You'll remember the first weekend in October as the moment Hotty Toddy went national, like Roll Tide or War Eagle. You'll remember it, too, as the hour when two programs simultaneously took leaps only they saw coming
THE NIGHT before Oxford, Mississippi—and, for that matter, the entirety of the Magnolia State—exploded the college football universe, a group of Rebels fans sat on a porch around a table littered with bottles that a few hours earlier had held brown liquor. The group varied in age, race and profession, but almost all agreed on this: With the nation watching, Oxford and Ole Miss would throw one hell of a party. Then the football team would lose to Alabama, because the Rebels always lose to Alabama.
Oxford is the town that William Faulkner famously called home, where the men don bow ties and the women wear heels to games. They hang chandeliers in their tailgating tents. They scream the "Hotty Toddy" cheer, which allows them to work flim, flam, bim and bam into casual conversation. Football games are the social events of the season at other SEC schools, but no one creates an atmosphere quite so romantically as Rebs fans, who throw a debutante ball with porta-potties. They'll always share their bottle or their tent, but their expectation of victory ends when the tailgate does. When the conversation turns to matters of the field, they sound an awful lot like As I Lay Dying's Vardaman Bundren discussing his recently departed mother. My football team is a fish.
Back on that porch on Friday night eyebrows arched when Jon Mallard, a fan for more than 40 years, broke ranks with his compatriots. "I feel like they're going to win," he said shortly before he made his exit. He didn't offer any real reasons, and lord knows the Rebels had given him few over the last four decades. "I've been beaten up by Ole Miss football a lot over the years," Mallard said on Sunday.
The heartache began when he moved to Oxford at age four. He would listen to games on the radio with his mother, Dean Faulkner Wells, scion of the author himself. William was her uncle, but he helped raise Dean, whose father died a few months before her birth. As Stan Torgerson's voice tumbled from the speaker, young Jon's mind painted pictures of Baton Rouge and Nashville and Athens. Even after he moved away from Oxford to attend Ohio Wesleyan, even after he made a name in Hollywood as a first assistant director on such HBO productions as Big Love and True Detective, Jon Mallard always loved the Rebels.
They made him suffer, though, as they do all their faithful, especially against Alabama. Between quarterback Archie Manning's final season (1970) and last Saturday, Ole Miss had beaten the Crimson Tide on the field just four times. But Mallard once begged his mother to take him to meet the Rebels upon their return from a tough road loss just so he could tell Archie it was O.K. Mallard always believed.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 4 dawned clear and cool. In the Grove, the tree-lined expanse on the Ole Miss campus that is the tailgater's mecca, ESPN's College GameDay crew set up for its first broadcast from Oxford. A tent city had sprouted Friday night, and on Saturday morning its residents came dressed to the tens. Red or blue dresses and pearls for the ladies. Navy blazers and red go-to-hell pants for the gentlemen. They nibbled on pimento cheese sandwiches with the crusts cut off, on shrimp and grits, on candied bacon. But they knew the Crimson Tide's buses were rolling south on Highway 7. They feared that by the third quarter, Nick Saban and his robot army of blue-chip recruits would return them to the sanctuary of their tents where they could dive into their flasks. The party would sustain them even when victory abandoned them.
Less than three hours before kickoff Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze took his team through the Grove for a ritual known as the Walk of Champions, though there have been no championships since the 1960s. The Rebels claim national titles in 1959, '60 and '62, but the big polls crowned Syracuse, Minnesota and USC the titlists in those years. The last time Ole Miss won the SEC was in '63. Alabama, meanwhile, has won three national titles since 2009 (and nine since '63, for the record).
The players walking through the Grove, particularly the younger ones, didn't look like Ole Miss players of the past. They looked more like the Alabama players of the present. When Freeze was hired in December 2011, he gathered his staff and told them that for the '13 class they should target the caliber of player who rarely came to Ole Miss unless he was a legacy. Eli Manning, for example. Unlike their in-state rival (page 52), they would aggressively hunt five-star players, especially out of state, the ones who usually signed with Alabama or Georgia or Florida State. That is how defensive end Robert Nkemdiche of Loganville, Ga., receiver Laquon Treadwell of Crete, Ill., and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil of Lake City, Fla., wound up sitting in the octagonal Ole Miss coaches' war room with other blue-chippers during an official visit in January '13. Don't follow the other five-star players to Tuscaloosa, Freeze insisted. Help us beat Alabama.
The Rebels needed the help. "The first spring I was here [in 2012]," says defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, "I almost threw up when I watched our practice." There were some quality pieces—safety Cody Prewitt and defensive end C.J. Johnson, for example—but not enough. No wonder these guys hadn't won an SEC game in more than a year, the coaches thought. When Tunsil's national letter of intent rolled off the fax machine less than a minute after he was allowed to send it on signing day 2013, the coaches knew their strategy was paying off.
