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.