I bumped into Ole Miss Coach Houston Nutt last Monday. We were both still stinging from the loss to Vandy, me more than him.
How could that be? Coaches don't have the luxury of stewing over setbacks as long as "fans" do.
Oh, he was still hurting, but he couldn't allow his team to see him that way. If you are going to survive in the business he's in, coaching in the toughest conference in America, you have to cut your losses and move on quickly. Being in this league a decade, he knows that more than most.
"That one hurt," he said, "but we are going to beat Florida."
I nodded my head in agreement, but inside I was saying this guy is losing it, but I knew he meant it. I wanted to ask why, but he read my mind and justified his brash statement.
"We are going to quit making so many mistakes and everyone at yesterday's (Sunday) practice believes we can," he continued.
OK, so we've got a 2-2 team coming off a crushing loss and an overly optimistic coach, I surmised. I mean, we weren't going to Itta Bena to play MVSU - we were going to The Swamp, one of the most feared venues in the country, to take on just the 4th-ranked team in the nation in the Florida Gators. And did I forget to mention their quarterback, Tim Tebow, won the Heisman Trophy last year? And that the Gator defense had held Tennessee to 6 points in Knoxville and Miami to a pitiful field goal?
Just for the heck of it and against my better judgment, I bought in, but I didn't dare repeat my conversation with Houston to anyone. Geez, how could I and expect either one of us to come across as believable or with any credibility?
But as the week progressed, the players kept hinting more and more about their spirits being high, their morale being good, their preparations being crisp and that word again - belief.
Maybe Nutt was on to something. . . .
. . . and when the game rolled around there was a sense of something different on the sidelines. A feeling, if you will, of confidence and a looseness that was apparent.
After scoring first, the Rebs' momentum grew but was sidetracked by a second quarter performance only a Mother could love. Trailing 17-7 at intermission, these Rebels were at a crossroads.
They were either headed for a turning point or a breaking point.
Nutt knew it and delivered that message, firmly, in the locker room. Everyone in the room was frustrated, but they got their act together in that room at that instant in time.
"Coach Nutt looked us in the eye and told is it was time to start playing ball and to put the past behind us. He believed in us and it was time for us to believe in ourselves," said senior LT Michael Oher. "He called on the seniors to lead this team and to get it done. He got on us a little. We could tell by the look in his eye. Win or lose, we had to find ourselves."
Buoyed by a couple of third-quarter, uncharacteristic Florida turnovers - they had zero TOs heading into the Ole Miss game, the Rebs tied the contest at 17-all and once again the confidence they had at the beginning started to build and surface in all areas.
The sideline buzzed. The partisan crowd calmed. The game was on and the "real" Rebels finally surfaced. Even though nobody really knew it at the time, Florida was in trouble.
It wasn't easy to close it out. Far from it. It took heroics. It took every ounce. It took every breathing body on the team.
Snead to Hodge for an 86-yard TD; Dexter in the Wild Rebel; the defense hanging in there against an explosive offense and perhaps the most explosive player in the nation, one Percy Harvin; and a late blocked PAT by DE Kentrell Lockett, who hurdled a Gator lineman's leg to swat away the attempt and allow the Rebels to cling to the 31-30 lead.
There were a dozen or more critical plays, but there was only one defining moment, one year-changing four seconds, one get-over-the-hurdle instant.
Fourth-and-one. Florida driving in Rebel territory. Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow hurling his 240-pound body at the Rebel DL behind a massive OL of his own.
That was the game. Do not kid yourself otherwise. If Tebow bulls for that yard, the game most likely goes to the Gators.
But this time, unlike so many other times in the past four years, the Rebels bowed their necks, surged forward and made the play they had failed to make so many times before.
The Rebel DL pushed the Gator OL back, S Marcus Temple looped around the end and made the first contact on Tebow and the big QB/pseudo FB who pounded these same players in Oxford last year was denied.
This time, they believed. This time, they knew. This time, they executed when it counted the most. This time, they did not allow themselves to be burdened by the past. This time, they dared to plunge into the unknown and get it done.
Walking off the field hugging one jubilant Rebel after another and waving to the Rebel fans who braved the trip - and also believed, Nutt was overcome with emotions.
"They believed in this staff and in themselves," he said. "Because of everything these kids have been through in the past three or four years, this is one of the most gratifying wins I've ever had the pure pleasure of being a part of."
Nobody knows what this win will mean in the long run, but it could mean more than beating a Top 5 program for the first time since 1977. It could mean much more than just snapping a nine-game SEC losing streak.
It could mean a total flushing out of a losing mindset that has plagued this team since 2003.
Kudos to Houston Nutt for orchestrating a huge step toward getting rid of that parasite that has dwelled in these kids their whole college careers.
Kudos to the staff for being together and following Nutt's lead. Kudos to the road warrior fans who also followed.
And most of all, kudos to the players and to the power of belief.
Now, another interesting scenario pops up.
We have seen how the 2008 Rebels handle losses - bouncing back rapidly. They did not dwell on the past. They glimpsed into the future and kept their focus straight ahead.
But now they have to do something new - handle success the right way. One big win does not make a season.
How they handle the next game will dictate a lot for the rest of the year. Can they handle the highs as well as the lows? This is foreign turf for all of them.
With Nutt pushing the buttons, expect the Rebs to respond accordingly.
It all comes back to belief.
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