If college football is truly allegorical, then here is the title of its harshest lesson: Ole Miss vs. Mis'ippi State. It is perhaps the saddest rivalry in all of Division I, a struggle for pride in a state where pride comes hard, then runs too deep and stays too long.
"Poor old whupped-down Mis'ippi" is what the writer Willie Morris calls his home state. "The last people you want to take a whuppin' from is somebody else from Mis'ippi," says comedian Jerry Clower, a former Mis'ippi State player.
Considering their state's paltry resources, the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University—their formal names—probably shouldn't even be separate institutions, let alone schools that support separate football teams in the high-rent Southeastern Conference. "This state is just too little, in terms of people, and too poor to sustain a major football rivalry," says Morris, who wrote The Courting of Marcus Dupree, a 1983 portrait of the state's sociological relationships with football and black players.
And yet the demographics of Ole Miss and Mis'ippi State—homogenous as they might seem from the outside—are more socially opposite than those of Alabama and Auburn, Florida and Florida State, or Texas and Texas A&M. So Mis'ippi society can't live without what it can't afford.
December 2, 1991
Ole Miss is the last bastion of the traditions of the old Southern gentry. Its teams are nicknamed Rebels; its fans still wave Confederate flags despite official disavowal of the symbol by the university and its alumni association; its marching band still plays Dixie. The very term Ole Miss is not a contraction of "Old Mississippi," but an old slave term—a plantation owner's daughter was called "the young miss" and his wife "the old miss."
Mis'ippi State's people loathed those symbols long before loathing them was nationally cool. Mis'ippi State was born of a boycott by the working classes against the very aristocracy that Ole Miss embodies. In 1872, after the federal government provided for land-grant agricultural and mechanical colleges, the Mississippi legislature tried to attach an agriculture school to Ole Miss. Land was designated near the Oxford campus, a dean was hired, a curriculum was designed, the school was proclaimed open, and, according to Ole Miss history professor David Sansing, nobody enrolled. "Not a single student came," Sansing says, "because the sons of the industrial classes didn't want to go up to Ole Miss, where they would have to go to school with the sons of the gentry."
So an entirely new school was created in Starkville. It opened in 1880 as Mississippi A&M but quickly acquired a popular nickname: People's College. No vestiges of class structure, such as those that prevailed at Ole Miss, were allowed at what would become Mississippi State.
Last Saturday in Starkville, just before the 88th renewal of the rivalry, there were a few seconds of very conspicuous silence. Traditionally, right between the "Amen" of the invocation and the "Oh, say can you see" of the national anthem, Mis'ippi State folks chorus from the depths of their lungs, and their genes: "Go to hell, Ole Miss!" It has happened for years, after every football invocation, no matter where or whom the Bulldogs were playing.
Local ministers' displeasure with the same-breath utterance of prayer and curse had for years gone unheeded. Saturday, at last, there was neither prayer nor curse—maybe because, after all those decades of wishing Ole Miss in torment, State folks finally had the Rebels just about where they wanted them. The game was back at State's little Scott Field (seating capacity 41,200) for the first time in 20 years—finally moved from the longstanding neutral site at Jackson, where the Bulldogs had lost seven of their last eight meetings. Ole Miss came tailspinning into Starkville at 5-5 after four straight losses. State wasn't a lot better off at 6-4. But to see Rebel hopes of putting together three straight winning seasons for the first time since 1969-71 crash and burn right there on Scott Field would be about as much bliss as any descendant of Mis'ippi's industrial classes could hope for.
And gravy, thy name is Jackie Sherrill, poured smoothly over a stewing Billy Brewer. Sherrill left the coaching job at Texas A&M following the 1988 season, after the Aggies were put on NCAA probation for major violations—though Sherrill still points out that he was not linked directly to any of them. Since his hiring by State last December—which was controversial everywhere but in Starkville—Sherrill has had Ole Miss coach Brewer seething. Last May, Brewer publicly called Sherrill "a habitual liar" in a dispute over recruiting tactics. Brewer claimed that Sherrill had phoned a former Ole Miss quarterback who had transferred to Texas A&M, Chris Osgood, who is black, and asked him to help influence a black recruit away from Ole Miss. Sherrill claimed he simply gave some recruits Osgood's phone number. Brewer's accusation prompted a reprimand from SEC commissioner Roy Kramer and a warning that a further public outburst against Sherrill could lead to Brewer's suspension under the conference's rule against criticism of member institutions and personnel. Sherrill just sat there, issuing polite disclaimers like "I don't have any problem with Billy."
