Ole Miss hadn't had a winning season and a bowl team since 1986. The Rebels had come off a 3-8 year in 1987 and had improved to 5-6 in 1988.
The potential had been there for more wins in 1988, and 1989 set up as the year for the Rebs to make a run - if they could get off to a good start, win some close ones, and stay healthy.
Of course, that's the formula for good seasons every year. The 1989 squad got off to a good start at 3-0, won some close ones, and stayed relatively healthy.
One major injury obviously comes first to mind. Chucky Mullins sustained a severe injury in the Homecoming game against Vanderbilt when he collided with Commodore Brad Gaines on a play. On May 6, 1991, Mullins, a defensive back, died as a result of his injury.
The final record for the team was 8-4, and that included a 42-29 win against Air Force in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis.
Junior defensive back Todd Sandroni said three thoughts come to mind for him concerning the '89 season.
"One was Chucky's accident," he said. "Two was my knee injury. And three was when Chucky was brought to the Liberty Bowl game. Our offense was good, but our defense was a little lacking. We had some people hurt, and depth was a problem."
Sandroni hurt a knee in the second game of the year at Florida. An MRI showed no damage, and he didn't play the following week. But the next week against Arkansas on the last play of the third quarter, he intercepted a pass and planted to run. His knee gave way and this time an MRI showed damage. He tried to play some as the season moved on, but against LSU it was obvious he was not himself.
"I saw a pass coming my way, and I just couldn't get there (to defend it)," said Sandroni, now a pharmacist with Cardiology Associates of North Mississippi, a husband, and father of two sons living in Tupelo. "I told them they'd better take me out."
On January 4, 1990, Sandroni had reconstructive knee surgery. He played again during the Rebels' nine-win Gator Bowl season of 1990.
The defense had been strong in the spring of ‘89. The offense had struggled. Both Sandroni and senior quarterback John Darnell remembered that.
"We didn't score on the first-team defense all spring," Darnell said.
"They never scored a touchdown," Sandroni said.
But in August the offense began to come to life. At the time it was still unknown if Darnell, who started five games in 1987 and played in every game but not started any in 1988, would be able to get the job done.
He had played behind Mark Young the year before and had two redshirt freshmen competing with him in '89 – Russ Shows and Tom Luke.
"The coaches really didn't know what to expect from me," said Darnell, who also lives in Tupelo with his wife and two daughters. "I just hadn't played all that much."
But he proved to be an effective field general. By the end of the campaign, he and the '89 season would be forever linked.
Sandroni and Darnell said the team had great chemistry for a multitude of reasons.
"I credit the seniors," Sandroni said. "They were willing to lead us and do whatever it took to get it done. There was good camaraderie off the field as well."
Players, some of them seniors, like Darryl Smith, Tony "Gator" Bennett, Pat Coleman, Willie Green, Randy Baldwin, Jeff Carter, Dawson Pruett, Tim Brown, and Darnell were among the leaders.
"There was a closeness," said Darnell, now in his first season as an assistant football coach at Northeast Mississippi Community College after being in pharmaceutical sales for a number of years. "We all lived in the (athletic) dorm. That had something to do with it. There were a lot of Mississippi guys on the team, and a lot of us were just real good friends. That carried over into the games."
An uneventful but important 20-13 win at Memphis got things started. The Rebels then traveled to Florida and beat the Gators 24-19.
"We had good coaches," Darnell said. "Charles Childers hit Gerald Vaughn for like a 30-yard gain on a fake punt. They took some chances. Chauncey Godwin had two big interceptions, one for a touchdown. It was just our day."
Then it was home to Oxford for a close 34-31 win against Arkansas State.
A confident, undefeated team headed to Jackson (yes, the Rebels played some home games there through 1996) to meet Arkansas (still in the Southwest Conference at the time). Ole Miss lost a close one 24-17 and after an open date returned to Jackson to face Alabama.
The Rebs led 21-0 in the first quarter before Bama got on the scoreboard.
Up 21-7, the Rebels had moved the ball to the Crimson Tide 5-yard line for what appeared to be a first and goal. But a penalty brought the play back, and when the Rebels had an attempted field goal blocked, the Tide would head downfield for another touchdown to close the gap.
The flood gates opened, and amazingly Alabama led 48-21 at halftime, moving out front 62-21 before Ole Miss scored late for a 62-27 final.
The following week it was back to Oxford, and the consensus was that nothing had happened against Alabama that beating a good Georgia team wouldn't fix. A Darnell to Reid Hines touchdown reception late proved to be the difference, as well as a Chucky Mullins video-highlight knock down of a Georgia pass that appeared to be a touchdown in the making for the visitors.
Ole Miss was 4-2 after the 17-13 win against Georgia and back on track.
The next weekend in the Louisiana Superdome, Ole Miss won a heart-stopper against Tulane as Darnell hit tight end Rich Gebbia with four seconds remaining for the winning touchdown in a 32-28 victory.
"That was one of my favorite moments ever," Darnell said.
It kept the season rolling, too, and Ole Miss stood 5-2 heading back home from New Orleans.
After beating Vanderbilt 24-16, the Rebels were 6-2. But the injury to Mullins that day took away any celebration.
For the first time since 1960, LSU was coming to Oxford. The Rebels' home games against the Tigers since then had been played in Jackson.
It would have already been a big game, but the injury to Mullins made this one almost bigger than life itself. The entire nation was aware of the situation. A then-record crowd of more than 42,000 jammed Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and donated thousands of dollars to help Chucky as collectors stood at the gates and buckets were passed through the stands.
The magnitude of the week before along with the moment at hand seemed to sidetrack Ole Miss, and the Rebels trailed 35-10. But a comeback of monumental proportions fell just short as Ole Miss lost 35-30 to the Tigers.
"It was a tough week," Darnell said. "I thought we were ready to play. There was all the stuff going on with Chucky, and we made some mistakes early. And I made a mistake and threw an interception at the end."
After another open date, the Rebels couldn't get past Tennessee and lost 33-21 in Knoxville to stand at 6-4. They needed to beat Mississippi State the last week of the regular season in Jackson to make sure of a bowl and a memorable season. The Bulldogs fell 21-11, and at 7-4 a Liberty Bowl bid was accepted.
Air Force was already at a disadvantage playing the bigger, stronger, faster SEC team in the Rebels. Mullins was brought to the stadium to be with the team in the locker room before the game, and the Falcons were in even more trouble.
"When I saw that ambulance drive up before the game, well, that's just something you never forget," Darnell said.
The outcome was never in doubt and only a late touchdown and two-point conversion by Air Force cut the final margin to 13 points.
"Coach (Billy) Brewer and the rest of the coaches did a wonderful job with us that season through all the ups and downs," Sandroni said. "Chucky's situation let us see at a young age that there's more to life than football."
One of the most memorable seasons in Ole Miss football history was in the books. Other teams had won more games, and several had won conference and national championships.
But few teams found their way into the very soul of Rebel fandom the way the 1989 squad did.
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