THE BULLDOGS AND THE REBELS HAVE NEVER BEEN THIS GOOD AT THE SAME TIME. THEIR SURPRISING SURGE HAS TURNED THE 87TH EGG BOWL INTO NOT JUST A BATTLE FOR A POSSIBLE PLAYOFF BERTH. IT'S ALSO A CHANCE TO RESHAPE THE WAY PEOPLE THINK ABOUT THE STATE
THE LOSER'S WALTZ, even for No. 1, follows a familiar groove in college football now. There's the shamed trot off the field, the hurried hollow answers to reporters with their needling questions. There's a grab for a bland dinner box from the tottering stack outside the locker room, the just-showered, still sweaty, dead-eyed walk to idling buses filling the stadium ramp with exhaust fumes and a white-noise whine. By the time of that first high step on board at least one earphone, tiny bud or massive clamshell, is pumping some personally meaningful song into a weary brain. No one laughs. Not yet.
"It'll be solemn at first," Mississippi State assistant head coach Tony Hughes, 55, was saying that mid-November evening in Tuscaloosa, after Alabama had beaten the Bulldogs (again) 25--20. Workers hoisted endless duffels into the equipment truck nearby; Hughes eyed the last players straggling past. "But kids these days, they get amnesia real quick. It's not like the old days, everybody sitting there, gotta be quiet, hanging their heads. They bounce back like rubber balls."
Of course, players can't know. They're the last to understand. It takes decades, generations—hell, 120 years, in this case—of walking this walk, of defending your battered state and living its pain and progress, all the big losses and the small wins, and loving it regardless, to see how a game can fit into the historic whole. Hughes, in charge of the safeties and, most important, the recruiting program that fueled Mississippi State's rise this year, grew up a child of segregation, raised by a grandfather whose experience of the world was bone-numbing farmwork and a racism he described as an unending string of threats: Get out of here.... Take the seat in the back.... I'll lynch you, I'll shoot you, I'll kill you....
Hughes could have left. He has had offers to work for other schools, NFL teams, out of state. But that wasn't the dream. He wanted to coach, all right, but at home in Mississippi, at one of the big universities—Ole Miss or State—that no one with his skin color was allowed to attend when he was born, in 1959. He spent years coaching Mississippi high schools, then community college, each stop giving him a deeper grasp of why Alabama—richer, chestier, with nearly double the population—most always kicked Mississippi's ass. Understand that, and you begin to see why this fall has left the Magnolia State so gloriously dizzied.
"When Paul Bear Bryant took over [the Crimson Tide], the whole state of Alabama made a commitment to winning football—from the university all the way down to the high schools," Hughes says. "Mississippi's a small rural state, and everybody's scattered. Football's important, but the overall investment—hiring of coaches, all that—is different. The high school all-star game between Mississippi and Alabama is totally dominated by Alabama."
It was nearing 7 p.m. Hughes was standing between two huffing buses, nearly full now. Two years ago the Bulldogs had come into Tuscaloosa unbeaten and lost by 31; this time they had every chance to steal one. That's progress, sure, but folded within a Southern same-old: Ole Miss, after all, has won only once—once!—in Tuscaloosa since that series began in 1894. State has won there twice in the last 57 years. Its athletic directors and alums, armed with maybe half the Tide's bankroll, have spent the last few decades trying to be Alabama, seeking to hire some coach who talked, walked and won like the Bear.
Who can blame them? Lying just 83 miles west of the statues of Bryant and today's genius, Nick Saban, Starkville has no choice but to look upon the 15-time national champ, with its $41.6 million budget and endless blue-chippers, as "our super-rich cousin who lives next door," says athletic director Scott Stricklin. So of course Dak Prescott, State's onetime Heisman shoo-in, threw three interceptions in Bryant-Denny Stadium. When, three days later, Alabama replaced Mississippi State atop the College Football Playoff rankings, it felt—even across the border—like a once-wobbly world settling back on its axis.
"It hurts: We know we had a chance to win," Hughes was saying. "But they execute at such a high level. If you make just one or two mistakes, it can cost you the game. Because they won't make the same mistakes that you make."
Afterward, in the locker room, coach Dan Mullen had tried to school his players on embracing that hurt, "that sickness that's in your stomach right now." He was about to get some help because the music from the apartment building across the street, anticipating the losers' departure, was rising. And it was that song: gut-rattling bass, banshee voice lending each line the tone of a taunt.
And another one gone, and another one gone, another one bites the dust!
