It's not easy explaining to people why I'm a big fan of the Ole Miss Rebels football team, especially since I didn't go to school at Ole Miss and don't live in Mississippi. But my dad was from Ole Miss' hometown, Oxford, and he, my two older brothers, and a niece and nephew all put in time at the school.
I grew up partly in Jackson, Miss., intensely devoted to the Red and Blue (colors originally borrowed not from the Confederate flag, but from Harvard and Yale). In fact, I was derailed from my destiny as a drunken, flunkin' Ole Miss frat boy only because we moved from Jackson to Garden City, Kan., when I was in ninth grade. I didn't want to go, and I begged my parents to leave me behind, rent me an apartment, buy me a season ticket to Ole Miss home games (the big ones were mostly played in Jackson back then), and trust me to "act responsibly" during my three years on the loose in high school.
No dice. I was forced onto the prairie schooner, and I ended up going to a small state college in Kansas and then back south to Vanderbilt, in Nashville, where I secretly cheered when the Rebels thumped the always-struggling Commodores.
People will gladly cut slack for adults with pathetic attachments to college football teams (especially nationally prominent ones like Notre Dame and USC), but when the Rebels enter the conversation, they seize up.
"Ole Miss," they'll say. "Isn't that like a ... slavery name?"
"Yes. Unfortunately, back in the bad old days, that was a nickname slaves used for the mistress of a plantation. But time has softened the connotations. The name now suggests friendly hospitality, as in, 'Hey, it's good ol' Mississippi.' "
"Uh-huh. And the whole rebel flag thing?"
"Fans aren't allowed to wave those anymore. But I can't lie. The Confederate imagery is a tricky situation."
But I can lie by not mentioning other messy trivia. Ole Miss holds claim to the most gruesome incidence of the Sports Illustrated cover jinx: Just after the magazine put the Rebels on a 1962 cover, riots broke out over the enrollment of Ole Miss' first black student, James Meredith. Further back in time, we find that, up until 1936, the University of Mississippi mascot was the Flood. A vote to pick a new name yielded two close finishers: Rebels and, um, Ole Massas. According to an excellent historical summary published in the Daily Mississippian, Ole Miss' student newspaper, "The Confederate army nickname was selected because Ole Miss Rebels was easier to say than Ole Miss Ole Massas." So, if not for that narrow phonetic escape, Ole Miss fans literally might have been in the stands yelling, "Beat 'em, Ole Massas!"
Such baggage makes my current challenge that much greater. Ole Miss will play Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2, and I'd like you to "be for them," as we used to say down South. A win in this storied bowl could be a turning point for a program that has struggled—with off-and-on success but never real greatness—since the 1968-1970 era, when Archie Manning was the quarterback.
In recent seasons Archie's son Eli has been at the helm, a jillion-yards-passing phenom who led the Rebels through a bizarre 2003 miracle season. The team started out awful, with a squeaker win over Vandy and losses to Memphis and Texas Tech, thanks to a weak defense that has been a chronic problem.
But then something clicked. The offense kept mushing, the defense stiffened, and the Rebels started defeating SEC opponents, with wins over Florida (in the Swamp), Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Auburn. The Dream hit a pothole on Nov. 22 when Ole Miss faced third-ranked LSU in Oxford. A victory would have secured sole possession of the Southeastern Conference Western Division title and a trip to the SEC championship game in Atlanta. Alas, though Ole Miss played valiantly, they lost 17-14. Despite the bitter taste, Ole Miss fans can't help but be thrilled at how this season turned out.
"OK," you're saying. "That's stirring, and Eli is cool, so I'm with you. What do you need?"
Not much. Just mental positrons aimed at Dallas on Jan. 2, along with your lifelong commitment to emotionally supporting Ole Miss over despised foes like Auburn, Alabama, LSU, and Mississippi State.
"OK," you're saying. "I'm not with you anymore."
I figured you could only go so far. In terms of total conversions, my lifetime average is zero. The problem is that, no matter how much Ole Miss tries to adapt to modern times—and they do try; right now the school administration is licking wounds from an aborted attempt to replace the Colonel Rebel mascot with perky substitutes called Rowdy Rebel and Rebel Bruiser—there's little to recommend them to non-cult-members except for their uniforms, the nattiest in all of college football.
In 1990 I dragged my girlfriend (now wife) to the last Egg Bowl played in Jackson, hoping to brainwash her. The Egg Bowl is the annual scrum between Ole Miss and the Mississippi State Bulldogs—which just happens to be the most heated college football rivalry that no one outside of Mississippi cares about. As we entered the stadium, I tried to explain to Susan that her future obligations included "hating" the Bulldogs. But she was too busy starting to seriously dislike Ole Miss.
