Rebels won 1st SEC tourney held 30 years ago

HOOVER, Ala. - For most of the past 30 years, Ole Miss didn't make much noise in the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament. At the end of most seasons, until this century, the Rebels didn't even attend.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first SEC baseball tournament. There ought to be a historical marker put up right about where home plate was for that initial gathering.

Some of you know where it was. Some of you were there.

The marker would be located somewhere just west of The Rebel Shop near Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, where Hill Drive meets All-American Drive. It would read something like this: "This is the site of the first Southeastern Baseball Tournament ever played. Ole Miss beat Florida 7-4 for the title of SEC Champions of 1977. The Rebels played baseball on this site, known as University Park and Swayze Field, until they moved to the current Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field in 1989."

Old Swayze had some big games, some big moments, and some big crowds. A lot of future major league players came through that old field both for and against the Rebels on their way to the bigs.

But that Monday championship game in 1977 may have been the most memorable of all the contests played there; certainly one of the most.

There were four teams involved in the tournament - Ole Miss, Florida, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State. The Rebels beat Vandy, lost to the Gators, and then beat State, then Florida twice for the title.

William Griffin of Jackson remembers. He was a pitcher on the team that won the first SEC tourney.

"Old Swayze had that short left field fence," said Griffin, who was at Hoover with his son Kennedy, as the Rebs defended their title from last year. "We used that to our advantage. We had to beat Florida twice after we went into the losers' bracket and we did."

Just beyond the short left field fence was the first outfield party for Ole Miss baseball. It was the forerunner for the current atmosphere fans love beyond the fences at "new" Swayze, which will be taken full advantage of this weekend as a fourth straight NCAA Regional is played there.

There were some bleachers set up between the current FedEx Academic Support Center, then known as the Doc Knight Field House, and the left field fence. There were no lights at old Swayze. All games were played in the daylight hours. A lot of students stuck around to help the Rebels win it on Monday. Graduation was Saturday of the tournament.

"I remember that tournament got us players out of going through graduation ceremonies," said Griffin, who also played football at Ole Miss. "I remember telling my parents Ole Miss could just send me my diploma. We had a tournament to win."

It was a tournament the powerful Gators thought they were going to win.

"Florida had an airplane fly over with a banner behind it that said SEC Champions," Griffin said. "That was before the tournament was over."

Talk about motivation for Ole Miss. That was akin to the old ploy when opposing teams used to have planes drop leaflets on football practice fields before big games, which only served to inspire the team that got dropped on - and make one wonder just who dropped them in the first place.

Never know. Different day and age for sure.

The '77 Rebels were honored during a home game in Oxford this spring. Many of the players were there. Head coach Jake Gibbs and assistant coach Larry Williams, who both still live in Oxford, were there. It was a special time for all. But the gathering wasn't that unusual.

"A lot of us have stuck around and gotten together from time to time," Griffin said. "I see a lot of my old teammates quite often. We were and still are a close group."

And along with recalling the thrill of winning the first SEC Tournament ever played, they also remember that they almost didn't make it in.

"We had to beat Auburn on the last Sunday of the regular season a week earlier," Griffin said of that game played on the Swayze Field turf as well. "All we knew was that if we won that one, then we'd host the SEC Tournament the next week."

The Rebels beat the Tigers 7-4, the same score they'd beat Florida eight days later for the title.

"After that, we got to go to Miami for the NCAA Regional, and we almost made it to Omaha," said Griffin, which would have been Ole Miss' fifth trip to the College World Series. "You talk about excited when they said we were headed to Miami."

It's been 30 years since, and the Rebels have once again become a household name at the annual event.

For sure there ought to be a marker right there on campus reminding us of the significance of the first SEC baseball tourney and that special team of Ole Miss Rebels who won it.

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