A wheelchair-bound State fan tried countering with a rattled cowbell; no one heard. The drivers dropped into gear, and some two dozen Alabama fans howled and swayed, waving bye-bye, drunk on victory and God knows what else. Their timing was perfect. One by one the five buses rumbled out of the stadium bowels, and as each passed the apartments, the killer line dropped—Another one bites the dust!—penetrating thick auto glass, chasing the pretenders down Bear Bryant Drive and all the way home.
Yes, home. Because already the realization had begun to spread: With all the noise the Bulldogs had made nationwide by beating Louisiana State, Texas A&M and Auburn, by creating a No. 1 vs. No. 5 showdown with Bama, any hope for a championship would now rest on the most parochial of rivalries, on an intrastate game usually (and rightfully) ignored by the rest of the republic, on a Thanksgiving-week rumble that, after 110 editions, has finally become rivetingly crucial.
The one team to beat Alabama this season? The university that fancies itself "Hotty Totty, gosh almighty!" and the "Ivy League of the South" and, at the very least, an institution superior to some dirt-kicking ag school? Ole Miss.
The team with four wins over Ole Miss the last five years? Mississippi State. The fan base most desperate—even more than the Tide's—for an Alabama win over the Bulldogs on Nov. 15? "Well," Hughes said before boarding his bus in Tuscaloosa, "now the Ole Miss people are happy."
He should know; he coached there, too, for three years. So it is that the state's season of wonder, Mississippi's best football year ever, will reach its most pivotal, most manic point at 3:30 p.m. EST this Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. A Bulldogs win likely insures a spot in the four-team playoff; a Rebels win returns some of the shine to a magical season that had faded with three losses down the stretch. For those who grew up devoted to either team, that is only right. "It always comes down to the Egg Bowl," Hughes added. "It's crazy."
STILL, THIS year's edition will be unlike any other. Long overshadowed in their own conference, let alone the national rankings, both sides are tickled that CBS reshuffled its lineup for rivalry Saturday, placing all the network's old-school juice behind the showdown in Oxford. And if this season has a national darling, who would it be but the underDawgs from Starkville, the team that made the climb from unranked to No. 1 in five weeks, the fastest in history? The last time Mississippi felt such coast-to-coast love was, well ... never.
Forget football, the Magnolia State has long lost out to Alabama—and everyone else—in the court of public relations too. When outsiders alight in Starkville or Oxford and raise the race issue (and they always do, cutely invoking Faulkner's "The past is never dead. It's not even past"), Mississippians endure it through gritted teeth but wonder why their neighbor's own tortured history never seems to come up quite as quickly.
Part of that, of course, is because Mississippi still yields enough cartoonishly bad news to keep the trope alive: Just last February someone hung a noose and a pennant that contained the confederate battle flag on Ole Miss's statue of James Meredith, the school's first black student. Part is that lazy national-media types know the word Mississippi has a resonance that will forever elude, say, Vermont, and that all it takes to evoke click-bait rage is some hazy photo from 1964 and the clip from Mississippi Burning with Willem Dafoe snarling, "What's wrong with these people?"
Indeed, it's unsettling to always be judged by your worst day, let alone a horrific year now five decades past, and Mississippians like to point out their considerable progress since that "long, hot summer"—how the state, poor as it is, is second in the nation in charitable giving and has had, per capita, the most elected black leaders in the country; how Ole Miss, its student body now 17% black, has created a new Center for Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Engagement. But the image has remained, and the result is a populace still wrestling with a collective inferiority complex.
"I know it's real: I grew up with it," says lawyer Robert Khayat, the former Ole Miss football star who served as the school's chancellor from 1995 to 2009. "Every year the rankings come out—economic rankings, literacy, obesity, diabetes, unemployment, federal support—and year after year after year you're No. 50, and it just beats on you. Pick up a newspaper or magazine, and Mississippi is being blasted for something. Like Mississippi Burning, that probably happened. But it happened in other places too."
True, no corner of America can claim full inoculation from racial strife. But some have been able to move on faster—or been allowed to—because there's something else to discuss. The Crimson Tide are today's image of Alabama. Their record lends the state a damn near undimmable gleam of success, not to mention a weekly visual of multiracial cooperation; their year-round passion-play with Auburn leaves less room in the cultural memory bank for church bombings, fire hoses and Bull Connor's slavering dogs.
Yes, the Manning boys—Archie and, in the early 2000s, his son Eli—provided the Rebels with seasons of quarterbacking heroics. But the last truly great run for either of the state's flagship universities was Ole Miss's 10--0 campaign in 1962, when any national acclaim was swamped by the rioting and bitterness that enveloped Meredith's federally backed integration of the campus. In '64 three civil rights workers were murdered two hours south in Philadelphia, and Olivia Manning, Archie's wife, never forgot the swarm of federal law enforcement that overwhelmed her hometown, nor the sight of the ringleader, former Klansman Edgar Ray Killen, milling about the general store her parents owned.
