SEC FOOTBALL: Tough Talk Rings Hollow

Ed Orgeron is a physically imposing man who, given his recent past as defensive line coach for Southern California's championship-winning teams, promises to deliver toughness to the University of Mississippi football program. Everything about Orgeron exudes toughness and plain, brute strength; if he does take The Grove and the rest of the SEC by storm, it will be by dint of the force of his personality, and not any sense of finesse or cleverness.

In many ways, he will try to be what David Cutcliffe wasn't. Orgeron will be the un-soft, non-mushy, anti-Cutcliffe figure, a fire-breather committed to defense.

This set of realities --- all centered around Orgeron's personality and unmasked, easy-to-see attitude --- was surely a core factor in Ole Miss' decision to bring Orgeron aboard as Cutcliffe's successor. There was such distaste for the former Tennessee offensive coordinator among members of the university's administration that they pushed Cutcliffe out of Oxford after his first losing season in six years. Apparently, winning at least seven games in his first five years --- an Ole Miss first --- wasn't enough. Apparently, a 10-win Cotton Bowl-winning season wasn't enough. Apparently, increasing the profile of the program and bringing the Rebels within one Johnathan Nichols field goal of sending (eventual national champion) LSU into overtime for the SEC West championship was not enough. Apparently, doing a better job in Oxford than Tommy Tuberville did was not enough. The list goes on and on and on.

What does it all boil down to? This was an ugly, messy and childish power play by Ole Miss honchos, particularly Chancellor Robert Khayat and Athletic Director Pete Boone, who must not be aware of the fact that Ole Miss didn't remotely sniff a New Year's Day bowl bid or the possibility of a trip to Atlanta (the Rebels are the only SEC West team never to have played in the SEC Championship Game) before Cutcliffe came along. When Eli Manning left and the inevitable dropoff occurred in Oxford, Cutcliffe got no reprieve, no second season to get a chance to build the program back up. Such treatment of a coach (and more fundamentally, of a human person) is so audacious as to be breathtaking. In an industry where perspective is already in woefully short supply, Ole Miss set the bar even lower in the Cutcliffe episode.

Just listen to these comments from the press conference back in December when Ole Miss cut the cord on Coach Cut:

"It's essential that the football program be competitive," Chancellor Khayat said. "It's not now-and-then competitive. It's every-year competitive. We expect our program to be outstanding, to be moving forward. We will not accept ... mediocrity."

Seven-win seasons for Ole Miss equal mediocrity, eh? But that's not all.

Boone, for his part, contributed this doozy: "We can make up a lot of ground if we get in the right people." So David Cutcliffe was wrong for Ole Miss? Don't tell that to Ron Zook, whose Gator teams were twice whipped by Rebel squads who played hard, consistently, and without fear against Florida in two big-time wins.

Speaking of Florida, there should be a very well-developed sense of awareness about the nature of life after a legendary quarterback moves on: namely, you just don't automatically replace him.

Remember Danny Wuerffel? There never was one like him before or since, and there's a reason why you call players like Wuerffel "special": because he WAS special. If someone were ordinary, you could find millions like him; but special individuals, to meet the definition of what it means to be special, are necessarily rare. No wonder Florida hasn't had quite the same level of success since Ol' Number 7 moved on to the NFL.

Same goes for Eli Manning and the Ole Miss program. Were Mr. Khayat and Mr. Boone expecting an eight- or nine-win season in 2004, without which Cutcliffe --- after five previous winning seasons in his stay in Oxford --- would deserve to be fired? Could two human beings have a perspective that skewed and warped? Seems they did. All in the name of hiring a tough guy to kick butt and turn things around.

It's really not Ed Orgeron's fault, but until he delivers the goods --- and history says Ole Miss won't, not against the LSUs, Bamas and Auburns of the world --- anything tough he says or does won't count for much. Ole Miss is a program whose leaders --- Bob Khayat and Pete Boone --- are in a classic state of denial. The tough talk --- from Orgeron, anyone else in the Rebel program, or anyone at the University of Mississippi --- will ring very hollow until a ticket to Atlanta is punched.

Good luck, Ed. Let's see if you can walk on water. That's what your bosses seem to be expecting of you the next few years.

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