Brewer now must choose his words very carefully, and he refuses to utter Sherrill's name. "I was disappointed," he says of the reprimand. "All I was doing was responding to a situation where an individual said he didn't say it, and I know it to be a fact that he did."
But you can't reprimand a man for his thoughts, nor for what his supporters think. On Brewer's desk is a gold-plated .50-caliber bullet on a little stand that bears the inscription GUARANTEED TO CURE A 'HABITUAL LIAR' AT UP TO 1,000 YARDS. It is signed, THE GUYS IN MOBILE.
Sherrill never calls Missisippi "Ole Miss," and the public criticisms he aims there are too subtle to stir the SEC office, yet they stab straight at the heart of Ole Miss recruiting. One of Sherrill's favorite lines is "When the National Guard was on the doorsteps of [the universities of] Alabama and Mississippi, black students were being admitted here."
Careful, Coach. State wasn't desegregated until 1965, after the riots that accompanied James Meredith's registration at Ole Miss in 1962, and following Governor George Wallace's ultimately futile blockade of the doorway at Alabama in 1963. But to the uninformed, Sherrill's line can pass as quite a lick on his two chief recruiting rivals, Alabama and Ole Miss. The greatest obstacle to Ole Miss recruiting, says Rebel assistant coach and top recruiter Jim "T" Thomas, who is black, is the memory of the Meredith episode in the minds of black families.
"Ole Miss has a stigma, and people haven't forgotten," says Thomas. "But if Mississippi State had been the first [university in the state to be integrated], then it would be the school with the stigma."
Of course, there is far more behind the simmering rage that Brewer directs at Sherrill than the mere issue of recruiting slurs. To understand the "Aw,——!" that Brewer uttered after hearing the news of Sherrill's hiring by State, you have to know that Brewer has struggled mightily to build something that he fears could be destroyed by Sherrill. And that goes back to history. Of all the elements Brewer has weathered in his nine seasons at Ole Miss—low budgets, barely adequate facilities, rifts with his chancellor, even a two-year stint on NCAA probation—history has been the most difficult to surmount.
In 1861, the entire Ole Miss student body—then all male—marched off to the Civil War. One company of Ole Miss students, the University Grays, spearheaded Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg at the pivotal moment of the war. On Cemetery Ridge, the Ole Miss boys made one of the deepest penetrations of the North by the South in the entire war, before being wiped out. The scar doesn't simply run deep at Ole Miss; it is literally chiseled in granite. On the square in Oxford, just off the campus, the Confederate monument is inscribed, THEY GAVE THEIR LIVES IN A JUST AND HOLY CAUSE.
Beginning with Kentucky in 1966, the SEC slowly began to admit black football players. In 1972, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss became the last of the league's teams to integrate. But even as Confederate flags were becoming more emblematic of virulent racism than of valor and mourning, the Rebel faithful continued to cling to their symbols. The school's history, to say nothing of the flags, left talented black football players (on which the other SEC members were loading up) less than eager to play at Ole Miss. The era of coach Johnny Vaught, who for more than two decades enjoyed a recruiting lock on segregated Mississippi—where it had been considered the duty of athletic white youths to play for the glory of the state's "way of life"—had finally ended.
Both State and Southern Mississippi opened their doors to black players before Ole Miss did, and recruiting became a helter-skelter, multisided dogfight among the six universities playing intercollegiate football in the state and the national powers who raided annually for top talent. A 1986 study showed that Mississippi, with a population of 2.5 million, produced more NFL players per capita than any other state—and still there aren't enough to go around.
"If Mississippi's university structure were like Arkansas's [with the emphasis on one major university by a similarly poor and sparsely populated state], then that single football program would contend for the national championship every year," says Rick Cleveland, executive sports editor of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. But alas, whupped-down Mis'ippi, ridiculed from the outside, paradoxically finds solace in infighting.
