- Matt Luke and Joe Moorhead have not stoked the flames of the Mississippi State–Ole Miss rivalry, which makes them a glaring exception in Egg Bowl history.
Ruben Mendoza held dual roles on head coach David Cutcliffe’s staff at Ole Miss: strength coach and head of security. Mendoza was always on high alert during the week of the Egg Bowl, the annual rivalry clash between the Rebels and Mississippi State. During a 2003 practice of Egg Bowl week, Mendoza found himself running up the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium steps to confront a man coaches identified as a spy.
A distant figure dressed in maroon peered over the stadium’s top wall down onto Ole Miss’s practice field. Mendoza arrived at the top row, confronted the figure and then began to wrestle with him. Below, practice came to a halt. The two combatants were visible only as small specks to staff and players. “It’s a Mississippi State fan!” Mendoza yelled down to the field during the scuffle. “Coach, what do you want me to do with him?”
“Throw him over the side!” Cutcliffe barked back, eliciting a confused murmur from Ole Miss players. Mendoza obliged, tossing the intruder over the wall, a three-story drop toward a practice field of stunned players. The body slammed against the pavement. “Everybody freaked out,” Mendoza says, laughing 15 years later. “It was a mannequin.”
“We were going to kill this Mississippi State spy,” a chuckling Cutcliffe recalls. “Needless to say, players realized it was a hoax. It spirited up our practice to say the least. It was beautiful.”
The Egg Bowl has been known to produce absurd motivational tactics, astonishing bouts of paranoia and endless brazen grandstanding, and the head coaches often take a leading role in stoking the animosity between two schools located 90 miles apart. Cutcliffe’s stunt set the tone for a 31–0 Rebels victory a few days later, well worth ruining that mannequin, whose twisted legs and arms were left splayed on the concrete in a heap of maroon and plastic. The rivalry is rooted in posturing, pettiness and espionage both real and imagined, and while the fallout is not always as messy as it was at Cutcliffe’s 2003 practice, the sentiment lingers no matter who’s patrolling opposite sidelines.
The paranoia is so high that former Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom only held practice indoors during Egg Bowl week. Houston Nutt did the same at Ole Miss, but that didn’t stop an uninvited State fan one year from walking through an unlocked door, ringing a cowbell and yelling “Go Dawgs!” Jackie Sherrill had campus groundskeepers plant dozens of fir trees alongside Mississippi State’s practice fields to separate them from a bustling highway and shield sensitive information from Rebel spies. Two decades later, the trees have tripled in height, standing nearly 30 feet tall.
“When you’re at Mississippi State,” Croom says, “you learn to hate Ole Miss.” At the beginning of Dan Mullen’s first Egg Bowl week as Mississippi State coach in 2009, players entered the locker room to find Ole Miss jerseys taped to the floor, so they could walk or stomp across them. Receiver Chad Bumphis remembers that Ole Miss bumper stickers were pasted in the urinals.
Sherrill enlivened this rivalry series in the ’90s by picking fights with Ole Miss coaches Billy Brewer and Tommy Tuberville, and Mullen continued the verbal assault years later on Houston Nutt and Hugh Freeze. Mullen and Sherrill refused to refer to Ole Miss as “Ole Miss”. For Mullen, it was “the school up north.” For Sherrill, it was (and still is) “Mississippi”. “He was a stickler for really pissing you off, something he said or did,” says Tuberville, coach at Ole Miss from 1995 to ’98. Brewer welcomed Sherrill into the SEC in ’91 by calling him a “habitual liar” in an interview that spread like wildfire. “Sherrill shot back that Brewer didn’t know what the word habitual meant,” says Rick Cleveland, a longtime columnist in the Magnolia State.
Nutt once proclaimed in a 2009 news conference that Ole Miss was the program in the state “on the rise.” Later that year, the favored Rebels lost at 5–7 Mississippi State, resulting in a saucy postgame speech from Mullen, then in his first year. “I know one thing,” Mullen shouted into a mic while standing on the field, his face plastered on the jumbotron, “There’s certainly one program in this state that’s definitely on the rise!”