"I just remember Mother and Daddy, they were afraid with all the National Guard, the FBI," she says. "It was a horrible thing. Horrible."
And in the decades since, no Mississippi narrative—political, racial or athletic—has been weighty enough or dramatic enough to nudge that memory to the margins. This is hardly surprising: Winners dictate history. "And from 1962 until this season," says Charles K. Ross, the director of Mississippi's African American Studies program, "we've been losers."
SUCH AN ASSESSMENT stings anywhere, but especially in a state defined first by loss in war and prestige, and then by near-constant skirmishes over the very reminders of that loss. In 1997, enrollment dropping by hundreds of students a year, Khayat effectively banned from Ole Miss home games the most offensive symbol of Dixie's lost cause: hand-held confederate flags. The ban took nine months to implement; he received 14 death threats and a pair of pink underwear in the mail with a note, "These ought to fit you, coward."
In 2006, Khayat maneuvered to erect the Meredith statue outside the Ole Miss administration building. His successor, Daniel Jones, has since eliminated the Disney-fied planter mascot, Colonel Reb, and the stadium tradition of singing "From Dixie with Love," because even in 2009 students used it to bellow, "The South will rise again!" While both changes had many supporters, they also faced steep resistance from students and alumni.
"If you had been really dominant in football, those things would be minor," says Ross, who has taught in Oxford since 2003. "But here it's been such a long time, and that's part of the inferiority. There's a fear bubbling underneath the fan base, because they've been so let down. People have become more attached to symbols, [tailgating in] the Grove, socializing around the game—not the outcome. Because you're probably going to come up short."
Not anymore. Behind third-year coach Hugh Freeze—and powered by its $25.2 million football budget, 13th largest—Ole Miss has been able, for the first time, to land top-ranked, out-of-state talent like Georgia defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, Illinois receiver Laquon Treadwell and Florida tackle Laremy Tunsil. Meanwhile, Mississippi State (with its down-market budget of $15.3 million) smartly sniffed out overlooked talents such as Prescott, persuaded an in-state gem like linebacker Richie Brown to turn down Stanford and, yep, Ole Miss, and coached them into world-beaters. And together the two schools expanded the idea of what football can do.
"It's bigger than sports," Khayat says. "It makes Mississippi people feel better about themselves."
IF OLE MISS and State share anything in this season's success, it's a joy that outsiders have, at long last, stopped uttering obscenities like, "Mississippi State Rebels." Other than that, they agree on nothing. Such mutual hatred seems typical. With Oxford cast as the liberal-arts frolicking ground for future doctors and politicos and Starkville the land-grant seedbed for engineers and farmers, the whole affair is reduced to the same high-low, snob-versus-hick dynamic found in most other states. "Go up there, and everybody just acts like they're better than anybody else in the world," says Robert Forbes, a businessman and 1973 Mississippi State grad. "They're arrogant."
Yet Forbes loved his mother, who attended Ole Miss, as much as his dad, who went to State, and he has plenty of Rebels he calls friends. In a population of just 2.9 million, that kind of cross-pollination, along with hybrids listing both schools on their résumé, is common. Still, Forbes no longer attends the Egg Bowl, Mississippi's quaintly named brawl, because even when Ole Miss fans lose, "they'll walk up to you for no reason and mouth off, talk dirty to you," he says. "I'll wind up in prison if I go to another one."
Such intensity seems a bit much, considering that the rivalry game—unlike the one contested by the powers in that state to the East—has rarely been played with anything more at stake than bragging rights. Yet such small pepper is precisely what lends the matter its singular taste.
"Usually the team that loses Auburn-Alabama still had a pretty good year," says Stricklin. "There's a lot of food at the table in the state of Alabama, and if you win, you get the choice meat—and if you lose, you're still going to have a really nice meal. But a lot of times here, both teams come in with three or four wins and it's just, Am I going to be able to hold my head up high for 12 months? This rivalry has more desperate overtones. In this state, for so long, if you didn't win this game, you didn't eat."
It didn't help that until the early 1990s, Ole Miss so dominated the series that its fans were far more obsessed with Alabama and LSU. State had good baseball and basketball programs, but during Ole Miss's postwar prime, when it won six SEC titles under Johnny Vaught and claimed a co--national championship in 1960, the Egg Bowl was what Khayat calls "a no-game," with the rivalry "so one-sided," says State's Hughes, "that it's mind-boggling."
