Rolling Again

TUPELO – The crowd arrived here for lunch Wednesday as BancorpSouth Rebel Road Trip 2013 made its way to northeast Mississippi for its seventh stop of the week so far. For breakfast, they were in Philadelphia. Wednesday night it was Atlanta, the third out of state stop.

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This krewe of Ole Miss officials is mostly in one large motor home driven by Ben Burns of Iuka. It's decorated with the logo of the road trip, with Ole Miss and Rebels wrapped all around. There's no doubt if you see it who they are and what their mission is.

To spread the word of Ole Miss, and at the present time that means mostly good news. Most things appear to be on the way up, from season ticket sales in football and the amount raised in the Forward Together campaign to simply the spirit of Rebel Nation and fans of Ole Miss everywhere.

You'd be hard pressed to find very many who feel otherwise.

The motor home occupants unloaded, led by Hugh Freeze and Ross Bjork, at the title sponsor of the Rebel Road Trip – the BancorpSouth Conference Center. Athletics department staff members were there, and Stephen Ponder brought in the Golden Egg. Ponder is a North Carolina State alum added last summer to Bjork's powerful team as Senior Executive Associate A.D. for External Relations.

Ponder knows something about instate rivalries, being from North Carolina. His most recent stop before Ole Miss was Arizona State, where they also know something about arch-rivals.

The Southeastern Conference Tournament championship trophy followed and was brought in, appropriately enough, by former basketball star turned Associate A.D. for Development/Athletics Foundation Executive Director Keith Carter.

Showing off hardware a year after the Bjork/Freeze era of Ole Miss sports began is appropriate already, since their plan is to add to the collection every year.

This wasn't a time for media opportunities, really, or a time to unveil a new plan of action. It was a continuation of what began a year ago when the first Rebel Road Trip moved through the state and region from the coast to the delta through the northeast part and also out of state locales like Memphis and Birmingham and Nashville.

Even people not in those areas are joining in. I read where the Wednesday Philadelphia breakfast meeting drew people from several areas, like Newton County, where there is a strong Ole Miss alumni club already; people in Jackson, Tenn., posting on here about driving down to the Tri-State Rebel Club meeting Friday night in Corinth at Crossroads Arena.

The feel of the whole thing is absolute inclusiveness as well as excitement and progress. All are not only made to feel a part of it, but those who speak – Executive Director of Alumni Affairs Tim Walsh, Bjork, and Freeze, along with Chancellor Dan Jones who makes some of the stops - encourage others to get people to join in.

Everybody knows somebody, the message is proclaimed, that wants or needs to be a part of Ole Miss. Contact them. Bring them in.

Tupelo was my first stop on the RRT road this year. I'll be at the one in Oxford Thursday night at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, before heading to Oxford-University Stadium for the baseball game.

Last year I made four stops – Meridian, Waynesboro, Gulfport, and Indianola. Each locale offered a different perspective. A hotel ballroom for breakfast in Meridian; a Baptist church fellowship hall in Waynesboro for lunch; an outdoor event in Gulfport at a restaurant with an enormous patio overlooking water for dinner; and the B.B. King Museum in Indianola for breakfast.

A grassroots campaign to spread the word of Ole Miss and get Rebel Nation together on the same page.

Last year and this year the overall message is the same. And that is this.

Hugh Freeze
File Photo

This is not the same Ole Miss anymore, at least in terms of striving to win, win big, and get everyone to be a part of it. What you are witnessing now is what the vast majority of Ole Miss people have wanted for years.

That's why the tour traveling to different locales each year and attracting more and more fans are the driving forces about what it is they are trying to accomplish.

And there is the actual driver – of the motor home, that is. Actually you could call it a bus. It's that big. Forty-two feet long to be exact. A Phaeton model from Tiffin Motor Homes of Red Bay, Ala., just across the state line from Tishomingo County.

It's owned by Burns, an Iuka native, Ole Miss pharmacy school graduate, with stores in Iuka (Rushing Drugs) and Burnsville (Burnsville Discount Drugs). And one likely in the next six months in Tupelo (Tupelo Family Pharmacy on East Main).

A member of the Vaught Society, Burns was asked if he wanted to drive the RRT people around last year.

"I said gosh yeah, of course." And now it's year two. Burns is still "on board" with RRT.

"The University does the art work, and then I take it to Memphis to a company called LSI. They wrap it and I come back and show up where I'm supposed to. I met Keith Carter Sunday in Tupelo and we drove to Pascagoula. The others flew in from Houston (Texas), and we picked them up at Trent Lott airport. And we were on our way."

It isn't an easy trip, driving all these miles on little rest and with two and sometimes three stops a day for the meetings. Wednesday night was actually some rare time off for Burns as the entourage flew to Atlanta and back. Sometimes logistics don't allow for the bus to make all the stops. And that gives Burns a chance to rest, like Wednesday night in Oxford in the big motor home.

"It's adrenaline driven," Burns said of all the travel and commitment. "I've driven 1,200 miles already, a lot of it in rain, and also the streets of New Orleans. That was a challenge in this thing."

Last year Burns said he drove about 1,800 miles on the trip. At the present time he is a little worn from the travel and won't commit to a third year – just yet.

"That remains to be seen," he said. "It's really no problem. I love it. I get away for a week. I hang out with the people who deal with my love, which is Ole Miss football, Ole Miss athletics and Ole Miss in general."

Burns has a supportive family. He and wife, Selena, have four children – Benjamin, who will graduate from Ole Miss in banking and finance in May; Evan, a student at Northeast Mississippi Community College; Kaylee and Konner, both teenagers still at home.

This week is all about doing something for Ole Miss, Burns said.

"I get teary-eyed at every one of these meetings when they show the video," he said. "I see it 12 times and I get all choked up every time."

That's what Rebel Road Trip will do for you, if you believe in what's now happening at The University of Mississippi. More and more appear to be doing so each day in this era of Ole Miss sports.

"It's awesome," Burns said of the trip. "Every location is bigger this year than last year. People are loving this. This is something we haven't experienced in my lifetime. Everybody is joining together. It's a whole new world. It's amazing."

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