Starting Over Again

Something had to happen. Ole Miss wasn't calling, calling. Ole Miss was gasping, gasping – for life.

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On the day Ole Miss solidified itself as the worst football team in the Southeastern Conference and one of the worst in college football, No. 1 and No. 2 were playing in Tuscaloosa. Ole Miss used to be in that situation.

Over the past four decades, and especially since Eli Manning left after a 10-win season eight years ago, Ole Miss football has slipped so far into insignificance that it's hard to know the Rebels were ever at the top.

Ole Miss and Alabama played the first primetime nationally televised college football game ever, thanks to the tradition and stature of both at the time and Eli's dad, Archie, playing in the game. That was 42 years ago.

A lot of things have changed since then.

But the two worst things that happened to Ole Miss since those winning years when the Rebels were as respected as anyone in the country are that few here believe anymore and Ole Miss no longer dominates its own state.

Brandon Bolden
Bruce Newman

The two actually go hand in hand.

You may say what's going on here is a coaching problem. Or an administrative problem. Or there's not enough talent on hand.

But this is an Ole Miss problem.

One part of the fix is to start winning Mississippi again. And not just in football recruiting.

Ole Miss stopped being dominant in its own state, again not just in football. Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi have higher in-state enrollment percentages. Ole Miss isn't nearly as dominant politically in this state as it once was. Ole Miss hasn't marketed itself to Mississippians nearly as well as it should have.

The Ole Miss fanbase has grown but not enough. It hasn't distanced itself from Mississippi State. It isn't too late, but it's harder to do now.

Ole Miss needs grassroots help. It needs its people all over the state and in Ole Miss areas like Memphis to believe again. And to help.

When Ole Miss people, from the Lyceum to the sidewalk fans, decide they want their school to be dominant again in this state, there's a start.

So what else is there to this lack of belief among Ole Miss people?

Is it just winning games? Is it having a dynamic athletic director or head coach that says, like Tommy Tuberville did when he got here, Ole Miss can be relevant? He said Ole Miss was going to win a national championship while he was here. People believed it, too.

While he was here, he gave Ole Miss people something to believe in. Told them they were worthy. Said they could be special again.

Nick Saban said on the Gameday set last Thursday night, and I paraphrase, that the reason Alabama is so successful isn't just him. It's the head coach, yes, but it's his staff and the athletic administration and the university administration and the players and the fans.

It's everybody. Everybody at Alabama is on the same page and believes. That's what Saban said.

You won't find that at Ole Miss. But it can happen.

It appeared to be that way just four years ago. Houston Nutt had everybody together - as much as possible - at the Ford Center welcome rally. That lasted through a special first season and actually until that stumble at Mississippi State in 2009.

Nothing's been the same since. The Cotton Bowl that year was a consolation prize. The Capital One Bowl was there for the taking if the Ole Miss coaches had just taken Mississippi State more seriously. But they didn't.

To be fair, if you'd beaten a team nine of ten times like they'd done as a staff at Arkansas, then won 45-0 your first year here, there might be some complacency. And there was.

And it killed this program and its fans.

It didn't actually go on life support until the next year against Jacksonville State. Since that day it was only a matter of time, even with a good recruiting class last winter.

I've never heard the athletic leadership at Ole Miss say they honestly believed the Rebels could compete at the highest level. That covers a lot of years now.

I did hear this. Ole Miss can't be Florida, LSU, Alabama, Auburn, or Georgia. But they can't be Ole Miss either.

An athletic administrator here once told me that. In an interview. On the record. Like that's supposed to make any Ole Miss person feel good.

Donte Moncrief
Bruce Newman

Like any of those schools would want to be Ole Miss the way things are.

Ole Miss is special. But when it comes to athletics, right now it isn't special even to Ole Miss people. Not all sports are suffering. But too few are succeeding at a high level.

Ole Miss football, in an expanding and more difficult SEC, is less relevant than ever. But that can change.

It takes people who believe in it and will actually say they believe in it, and say that it can win championships before people will ever buy in again.

Dan Jones said it Monday.

"Can we win championships here? Absolutely," the Chancellor said. "We all need to believe in that."

He's right.

Until the actual games become the most important aspect of Ole Miss football – not tailgating or a mascot or songs or uniforms or your clothes or leaving the game early for the Grove or a party – then you can forget being a champion on the football field and a BCS bowl.

Ole Miss' slogan in the future ought to be "We can't remember the last party we won, but the SEC title we just won is even better than the Grove."

Pete Boone did a lot of good things for Ole Miss. But he lost his fanbase over time.

Houston Nutt came in and recharged the football program, lifted the spirits of a talented team, made them believe, and won 18 games in two years. Then failed to build on that.

Ole Miss will hire a new AD. Support him.

Ole Miss will hire a new head coach. Get behind him.

If you don't, Ole Miss will fall further behind. And losses to Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Mississippi State will become the norm. Winning championships will still be out of reach.

You should be upset about what has happened here for 40 years. Because Ole Miss lost its focus and forgot what it was - the University of Mississippi - and right now few believe anymore.

But that can change. It must change. And you must help with that change.

It's time.

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