"The Fastest Way To Defeat Is Division From Within"
That sign hangs in the Ole Miss locker room and is probably the most profound indicator of the Rebels' success during the 2008 season.
Why? Because the Rebels had lived the "division from within" part in the previous three seasons.
"We had to eliminate all the dissension, all the individualism that was prevalent on the team," said senior Co-Captain Jason Cook, who won the Scholar-Athlete Award for Ole Miss at the Big Play Banquet Wednesday. "Let's be honest. We were a team that didn't have a lot of direction and even though we liked each other and all that, we didn't really lock arms and push and pull in the same direction."
When Rebel Coach Houston Nutt came on board last December, he saw a splintered group and went to work to change the mindset of the team, individually and collectively.
For some Rebs, it took one team meeting. For others, including Cook, it took longer.
"It was a gradual process. Some guys changed immediately, after our first team meeting with Coach Nutt, but some of us were a little more stubborn. We knew he talked the talk, but we wanted to see if he walked the walk.
"You have to remember, we weren't in a real trusting mood after what we had been through the previous years."
Some switched over to the Nutt way in spring training. Some during the offseason. Others during two-a-days, which really weren't two-a-days at all, in August.
"During the Memphis game, I could feel the last few guys buying in. Once we were going against live bullets and Coach Nutt and the staff had not turned into something different, everyone knew and everyone started puling the rope," Jason explained. "We knew we had a winner on the sidelines with us, and we knew we had someone who cared about us."
Jason said the final transformation came at The Swamp, when the Rebels took down the mighty Gators 31-30 in a comeback victory. It remains the only blemish on Florida's worksheet and the Gators will play for the national title next week.
"The Florida game was a radical transformation for us. Even though we followed that up with two losses, there was a big difference in how we approached things as a team," Cook continued. "To be honest, we did not let those two lossses hamper us in the least. We were shocked we lost, but we knew we were on to something if we just kept plugging and stay together.
"And while we knew Coach Nutt and the staff were hurting at being 3-4, they were hurting for us and not for themselves. It was all about us. It was all about team, and he never got down on us. Not once. It's easy to follow someone who believes in you. He kept pounding it in our heads - you are a good team, just believe that. Over and over. We actually grew closer after those two losses."
Cook, the counsumate team player, then revealed something that was kind of shocking.
He did not buy in totally as early as some did. With his history, it was commonly thought he'd be the first one in line.
"It's hard to buy into someone you know nothing about. It was hard for me to give my trust easily after what we had been through," Cook says. "I admit now that I had my guard up and was waiting on the other shoe to drop in the back of my mind.
"But even though it took a while, I learned you can definitely trust Coach Nutt and this staff. What they tell you is how it's going to be and you can trust that."
What followed is nothing short of amazing. Five straight wins - including two on the road at Arkansas and LSU and a lopsided victory over Mississippi State.
"I can't tell you how much fun this has been. It's indescribable. Being a part of a group this close and this driven is something I'll never forget," he added.
Another shocking tidbit. This year almost didn't happen for Cook, who had already earnd a degree in English.
"There were times - before I got to know the new staff - when I thought I wouldn't play my fifth year, when I thought I had had enough of the beatdowns," he said. "But the combination of my convictions as a person and Coach Nutt rejuvenated me.
"When times get tough, how are you going to react? Some people bail out. I'm not a bailer, but that is as close as I have ever come to quitting anything that meant something to me."
Now Jason faces another crossroads today as the Rebels suit up for the Cotton Bowl against Texas Tech.
He's been rehabbing from an injured knee he got in the Egg Bowl and how much he can participate is still in the air.
Cook, however, is at peace with whatever decision is made.
"I will definitely try to play right up to the opening kickoff. I am definitely going to dress out," he said, "but it will be a gametime decision. I want to play in some capacity, but if it's better for the team that I play then I will play, hands down. If it's better for the team for me to sit I will sit, hands down.
"I'm going to be honest with everyone about my situation. If I can't go, I won't try to. We've come too far as a team for me to make any selfish decisions and try to go when I can't, but at this point (Wednesday) I'm feeling like I can help a little bit."
Whether he plays or doesn't play against the Red Raiders, the glue Jason Cook provides to the Rebel team is as strong as ever and will be a factor in the outcome of the contest.
Jason Cook -
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