Leaving a Legacy

To some, Friday's Cotton Bowl victory over Texas Tech might seem like yet another Ole Miss win placed in the record books. But for 20 seniors it meant much, much more. Read about it inside.

Houston Nutt loves to tell the story.

In his first team meeting as head football coach at Ole Miss, the consummate motivator asked a simple question:

"Who here has been to a bowl game?"

He often speaks of not a single hand being raised and the challenge he faced as a team stocked with talent had grown accustomed to the rigors of four-straight losing seasons.

"These guys have had such great character and got better each and every week," said Nutt. "I can't say enough about their effort and attitude. I'm really proud of our seniors, the way they took ownership of this team.

"When I walked in the very first team meeting, I saw these beautiful athletes. They looked the part. But the thing that I saw early was there were a lot of individuals. It wasn't all their fault. They just hadn't had very much success. Once they knew we cared, we took off. We came together."

Boy, did they.

Six-straight wins to finish 2009 was all it took to put the proverbial icing on such a memorable cake. A team filled with glowing athletes, but little confidence, proved that adversity is nothing but a word.

They beat the odds, cleared the hurdle, whatever. Use any description necessary when discussing this season.

Simply put, these boys overcame.

"It's more togetherness," said Sanford Trophy recipient Dexter McCluster. "That's something we haven't had in the past couple of years. We were just missing that one element and Coach Nutt came and fed that in and got us on the right track. He got us to believe."

Believing can be a funny thing. It takes repetition, focus, desire and heart for a collection of names to become a brotherhood.

As the first few games of the regular season showed, camaraderie isn't something bred overnight. A few good men, willing to lead, are the key ingredients.

If not for the leadership of such seniors as Jason Cook, Peria Jerry, Michael Oher, Jamarca Sanford and Mike Wallace, this train may have never left the station.

"Just coming back for my last year, I saw something fresh with Coach Nutt – a fresh start," Oher said. "He made me believe. To get to the Cotton Bowl and win, it was big for me. I expect these guys to be in the top-10 next year. I see this program as only moving up. I feel like Coach Nutt is going to retire at Ole Miss."

Even when the season seemed doomed for failure after a heartbreaking loss against Vanderbilt, the upperclassmen rallied the troops in the Swamp. They fought for their postseason lives and prevailed with a 31-30 season-changer that (realistically) catapulted them to Dallas.

A win over Texas Tech was inevitable.

One would be hard-pressed to find a hotter team in the country than Ole Miss as the season drew to a close and knowing over 90 percent of America chose the Red Raiders was all the motivation needed.

A 14-0 deficit wasn't going to stop them, nor was a late goaline fumble. If any spectator has witnessed this team before, they knew not to bet against the Rebels when the odds are stacked against them.

"I knew we were gonna fight," said Wallace. "Too many times this season we've been down, but continued to fight to get back in the game. Even after falling behind early, we continued to fight and our coaches never gave up on us. We stayed together. We came out of the locker room together and we walked off together."

To consistently win in the Southeastern Conference, a given team must possess a group of bodies moving in the same direction. From the bottom-up, a sense of unity is needed for success to be realized in such a competitive avenue as college football.

With that in mind, this senior class will certainly be viewed as the group that saved Ole Miss football. They took on the personality of their head coach and marched on as "one heartbeat," while never allowing themselves to fall without a fight.

"We're losing some good players," Nutt said. "Michael Wallace, he got by a lot of defensive backs this year. You lose a Michael Oher that protects the left side. You lose a Peria Jerry. You can't draw those people up. They're special."

And they'll always be remembered.

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