athletic Department, Mitchell specified) checking their phone during a question. They could no longer ignore the “rampant cheating.”
“We left in a huff,” he said.
The Athletic Department had never won prior to 2019, so the origin of the team’s sudden rise and continued dominance has inspired speculation. Were they the ones Mitchell caught cheating? Or was it simply that the Athletic Department was the only team to show up every week?
“For $1,000, we could buy some new equipment, we’d make a lot of use of it,” said Campbell Saia, who plays for the Communications and Marketing Department. “But some departments don’t need it, like the Athletic Department.”
To level the playing field, the hosts — Rachel “Rowdy” Carson and Ben Yarbrough — started asking fewer sports-related questions. On Wednesday, the categories were “words that start with L,” “name the cartoon character by its parents” and miscellaneous.
The fourth and final round is always music, but that night it had a twist. Yarbrough introduced the “Esteemed Reverend” Josh Armstrong, a music professor at Delta State who had prepared renditions of 10 songs, from Nena to Justin Bieber, on a MIDI controller.
In prior years, Armstrong (who is not actually a reverend) might’ve recorded the backing track with the help of the student steel drum band. He wasn’t able to put that together this year, though, due to “low enrollment” at Delta State.
After Yarbrough scored the final round, a three-way tie emerged. The Department of Irrelevant Studies sent Szot, whose mom was in an 80s band. Armstrong played just two seconds of “Material Girl” before Szot’s hand shot up. She won the team a free pitcher of beer for the night, but the Athletic Department had won the tournament.
“This should come as a surprise to no one, but the winner of the Stanley Cup is the Athletic Department,” Yarbrough said into a fuzzy red microphone.
There were scattered claps and a single, half-hearted “woo.”
At the bar, Ryan Tyler, a member of the Athletic Department team, discussed their winning steak, which he said is due to their size and diversity. The team plans to engrave the team’s name on the wooden base of the Stanley Cup, he said. They’re also considering displaying the cup in the trophy case on campus.
“I don’t know why we’d have to cheat,” Tyler said. “Like I said, we have the most diverse group of people.”
As participants paid their tabs, Huerta, sitting near a row of arcade games, talked about the ethos behind Hey Joe’s. Born and raised in Cleveland, he’s sensitive to stereotypes about Mississippi. Hey Joe’s is his way of doing something about the realities of life here.
“I’m not gonna change Mississippi, I’m not gonna change the United States of America — my world is Cleveland, so I’m trying my best to change my world,” he said.
As for the rumors of cheating? “We’ve never caught anybody,” he said, pausing to take a sip of his beer. “But we did have a shirt that said, ‘no cell phones.’”
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.