Why are the Rebels better this year than the past four?
We could list a thousand reasons and all would have a measure of validity. Your guess, as they say, would be as good as mine.
Many will point to talent, experience, more depth and the like, and they will be just as correct as me, but I like the human side of athletics, not the tape measure and stop watch elements.
I lean more toward the intangibles, the sappy stuff. I like the theories and practice of teamwork, family, togetherness, discipline, doing right, consequences for your actions, being responsible, leadership, attitude, a different mindset and the theme of the year - one heartbeat, displayed in a tangible way with a blue plastic band each staff, support personnel and team member wears as a reminder of that sentiment and, if you will, lifestyle.
Those factors, to me, are what make the 6-4, bowl eligible Rebels a real story.
Sure, it's vital that Peria Jerry is a 300-pound wrecking ball who I wouldn't trade for any defensive lineman in the SEC, but it's even more important that he's a total team player who has also become one of the best leaders, by example and vocally, to grace our campus in a long time.
And the same can be said for Jason Cook, Jamarca Sanford and Michael Oher and a few others, in different degrees and ways.
What they and others have done is unified their efforts into the Rebels being of one mind and of one action, a power of many working in lockstep versus a fragmented force of one here and one over there functioning as individual components.
That unity, that single minded purpose, has gone a long way in molding the Rebels into a formidable team capable of beating anyone on any Saturday.
But to get there something pretty drastic had to take place. All egos had to be checked at the door.
Wide Receivers Coach Ron Dickerson told a story in mid-August that got me thinking, and that's really hard to do, about the possibilities of this team beyond the "talent" on hand.
As he was getting to know his players last spring, one of his wideouts came to visit him. The player, prominent on the squad, asked him one question: "Coach, what can I do to help the team?"
It wasn't "how can I get better?" It wasn't "what can I do to get the ball more?" It wasn't lobbying for more passes to be thrown his way or for more game snaps. It was about the team.
Dickerson said, months later, that is when he thought this team had a real chance to succeed beyond what they had ever accomplished before.
Since then, with very few exceptions, that selfless attitude has spread. Like wildfire.
Nobody cares about individual "stuff" any more. If you ask a player about a big play, they automatically deflect the attention to a teammate who made a block or slowed the runner down or helped make that play happen.
Last week, after the Auburn game when TB Cordera Eason had his first collegiate 100-yard rushing game, he talked almost exclusively about his coach, Derrick Nix, and his offensive line. Yes, I know, most backs take that approach in postgame jabber, but Eason's sincerity was palpable. He wasn't giving lip service to those who aided him achieve that milestone, it was obvious he really believed it.
That lack of ego springs up constantly of late.
Left Tackle Michael Oher has a great shot to be an All-American and first-round draft choice. Some even have him tabbed as a Top 5 pick in the NFL draft. Oher has not mentioned a whisper of any of that in months. It's all about the team with Big Mike and you won't get much of an answer if you do ask a question exclusively about him. He'll change courses back to the progress of the whole OL or divert the flow of the interview in another direction.
That lack of ego is so refreshing these days, but it didn't just mysteriously pop up out of nowhere on the Rebel squad.
It has a distinct origin.
It started with Houston Nutt.
I don't know if you have had the pleasure of meeting Houston or not, but if you get the opportunity to spend any time with him one of the first things you will notice is how unassuming he is.
He's high profile but not high maintenance. If you were from Mars and didn't know he was a big time college football coach who makes wads of money, you'd think he was a PE teacher at Oxford High.
Houston never meets a stranger. He's not evasive or some kind of hermit. He'd just as soon eat at the Beacon than at Prime - although he enjoys that too, and he doesn't hide from the public.
Nutt looks you in the eye and is genuinely interested in what you have to say. You never feel like you are getting the 30-second, stare off into space, when are you going away shuffle with him.
He does not think he's any better or any worse than any of us and he has no prejudices that I can detect, and I have spent a lot of time with him, relatively speaking.
And, most of all, Houston Nutt has no ego. Yes, he likes his profession and his position, but he doesn't hold it over anyone as some kind of weapon unless he feels deeply that asserting his "power" is for the good of everyone involved.
In short, he'd rather talk about anything but himself and that, my friends, is kind of rare in college coaching, trust me.
That lack of ego allows Houston to stand in front of his team and his staff and talk about "one heartbeat," and "unity" and "family." They see it's real because that's the way he lives his life.
In other words, the standards he sets for his team are the same ones he sets for himself. He does not lord over his team or staff, he's elbow deep in the trenches with them. Make no mistake, he is the boss and his is the final word, but guidance, not demands, is his most common method of communication and action.
To buy into this theme of one heartbeat, the players had to see the man doing the preaching had a heart beating with theirs. And the only way for that to happen was them being convinced Nutt had no ego, that it is truly about the team and all hands rowing the boat in the same direction.
Once that was clearly established, and a new level of trust and respect for each other was fostered, good things started to happen.
From the tangible side of things, "everyone" felt the Rebels had the talent to win a bunch of games this year, even Nutt.
But piecing it together into a well-oiled gear system took a lot more than talent.
It took Houston Nutt and a staff that believed in him and what he stands for and it took a bunch of young men willing to be led in that direction.
It's called leadership and Houston has a knack for that valuable commodity and personality trait.
Egos disappeared. One heartbeat took hold. Winning followed.
Some Rebel fans will draw a hard line in discussing this team. The human element will take a back seat. With them, athletes are objectified and externalized. I've seen it and heard it at least a million times with DT Jerrell Powe, who, if he didn't have human foibles and weaknesses, was sent here to be an instant All-American. To me, they are missing the essence of this team.
But I will go to my grave believing the story of the 2008 Rebels was far more human and intangible than robotic and tangible.
And that, my Rebel brethren, is what makes this team interesting and satisfying to yours truly.
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