That young core combined with those overachieving veterans to win eight games in 2013. The Rebels snapped a three-game losing streak against LSU, but their trip to Tuscaloosa haunted them. Alabama's defense strangled the Ole Miss offense, and the Tide cruised to a 25--0 win. The Rebels knew this year would be different. In preseason camp they could sense it. "We talked about the new normal," Nkemdiche says. "A new era when we're the big brothers." They decided that era would begin on Saturday, and Freeze sent them to the field with a warning to watch out for falling goalposts after the game.
At halftime the Rebels of Mallard's youth would have buckled. Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones had just stripped Ole Miss tailback I'Tavius Mathers, scooped up the fumble and run 13 yards for a touchdown. Never mind that Jones had grabbed and yanked Mathers's face mask in front of the head linesman. No flag. (At least those plotting their retreat to the Grove would be fortified by a built-in explanation for this latest loss. The refs hosed us.) The Tide led 14--3. In the locker room Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson, a senior, stood and addressed his teammates. "This is adversity," he told them. "What are we gonna do?"
They would rise up. The defense held Alabama to one second-half field goal. Senior quarterback Bo Wallace threw three touchdown passes, two of them in the final six minutes. After that last touchdown put the Rebels up 23--17 with 2:54 remaining, kicker Gary Wunderlich doinked the point-after attempt off the left upright. The oxygen fled Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. But wait. There was a flag. Roughing the kicker. Ole Miss could kick again. This time Alabama cornerback Tony Brown blocked it. In the stands a friend turned to Mallard and predicted a 24--23 Alabama win. Mallard implored him to keep the faith.
With 37 seconds left and the Tide driving inside the Rebels' 35, Golson, who had suffered through a 2--10 freshman season, intercepted a Blake Sims pass in the back of the end zone. He was initially ruled out-of-bounds, but Golson knew one foot had landed inbounds first. A replay proved him correct. It was over. The Rebels had won the game and the party.
When the clock hit zero, the fans poured out of the stands. But how does one demurely jump from a seven-foot brick wall while wearing a sundress and riding boots? One merely jumps. All modesty was cast aside in the name of WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! As Freeze had predicted, the goalposts fell.
THE RECRUITING class of '13, the one Freeze had challenged to come and beat Alabama, had carried the day. That these players had done it alongside Golson and Johnson and Prewitt, who'd suffered along with all those fans through the losses, made it so much sweeter. For Freeze, the thrill of landing that class "doesn't touch the fulfillment and emotion that you feel when you see the product come together." Nkemdiche came to Oxford to do this. Johnson, who walked off the field bawling, had only dreamed of it.
The students carried the goalposts out of the stadium and to the Grove. Then they carried one to the downtown square. As they tried to plant one of the uprights in front of the Lafayette County courthouse, a cop shooed away Ole Miss freshman Michael Snowden and his friends. Snowden began walking back toward campus when he saw Katy Perry through the open window of an SUV. The pop singer had served as the guest picker on ESPN's show, and she had stayed for the game and the celebration. Snowden approached the vehicle. "Hotty Toddy," was the last thing he remembered her saying before she disappeared behind tinted glass.
Snowden, who grew up in nearby Memphis, recounted this story shortly after midnight as he stood in the Grove puzzling over how to remove a small piece of goalpost to keep as his own. A friend found some bolt cutters, and they managed to break off a few pieces. And Snowden will also have the memory. But memories are instructed to be short these days in Oxford. All those young Rebels players who walked into their training complex on Sunday to begin preparation for Texas A&M in College Station this weekend? The celebration was over, yesterday. Freeze stood before them. Like a revival preacher, he boomed. "Sunday is about the...."
"TRUUUUUUUUUTH!" they screamed back. They would watch the Alabama game with a critical eye. "Then we throw it in the trash," Freeze says. "Good or bad."
Mallard would never throw Saturday in the trash, even if his favorite team must do so to keep its edge. He will cherish it. He spent too many hours next to his radio praying for this kind of win. This will bond him with Snowden, who can be excused for believing every season should be like this one. If they ever meet, they will exchange Hotty Toddies and reminisce about where they were when Bo hit Jaylen Walton or when Golson planted his foot in the end zone on that interception. They will remember what they ate, what they drank and who they hugged on the day Ole Miss football finally outflanked the Tide. "The term was 'We may lose the game, but we never lose the party,'" Snowden says. "We don't really lose anymore. And we never lose the party, either."