The Confederate flags were the first glitch—they were still street-legal back then. But more damning were the students. Rebel frat boys and sorority girls "dress up" for the games, the men looking like junior FBI agents in their jackets, ties, and sunglasses; the women looking like they just graduated from Laura Ashley Clown School. Susan was frowning at the garb when a Rebel fan walked by wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an insult directed at State: "WE'RE NOT SNOBS. WE'RE JUST BETTER THAN YOU."
Her first tenderly posed question: Why the hell is Ole Miss "better" than State? I explained that this involved a classic dynamic that embroils many competing state universities: the liberal-arts campus with the law and medical schools (like Texas or Ole Miss) versus the agricultural-and-mechanical campus with the ag and engineering programs (like Texas A&M or Mississippi State). I didn't explain that, as is true in the Texas/A&M hatefest, Ole Miss fans regard themselves as an "elite" and they scorn State fans as sun-addled redneck loons. That one just doesn't translate well.
She snorted. Ole Miss was better because it produces shyster lawyers instead of food producers? Before long she was hailing the "proletarian" sound of the State fans ringing their god-awful cowbells. Later, she saw the competing mascots bouncing around on the field: Colonel Rebel and Bully the Bulldog. "Ohhhh," she said. "The bulldog is so cute!"
Ole Miss won that day, 21-9, but the '90s weren't outstanding for the team. They went to some middling bowls and got slapped with NCAA sanctions in 1994. Rebel fans watched with horror as State gained an edge under head coach Jackie Sherrill, an irritating cuss who rubbed me the wrong way starting in 1992, when he had a bull castrated on the practice field to motivate his players before a game against Texas. The Sherrill era has ended badly. His last three teams finished a combined 8-27, and the Bulldogs are looking down the barrel of a major NCAA investigation into recruiting violations. (Ole Miss could be heading for some trouble, too, involving a running back who may have received booster help in purchasing an SUV.) State made a smart move after Sherrill's departure by hiring the first black football coach in SEC history, Sylvester Croom, but this obviously fine individual will face an uphill slog.
Given State's current woes, the table was set for serious gloating on Thanksgiving night, when I traveled to Starkville to watch the 2003 Egg Bowl. But somehow I couldn't muster any animosity. I've met a lot of State people over the years, and they have a vexing tendency to be really, really nice. At the game itself—a 31-0 Ole Miss victory played in a driving rainstorm—the bedraggled Bulldog faithful, looking soggy in their throwaway ponchos, aroused only sympathy. I roamed the sidelines talking to fans and met a hulking end-zone presence named David "Big Dave" Miller, who made it clear that he will stick with his Dogs even if they go 0-120 over the next decade. How do you hate a guy like that?
The truth is, both schools have enough problems that they'd be well-advised to cease the loathing vibe and try a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach, as in, "We hope you're good, but we hope we're better." In that hopelessly naive vein, I'll close with a few positive suggestions for building a better future.
For both teams: Enough already with the clumsy NCAA violations. Leave that stuff to Alabama.
For State: Lose the cowbells and change your school colors to something other than maroon-and-white. (Sorry, but those colors will always scream "Shriner.") I'd switch to "brick" and "charcoal," a more designerish combo that also bespeaks your school's devotion to industry. Meanwhile, clone multiple copies of your live bulldog mascot immediately—he's damn cute.
For Ole Miss: The administration's current schizo approach to the Rebel Problem isn't working. At present the situation is: Rebel flags and on-field Colonel Rebel mascot, not OK. Rebel nickname, Rebel mascot circulating goofily among fans outside the stadium before games, and playing "Dixie" inside the stadium, OK.
Doesn't make much sense, does it? For a possible solution, I'd reach further into the past. The school's association with Confederate stuff goes back all the way, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. In 1861, a group of Mississippi students, relatives, and locals formed a 150-man company that came to final grief at Gettysburg, where it's said that every soldier remaining from the original group was killed or wounded.
The name of this brave outfit, adapted slightly, could work just fine. I'm usually against using uncountable nouns for team names—Tide, Blaze, Heat—but how do you like the sound of this? The University of Mississippi Fighting Greys, or the Ole Miss Greys for short. You can keep the little colonel guy on school merchandise—he's cute, too!—but I'd update his uniform to match the school's current atmosphere: Give him khaki pants, a navy blazer, and a go cup full of rum and Coke.