Elite Ascension

David Cutcliffe remembers, like all Ole Miss people do, when Eli Manning first wowed him. It was an otherwise unpleasant game.

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The Rebels had fallen behind West Virginia and its retiring veteran head coach Don Nehlen, 49-9, in the third quarter of the 2000 Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., on a bitterly cold day.

Going in, Ole Miss was 7-4. The Mountaineers were 6-5. But a mismatch either way was not expected. If there was to be one, it would likely be in the Rebels' favor.

Starting quarterback Romaro Miller led the Rebel offense back for a touchdown on a 7-yard run to make it 49-16. But this one was over, so the Rebel head coach turned to his second-year redshirt freshman to see what he could do.

Everybody saw what Eli could do. And what he can still do some 12 years later.

Manning threw three touchdown passes the rest of the way – a 23-yarder to Jamie Armstrong, an 18-yarder to Omar Rayford, and a 16-yarder to Toward Sanford - and almost brought Ole Miss all the way back in a 49-38 loss.

But it was also about what Cutcliffe heard as well as saw from Manning that day that confirmed the Rebel offense was in the hands of greatness.

"When I knew that Eli was just amazing was against West Virginia in that awful ballgame. We get down 49-9 and it was in the winter freeze," Cutcliffe said, before there was an indoor practice facility at Ole Miss. "We had not had a single full-speed practice since practicing for Mississippi State on Thanksgiving. This was a long period of time. We played horrible (in Nashville).

"I put Eli in and it ended up 49-38," he continued. "He came to the sideline and I was asking him about a couple of his decisions. And you know a play is going to last four to five seconds. What he was thinking during that four to five seconds, it took him 35 to 45 seconds to explain to me. And I realized how fast his mind worked."

Eli Manning
Associated Press

So what was Cutcliffe's reaction?

"I just grinned. Then it dawned on me as I stood there smiling getting beat 49-38, I sure hope the cameras weren't on me smiling down there getting my tail whipped. But I couldn't help but smile about what was to come."

What was to come were three of the most thrilling seasons of Ole Miss football since Eli's dad, Archie, had played for the Rebels some 30 years earlier.

Cutcliffe, who had coached Eli's brother, Peyton, when he was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Tennessee, knew long before that day that Eli likely had what it took to be an elite quarterback.

"I had him in camp at Tennessee every year and coached him hard," Cutcliffe said. "He just had great command of the ball. His accuracy was incredible. I thought he had great hands and fingers and wrists. The ball was really active coming out of his hand. His athleticism was great. We worked hard and got his footwork right. He did the same footwork stuff that Peyton did. So when Eli came (to Ole Miss) as a freshman, he already understood our quarterback system, because when Peyton went home he would work with him."

Cutcliffe knew pretty quickly that Manning would be better if he didn't play early in his college career. Time would only help Eli get better.

"I called Archie after a couple of weeks and said the best bet is going to be to redshirt him," he said. "He needed some leg strength, and he would be a little less accurate late in practices. It's just like a pitcher in baseball. It's why managers go pull guys. Eli did a great job working in the weight room. I knew we had something special."

Now head coach at Duke, Cutcliffe and his Manning quarterbacks remain close. Eli and his New York Giants receivers worked out at Duke last summer.

"He called me and wanted to come in and bring his receivers and work for three days," Cutcliffe said. "He came in and we did three days of two-a-days. It was during our coaches' vacations so I was there by myself.

"Actually Chris (Cutcliffe's son who is currently an assistant coach at Oxford High School) helped me. We coached him and those receivers for three days hard. We worked hard on foot work and pocket movement.

David Cutcliffe
Associated Press

"He was even more coachable at this stage, heading into eight years of his NFL experience, totally focused and very coachable, willing to work. His habits were incredible. And the biggest difference was his command in the film room. He took over in there."

Cutcliffe said he gets questions from time to time, especially from New York media, about how Eli has developed into a player who can win big games and lead his team to comeback wins.

"They all want to act as if this is such a major surprise what Eli is doing. I say 'Guys, Eli played in the Southeastern Conference. We came back and won in The Swamp (at Florida). We came back from behind and won at Auburn. We came back from behind and won at Baton Rouge. He beat the pants off Alabama. He's won big games and is a great fourth-quarter quarterback.' He never changes. He's just built for it."

Another aspect of Super Bowl weekend that meant a lot to Cutcliffe was seeing former Rebel players interact and be a part of it all.

"Eli went to a great deal of trouble to get lots of his former teammates tickets," said Cutcliffe, who attended the Super Bowl with his son, Chris. "(Doug) Ziegler was there. Justin Wade. Matt Koon. David Morris was texting me during the ballgame all fired up. I get text messages from those guys all the time, just how proud they all are of their teammate. That's a part of it that I take great pride in. I know how Jesse Mitchell feels about it and Rob Robertson, and I could go on and on about it. We had great people in that era and not just great players. I'm happy for all of them."

Cutcliffe, who along with his wife and two daughters come to Oxford from time to time to visit Chris, his wife, and their grandson, said he knows what Ole Miss people feel right now, because he's feeling it, too.

"I'm walking on cloud nine, like most Ole Miss people are today," he said. "And rightfully so."


To hear the full interview, tune in to www.RebelSportsRadio.com. You can also download the Rebel Sports Radio app for iPhone and Android. Follow Rebel Sport Radio on Twitter, @RebelSportRadio.

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