"We won 17 in a row," says Khayat, who graduated Ole Miss in '60. "We were in two Sugar Bowls, a Gator Bowl, beat the stew out of everybody. We didn't even think about State as a rival. I hate to say it, they don't like that, but it's true."
Such disdain only ignited fiercer resentment—sometimes literally. There was one time when a Tupelo banker, fed up with Ole Miss taunts after a mid-'80s Egg Bowl loss, walked into his office on Monday morning and set a rebel flag on fire. And another when the Ole Miss baseball team was thrashing the Bulldogs in Starkville, prompting State fans to set the Rebels' dugout up in flames—with the team still in it.
"Of course, when we played 'em in basketball, our guys stole their bulldog," Khayat says of Mississippi State's mascot. "Hid him for two days and painted him red and blue with lead-based paint—couldn't get it off—had a confederate flag tied to his tail with an Ole Miss beanie on his head and marched him out here at the half of the basketball game. A fight erupted. And the poor little dog nearly died."
Lacking Ole Miss's prestige, symbolic and otherwise, did have its benefits. Mississippi State endured far less tumult when its basketball team defied governor's orders and sneaked out of state to play against an integrated team in the 1963 NCAA tournament—and even less when it enrolled its first black student, in '65. State's 2003 hiring of Sylvester Croom as the SEC's first black head football coach, historic as it was, sparked far less drama—and coverage—than it would have if it had occurred in Oxford.
Soon, though, that second-class status became a problem: In 2008 the football team won four games and averaged just 43,453 in attendance. Athletic director Greg Byrne sought to replace the low-wattage Croom with a coach versed in the spread offense; Stricklin, then in charge of fund-raising and marketing, saw a different need. After one candidate described Mississippi State's identity as "losing and boring," Stricklin scribbled the words on a white board. He couldn't decide which was more damning.
"The losing you can't change overnight," Stricklin says. "But the boring you can—in a day—if you get the right guy." Shaken out of Urban Meyer's coaching tree at Florida, the New Hampshire--born Mullen has hardly been dull. His Yankee bluntness rubbed like sandpaper against Southern sensibilities when he took over in 2009, particularly after he tried ramping up the program's rpms by threatening the jobs of some athletic department staffers. Now 42, Mullen is supposedly calmer. If last season's 4--6 start revived talk of how the coach didn't quite fit in Starkville, Bulldogs fans still liked how he battled for every last prospect within a six-hour radius, intent on putting the next Brett Favre or Jerry Rice—Mississippians who got away—in maroon-and-white.
And they flat-out love how he jabs Ole Miss at every opportunity, dismissing it as "the school up north." After winning the first Egg Bowl he coached, in 2009, Mullen—now 4--1 against the Rebs—crowed into an on-field mike, "There's certainly one program in this state that's definitely on the rise!" Once he tucked a couple more under his belt, MSU billboards sprouted up everywhere—even in Oxford—declaring, PLAY WITH THE BEST.
All that, added to this year's rapid climb, has combined to inform Ole Miss that it's in a rivalry for real now—and with stakes far bigger than a hunk of meat. When Mississippi State and Bama-beaters Ole Miss, at 5--0, both rose to No. 3 in early October, there was a sense—nationally, anyway—that the two were so dazzled by the feat that they were almost rooting for each other. Even in-state, there was a brief moment when some seemed to lose their bearings. "It's like a Twilight Zone around here," said lawyer Aaron Rice, laden with degrees from both schools. "It's all kumbaya now."
Soon enough, though, the folks in Oxford came to their senses. Hadn't they been the ones ranked in the preseason Top 20? No one had picked the Bulldogs to do anything this year, and yet a week later Mississippi State was suddenly No. 1. Then came Ole Miss's heartbreaking, back-to-back losses. By November you couldn't find a Rebels fan rooting for State, anywhere, and it wasn't because some complicated combination of wins and losses might shoot Ole Miss back into the nation's top four.
"It drove 'em crazy," said Hughes, behind his desk in Starkville. He grinned at the thought, started to laugh, and his voice kept rising. By the time he'd finished, he was nearly cackling: "The bitterness came when we got ranked No. 1 and jumped 'em. Oh! Because you could hear their people: 'How did they jump us?' They thought they were the ones. Now, you talk about pulling against somebody...."