Mullen’s departure for Florida in December 2017 and Freeze’s ouster last summer has left two mild-mannered men leading both sides of the rivalry: Matt Luke at Ole Miss and Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State. They meet for the first time on Thanksgiving night in Oxford, Miss., and they’ve each made a decision not to publicly attack one another. “I don’t think it changes the rivalry just because you got two respectful guys that respect the game and have a mutual respect for each other,” says Luke, a former Ole Miss player and Mississippian whose father and brother played in this game.
“I don’t want this to be a program that changes its approach because of the opponent,” says Moorhead, a Pennsylvania native who is nevertheless well aware of the stakes. Mississippi State president Mark Keenum made sure of that in his first meeting with the new coach last winter. “He definitely relayed his opinion of bringing the Golden Egg back to Starkville,” Moorhead says, referring to the spoils of this 117-year-old series: a giant brass football mounted to a wooden base.
Trash-talking coaches or not, Thursday’s affair won’t be without drama. The Bulldogs are still smarting from last season’s 31–28 loss as two-touchdown favorites in which the Rebels knocked out star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who needed months to recover from a gruesome ankle injury.
“I suspect it’ll be awfully dicey this year in Oxford,” says Steve Robertson, a longtime reporter covering Mississippi State who now works for 247Sports.com. “I think there’s some scores left to settle.” Robertson is right in the middle of this rivalry: Last summer, through a public records request of Ole Miss, he uncovered phone records from Freeze linking the coach to a Florida escort service, a discovery that ultimately led to Freeze’s resignation. “If I don’t find that phone call, I think Hugh Freeze is still the head coach at Ole Miss,” he says. Robertson, a 46-year-old father of four, does not plan to attend Thursday’s game in Oxford on advice of his attorney. He says he has received death threats and his children have been harassed on social media over the last 16 months.
The animosity between the universities extends all the way down to the foundation. Mississippi A&M, now Mississippi State, was created 30 years after the University of Mississippi “because of the disdain dirt farmers had for Ole Miss,” Cleveland says. “They thought Ole Miss was serving the rich folks, the delta farmers and plantation owners.” More than a century later, the feeling hasn’t really changed. “We’re different than Ole Miss,” says former Bulldogs defensive back Fred Smoot. “They’re buttoned up. We’re blue-collar.”
They argue about everything like brothers, and they are often not on their best behavior outside of the confines of four quarters. In 1926, a melee broke out when Ole Miss fans stormed the field in Starkville after a 7–6 victory. A&M fans beat those from Ole Miss with “cane bottom chairs” until they were “splintered,” according to a scrapbook published in 2009 called Mississippi State Football Vault. In ’97, a massive brawl during pregame warmups left one visiting recruit’s face bloody. “During my time, it was not a very respectful rivalry,” says Cutcliffe, who led Ole Miss from 1999 to ‘04 and is now the head coach at Duke. “I don’t know how it is now, but odds are, it’s not too respectful.” That began long ago, when in the 1920s Mississippi State baseball coach Dudy Noble got the trash-talking started. “I already know what hell is like,” Noble notoriously said. “I once coached at Ole Miss.”
This game is famous for its impact on coaches’ futures. “Coaches lose their jobs over that game,” says Melvin Smith, a former assistant at both schools. Ole Miss didn’t plan to dismiss Ed Orgeron before a late-game fourth-down decision in the 2007 Egg Bowl sparked a Mississippi State comeback. The very next year, the Bulldogs canned Croom after a 45–0 whipping in Oxford. A win can also keep a coach around. In 1950, four seasons into his tenure at Ole Miss and following a 4-5-1 year, Johnny Vaught had to beat the Bulldogs to finish at 5–5 and, many believe, keep his job. The Rebels won that day, and Vaught coached 20 more years in Oxford, won five SEC championships and strangled his in-state rivals, finishing with an 18-2-4 record against Mississippi State with a run of 16 consecutive Egg Bowl wins.
