Ole Miss hosts Florida Saturday at 7 p.m.

The nerves hadn’t quite set in for Michael White on Monday.

Now the head coach at Florida, the decorated former Ole Miss player and assistant coach was focused only on Texas A&M, the then-upcoming opponent for his Gator team that, after a 72-68 loss to the Aggies, sits 10-6 on the year, including a 2-2 mark in Southeastern Conference games.

But he was asked about his soon-to-come Ole Miss homecoming anyway. And White had plenty to say. White is one of the most-recognizable names in program history, having spent over a decade as a player and coach in the town, Oxford, he said he still holds “near and dear” to his heart.

“I’m excited about it, honestly,” he said. “I haven’t had a lot of time to think about it to this point, really. We’ve got our hands full with Texas A&M. I’ve watched the last couple of games on TV. It’s right around the corner, an opportunity to go back to a place that’s near and dear to my heart - my wife and I both. We spent 11 years in Oxford. Four of our five children were born in Oxford. 

“It’s not only Ole Miss, it’s Oxford that’s dear to us. It’s an awesome town. It’s a great place to raise a family. My wife and I both graduated and had great experiences there. We have a lot of friends there. I’m proud of that program; I’m proud that I was a part of it. It’s an opportunity to compete against all of that, to compete against a good team. It’s exciting. I’m sure 24 hours out it will a lot more nerve-wracking than it is right now.”

During his time in a Rebel uniform, White was a four-year starter at point guard and helped lead Ole Miss to consecutive SEC West Division titles, three-straight NCAA Tournament berths and the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win in 1999. He was a two-time SEC Academic Honor Roll selection, and a member of the 1999 SEC Good Works Team.

His success as a player quickly translated to coaching. He spent seven years as an assistant at Ole Miss, with five under current Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy, who made the unique decision to retain White - a two-year assistant under Rod Barnes - due to the pair’s history. 

Kennedy got to know White while Kennedy was an assistant at UAB and White an assistant under Mike LaPlante at Jacksonville State. Kennedy even remembers scouting some Ole Miss games while White was a player.

“I’m really excited for Mike,” Kennedy said. “A great guy, a great Rebel. When I got this job in 2006, he was on Rod Barnes’ staff. Very seldom when you take over a new position do you retain guys on a previous staff. I did so with Mike because I had a relationship with him prior to him coming to Ole Miss. I’ve known him for quite some time, and I knew the value he would bring our staff, most especially his understanding of Ole Miss as I was trying to figure things out in a new situation.

“I had no doubts he was going to be a successful head coach. I remember the process by which we were all pushing to try to help him get Louisiana Tech. I remember talking to the powers that be there and singing his praises. I was not surprised to find my words being so prophetic because I knew that he would go and do great things as he did at La Tech. I think he’s going to do great things at Florida. I’m excited to see his reaction (to The Pavilion) because here’s a guy who’s got so much sweat equity in our program as a player and as an assistant coach. I’m really excited for him to see The Pavilion and to see that Ole Miss has finally taken that next step.”

Ole Miss debuted its new, state-of-the-art, $96-million arena last week with back-to-back wins over Alabama and Georgia. The Rebels fell at LSU, 90-81, Wednesday night to move to 12-4 (2-2 SEC) on the season.

For White, seeing Ole Miss make such a commitment to basketball is a source of pride, and he never doubted it would come after the sustained success Kennedy has had in his 10 seasons as head coach. 

“It’ll be a fun experience for us to see The Pavilion,” said White, who was 101-40 in four seasons at La Tech, winning three consecutive Conference USA regular-season titles but never qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. “Proud of what’s been accomplished there, of course, at my alma mater. Really anxious to see the excitement that’s surrounding that program right now. We thought it would just be a matter of time. The success that Andy had his first few years kind of rejuvenated the administration and the fan base. It’s been a long time coming. I’m sure all former players and former coaches and the entire fan base are equally as excited and proud.”

The Pavilion is somewhat surreal for White. He played many a game in Tad Smith Coliseum, and while he doesn’t have any animal stories like Georgia head coach Mark Fox (who said the Bulldogs once discovered a squirrel in the visiting locker room), he remembers practices being canceled due to rain.

“No animal stories,” he said. “I’ve got practices being cancelled, both as a player and assistant coach, because it’s raining. We had a little bit of water on the floor, and those managers couldn’t move quick enough to get up the wet spots. Light issues, heat issues. 

“But I have a lot of great memories, too. Some big wins at home in front of a crowd back under coach (Rob) Evans and coach Barnes that was experiencing sustained success really for the first time in school history in a facility that wasn’t attracting them because of how it looked or how it was built. They generated the excitement, our guys generated the excitement and kind of rallied around the fact that it was a program that was overcoming. I know Andy has gone or record lately saying this helps give them more of an even playing field, and I don’t think there’s any question about that. Proud for my alma mater, anxious to see it in person. I’ve watched the first couple on TV, and it’s a beautiful facility.”

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