SO NOW that the early-season wonder has faded, now that every fear of a letdown has gone unrealized, the thought is beginning to rise. This is it. Finally, two score and 10 years later, Mississippi is getting its second look. A place so fixated on symbols shouldn't be surprised, really. In today's America nothing beats sports as a marketing peg. Mayors, TV executives, fund-raisers all know: Associate yourself with a road race, a Super Bowl, a winning team, and eyes and minds will follow. We're suckers for a redemption story, so long as it involves some muscle and a trophy.
"All of my lifetime—I'm 67—Mississippi has suffered from either a negative image or negatives about its image," says former governor Haley Barbour. "The thing that did the most to improve that was the response to [Hurricane] Katrina. [The people of Mississippi] got hit with the worst national disaster in American history, got knocked flat and got up and went to work helping themselves and their neighbors. People noticed. This is a very different venue. But it's one that people notice."
Driving that point home is sophomore Richie Brown, the reserve MSU linebacker whose Long Beach home was destroyed by Katrina; nine years later the family is still paying off its bills. Against Texas A&M, Brown picked off three passes to tie a school record, upgrading this new and better storm to Category 4. "It's huge for this state. It's really the most exciting thing I've ever been a part of in my life," says Brown of this season. "And something that everybody here—I can guarantee you—is most proud of is how they can make their family and friends and everybody from the state of Mississippi feel."
So, yes, once more this season, people all over the country will tune in the Saturday after Thanksgiving and notice: the bow ties in the Grove, the cowbells in the stands, people with both black and white faces shouting about a game. Days like that can, slowly, one by one, bump that old image aside for good. At least that's the great and quiet hope.
"The beauty is that both teams have been in the Top 10 for most of the year," says Ross. "That's unbelievable. Auburn-Alabama? Of course. So now people are like, What is going on down there? How are these two schools—that aren't that big and have just been horrible—doing it? What exactly is happening?
"People are down here writing about it; we've been on CBS. Clearly we're going to see an increase in applications. People who have never heard of Mississippi or Mississippi State are going to be exposed to us because of football, and we're going to continue to have people come take a look. We have an opportunity to build and patch our reputation. We can gradually change, and people will view us not as losers."
The question that will be asked, again and again—if only by the parents of far-away recruits—is how much Mississippi has truly evolved. Tony Hughes will be happy to bear witness.
"This culture has been changed a long time," he says. He grew up in the tiny chicken-plant town of Forest. His grandmother worked as a maid for a white family. On Mondays she'd bring home her employer's newspapers, and Tony would read all about Archie Manning's heroics far away in Oxford. He'd go out in the yard and toss a football to himself, mouthing the sound of the crowd as he ran.
Hughes went to St. Paul's junior college, then Southern Miss, and played ball. His ambition became clear early, after he got out of the Marine Corps in 1984. "I wanted to live it right here," he says. "Even knowing that I came from segregation, that black people used to couldn't come into that stadium—Mississippi State, Ole Miss, none of 'em. You might go in and sell some peanuts in 1977 when they had a few blacks out there playing, but it wasn't like it is now—my dream was to coach at one. And I'm the only African-American that I know of to coach at all three: Ole Miss, Southern Miss and Mississippi State."
IN 2007, when Hughes was coaching tight ends in Oxford, his grandfather, 90-plus years old, went to Ole Miss for the first time. That Tony was employed there seemed impossible. "I never thought in my life," he told Tony, "that I would ever even see this campus."
Hughes is a recruiter. It is his job to sell, to keep home all the talents who, like so many before them, think of leaving Mississippi because it was forever a place to escape if you wanted to be great. This season, he thinks, signals a profound change.
"Whatever you want, you can accomplish it right here," Hughes says. "We can do it in our home. We've been preaching that, and Ole Miss preached the same thing, and then it started happening this year, and kids were saying, 'You're right! We can win!' And not just that, but in every part of your life you can accomplish whatever you want here...."
Hughes cuts himself off and laughs. He knows he's gotten carried away. Change comes slowly, still, and maybe it's enough that Mississippi State is in the hunt for the biggest prize and has turned a few hundred years of hierarchy on its ear. Maybe it's enough that 95 miles away, near "the school up north," the former tackle and chancellor from Ole Miss, Khayat, finds himself, at 76, admitting the unthinkable: that State might well have Mississippi's best program and its best quarterback, that the Bulldogs might soon be playing for a national title.
"On the surface there's a certain percentage of Ole Miss people who can't get past that," he says. "And I wouldn't say to you that I hope that Mississippi State is a national champion. I wouldn't."
It appears to be his final word. But after a long pause, as if girding for the sharpest of pains—or just an odd step in an old waltz—Khayat allows for some wiggle room. Some would call it progress.
"But if they were," he says, "I would applaud them."