Nutt didn’t realize the significance of the game until he lost his first Egg Bowl in 2009. That offseason Ole Miss fans, instead of celebrating the Rebels’ second straight Cotton Bowl appearance, had Egg on their minds. “I’m going to get some feed for my horses in Pontotoc,” Nutt remembers, “and this man says, ‘Good win in the Cotton Bowl, but, look, you need to beat Mississippi State.’ Later that night, we went to a restaurant. Woman says, ‘Got to beat Mississippi State, Coach.’ She didn’t say a word about the Cotton Bowl.”
This rivalry isn’t celebrated nationally like the Iron Bowl or The Game or the Red River Showdown, but the area in which it is contested ratchets up the stakes. Mississippi produced the second most Power 5 football players per capita in the nation from 2008 to ’17. The problem: Those prospects are split between two in-state SEC programs and six more that border the state. The recruiting battles between Ole Miss and Mississippi State for in-state players can get ugly. “All kinds of accusations all the time,” says Brad Pendergrass, a former Bulldogs staff member under Croom. “Each school thinks the other is cheating.”
They both might be right. The two schools have found NCAA hot water seven times between them, suffering through a combined 16 years of probation and eight years of bowl bans. The Rebels are currently ineligible for postseason play for a second consecutive season, the results of recruiting infractions under Nutt and Freeze. In a constant battle to hang with their big brothers in the SEC West—Alabama, Auburn and LSU—both Mississippi schools have to go to great lengths to stay out of the cellar of college football’s most competitive division. Their last conference title came in 1963 (Ole Miss), and they’ve only once played (1941) with a championship at stake.
The series has been remarkably even since 1990, the year before Sherrill arrived (Mississippi State had won just six Egg Bowls in the 42 years before that). The Bulldogs have won 14 Egg Bowls; the Rebels have won 14. State has scored a combined 597 points in those games; Ole Miss has scored 595. The series raised its profile by moving to Thanksgiving night in the late 1990s, where it receives a national college football audience’s undivided attention on ESPN. A decade later, Mullen arrived in Starkville. “Dan Mullen took it to a level that I haven’t seen in all my years,” says Billy Watkins, a longtime journalist who has spent time reporting on both Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Mullen went to great lengths to poke the Rebels, even purposely scheduling recruiting camps on the same days as Freeze, according to Robertson. “He was almost so obsessed with Ole Miss, it changed what he did all year long,” Robertson says.
Through the years, each coach has had his own motivational methods. Ahead of his first Egg Bowl, Sherrill set up a junk car painted Ole Miss colors outside of the Mississippi State student union. Anyone could take a whack at it with a sledgehammer for the price of $1. One Egg Bowl week in the 1960s, hundreds of multi-colored pamphlets were dropped from the sky onto an Ole Miss practice, containing quotes from Mississippi State players that left the Rebels fired up. Years later, former Ole Miss athletic director and lineman Pete Boone learned who flew the plane: It was a stunt concocted by the Ole Miss coaching staff.
Egg Bowl week is here again, without the trash-talking coaches but with the same high stakes. Mississippi State is seeking redemption for last season, a chance to hit the eight-win mark, a better bowl trip and a likely Top 25 finish. Ole Miss’s season ends this week, but it can scrape back to .500 and notch a fourth victory in the last five tries. “For us, it’s our bowl game,” Luke says, and the head coach is treating it as such, setting up a hospitality room in the Ole Miss facility with card tables, arcade games and video game tournaments on massive projector screens. He’ll distribute new team gear for the 2019 season a few weeks early, as a stand-in for the gear bowl games distribute to players.
This isn’t new for Luke—Ole Miss was on postseason probation during his freshman and sophomore seasons as a Rebels lineman. He split those games with the Bulldogs and finished his playing career 2–2 in the Egg Bowl. As interim coach last season, his rousing upset victory in Starkville propelled him to the permanent job. He freely admits this. “It made the difference,” he says.
This game is that big, and no matter how much the coaches involved participate in the many entanglements of this unique rivalry, the elation and the bitterness linger years and even decades later. When Tuberville is told about Sherrill’s paranoia for snooping Rebels at his practices, he chortles. “Jackie’s the one to be talking,” he says. “Don’t cast stones in a glass house.”