Estimates of nearly 1,000 fans gathered at Memphis Botanic Garden Monday evening to hear five Ole Miss coaches talk about everything from getting out of the Grove and into the stadium earlier (Houston Nutt) to looking forward to playing the season with a full roster of healthy players (Andy Kennedy). From being antsy to get into their new home at the Basketball Practice Facility (Renee Ladner) to thanking fans for helping rebuild and expand the stadium and telling them it was done for them (Mike Bianco).
At Ole Miss meetings all across the state and the country, it's easy to see how much time and effort go into making the events a success. The entire facility was filled everything from more than 150 silent auction items to a room used entirely for fans to get autographs of the coaches.
The largest room where the actual speakers portion of the event was held was packed. Senior Executive Associate Athletics Director John Hartwell brought good news on season tickets, mentioning that things stand right now at 5,500 more than last year, putting the mark to date at roughly 44,500 (including the student season ticket allotment of 7,500).
Ole Miss head men's tennis coach Billy Chadwick said somebody once told him he had the best job on the planet. After going through a list, he agreed, also mentioning that "when you have a player like Devin Britton on your team, it makes it even better."
Britton, of course, is now a professional, having played at Ole Miss for only one semester. Chadwick said two practices into his collegiate career, Britton made the final four of the SEC Indoor Championships in January.
"I've never had a player take to my coaching as fast as Devin did," said Chadwick, drawing laughter from those assembled.
Britton later became the youngest NCAA Singles Champion in history, winning the title less than three months after he turned 18.
Ladner said her team, coming off a winning campaign in her second season as head coach, is senior-heavy this time around with six. She hopes experience pays off as the team tries to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since advancing to the Elite Eight in 2007.
Kennedy said since this time of year is a recruiting period for basketball, he can't normally make the Memphis get-together. But he did this year with a "dead day" for both men's and women's basketball recruiting.
He said he was pleased about many things surrounding his program, from the current health of the players to the new practice facility to having a talented roster in 2009-10.
"If we're not working every day toward winning a national championship, then we're wasting our time," Kennedy said, drawing much applause. "Our competition is doing that, and so we have to do that."
Bianco said this past Super Regional and Southeastern Conference championship season was the most enjoyable he's had at Ole Miss.
"They were such a fun group to be around and to coach," he said. "Maybe not the most talented group we've had, but they had such a positive attitude and believed in themselves."
Bianco attributed much of that to the assistance this season of peak performance coach Brian Cain, who worked with the team in the preseason and throughout the year.
Bianco said the stadium renovation and expansion would likely help recruiting, but he's always said the Rebel program recruited well the way the stadium was before.
"We mainly did it to give all of you a seat and so you won't have to cut the legs off your chairs to sit on the hills," he said, drawing laughter from those who knew exactly what he was talking about.
Then came Nutt. As prompted by Club President Paul Pennebaker who asked the crowd what time it was, they responded "Prime Time." Then he followed that with an "Are You Ready" which drew a rousing Hotty Toddy from the masses as Nutt walked from the back of the large room to the podium.
For the next half hour or so, the second-year Rebel head coach held the attention of his audience with passion and fervor.
From talking about winning in The Swamp to urging people to make Vaught-Hemingway Stadium a larger version of the Road Rebels, which helped the team win in Gainesville, Baton Rouge, and Fayetteville, Nutt said last season was capped by a terrific trip to the Cotton Bowl where so many fans showed up to support the Rebs.
"Our season really took off in Fayetteville, Ark.," he said, mentioning the start of the six-game win streak for the program that continues today began at the place he coached before coming to Ole Miss.
This time around, the season starts right here – in the Bluff City against the Memphis Tigers at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Sunday afternoon Sept. 6, a nationally televised game on ESPN.
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