Into the gutted mansion of Ole Miss football in 1983 walked Billy Brewer, seemingly the only man with a chance to reconcile Ole Miss's tradition with its need for black players. Brewer grew up among blacks on the tough side of Columbus, Miss.—Thomas was one of his closest friends—and once confided to another friend, author Morris, that "I think I have a black soul." But Brewer, who had been a Rebel quarterback and defensive back under Vaught, was also a symbol to Ole Miss fans of past football glory.
Brewer aches for his black players at the bugle-call tempo of Dixie and at the sea of Confederate flags, though he has never publicly decried the continued embrace of those symbols. He writes simple messages on the locker room blackboard before his teams go out to play—such as "I love you."
By the end of the 1990 season, Brewer had steered the Rebels to a 9-2 record and an invitation to the Gator Bowl, their biggest postseason berth since the Vaught era. And Brewer had his ongoing safety net: For seven of the last eight years, even in bad seasons, he had whupped Mis'ippi State. Then came Sherrill, with not only his murky past but also his 105-45-2 record as coach at Washington State, Pitt and Texas A&M. Sherrill walked in and told State people, "Stick your chest out."
"And the only way they'll stick their chests out and put their heads up," he says now, "is if they get rid of their frustrations." Though the Bulldogs haven't won an SEC title since 1941, their fans could live with that. Their singular frustration was Ole Miss, which held a 51-30-6 edge in the football rivalry.
Sherrill had just enough Mis'ippi background—born in Duncan, Okla., he had moved to Biloxi in time to play his high school football there before signing with Alabama—to understand the whupped-down syndrome. And he is just enough of an outsider, he believes, to encourage the people to stop belittling themselves. In rebuttal to Brewer's "habitual liar" outburst, Sherrill politely thanked Brewer for bringing State people together.
Sherrill perceives about himself "a mystique," and enjoys pointing out, "There's no question that I'm the most publicized coach in the last 10 years."
"I sat on the stage with Jackie, when both of us had to choke back tears in paying tribute to Rodney Stowers," says State president Donald Zacharias, referring to the Bulldog player who died in October of complications from a broken leg suffered in a game against Florida. "The real Jackie Sherrill was sitting beside me on that stage—not the one that somebody may have created years ago, or something that was brought on by intense rivalry."
Tragedy is the only common ground Sherrill and Brewer have shared lately. Brewer sent his condolences after Stowers's death. He knew the feeling; one of his players, Chucky Mullins, was paralyzed from the neck down in a 1989 game. Mullins died last May. Among Ole Miss boosters, there are rumors that Sherrill is merely using State as a springboard back to the big time. Sherrill says he isn't going anywhere and that he will release contract details to prove it.
"I don't know Jackie Sherrill," says Morris, a former writer-in-residence at Ole Miss who now lives in Jackson. "But my friend Dog [Brewer's nickname] has paid his dues to this state.... He cares affectionately about it, suffers a lot, suffers about Ole Miss, probably would be better off going elsewhere. But he can't, you see. Dog can't go elsewhere, because his heart is in his state and his alma mater. As much as his alma mater pisses him off, he's got to stay and sec it through."
In Mis'ippi, says the Clarion-Ledger's Cleveland, "one of these guys is going to survive, and one is not." Morris says that "there's a lot of pride in Dog, under adversity." But on Saturday in Starkville, when Brewer led his Rebels into football hell on Scott Field, more than his pride was at stake. Just before kickoff, the two coaches had what Brewer calls "a good visit." Brewer added that, should further differences arise, "we probably won't wash it in public. We'll probably pick up the phone, and meet halfway with dueling pistols, or whatever."
After the kickoff, little could stop the Mis'ippi State onslaught except mercy from an unlikely source, Sherrill, who could have embarrassed Ole Miss by more than the 24-9 final score. Quarterback William (Sleepy) Robinson directed the Bulldogs to a 21-0 third-quarter lead, and Sherrill needed only to wait for the postgame handshake. Brewer obliged. Then, in the locker room, Sherrill stuck the knife in and twisted. Of State's first home win over Ole Miss since 1942, Sherrill said casually, "It was not a must game for us.... It was a must game for Mississippi." He still wouldn't say Ole Miss. Neither would his constituents, who lingered in the stands, not even bothering to tell the gentry to go to hell.