Tuesday, November 25, 2008

From the Weekend That Was

First off, if you don’t want to read about Ole Miss’ thrashing of LSU and what it meant to the Ole Miss players and fans, then I suggest you not even read. I didn’t see another game or even the highlights and frankly, I don’t care.

Ole Miss 31, LSU 13
I don’t know if there is a way to accurately describe what it felt like to be crammed in the corner of the south endzone in Tiger Stadium, watching Ole Miss do whatever it wanted to do against LSU and experiencing the celebration that took place after the game. I was there for wins over Florida in Oxford in ‘02 and The Swamp in ‘03. I saw the win over Auburn in the Tuberville revenge game in ’99 and the ’03 game in which I didn’t think I was going to live through the fourth quarter. I was in the stadium when we finally beat Alabama in ‘01 for the first time in what seemed like a million years, and in ’03 when we destroyed them. I was even in Tiger Stadium in ’97, ’99 and ’01 when we won so often there we started paying taxes for ownership.

All of those games were great and are some of my favorite memories, but none of them, none, compare to what happened on Saturday. Yes, it was absolutely tremendous kicking the crap out of a long-time rival, who had won six straight over us, on their home field, and watching their fans start filing out of the stadium in the third quarter. But it was more than that.

For the past four years, Ole Miss fans have endured some of the most miserable football of my lifetime. We watched as the foundation laid in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s for a successful program collapsed into a giant sinkhole caused by a coach who quit recruiting and stubbornly played undeserving juniors and seniors, and another coach who loved Red Bull and recrootin’ but had no idea how to actually coach or run a football program.

We sat through blowouts, watched as the team found new ways to lose close games in the most painful ways possible and witnessed coaching incompetence that could only be described as criminal. It was so awful many fans considered (many actually did) giving up. Why should we waste our time and money on a program that wasn’t going anywhere, and, if anything, was getting worse? It was, in short, the worst of times.

Then, a small glimmer of hope happened. We sent the Shrimp Boat Captain packing and had a proven, competent head coach fall into our lap. This season started out with some stinging losses to Wake Forest and Vanderbilt, but things seemingly started to get better when the team went to Gainesville and beat Florida. When we lost to South Carolina in Oxford the following week, we all thought this was just the same Ole Miss we’ve seen over the past four years. One step forward, ten steps back.

But then the team went to Alabama and showed some heart, coming back from a 24-3 deficit and had a chance to win the game before losing 24-20. Yes, it was a loss, but the team started to believe they could win every time they played. We saw it when they squeaked out a win at Arkansas and carried it over to three straight wins in November. An Ole Miss team, which won zero SEC games last year, won three straight in November. That just doesn’t happen.

With the LSU game next on the schedule, everyone knew how big the game was. It was a chance for the team to prove they had finally turned the corner out of a loser’s mindset into one of a winner. It was a chance to show that they really were a good team. And it was chance to prove they belonged.

For the fans, it meant erasing four years of frustration and doing so at the expense of a hated rival. It meant a close to the past four years and moving forward. And it meant we were finally supporting a real winner.

When the players got off the bus on Saturday, I could tell they were ready for this game. There weren’t any of the dead man walking stares that I’ve seen on countless road trips. Instead, they were enjoying the moment, smiling and encouraging the crowd to yell even louder. While this may have seemed like a simple thing, as an Ole Miss fan, it doesn’t happen often, and it meant this was a team that finally believed in themselves.

As the final minutes of the game ran off the clock, the emotion started to pour out of the Ole Miss section. One Hotty Toddy after another, chants to score again before time ran out and waving goodbye to LSU fans dumb enough to still be in the stadium. And when the game finally ended, the players joined in and pure joy exploded from the Ole Miss crowd and the players on the field. The players high fived people in the front row, grabbed signs out of the crowd to show off and directed the band as they played.

Everything they did sent the crowd into another roar. Even the stupid triangle of the Magnolia Bowl trophy looked great being passed around from player to player. And when I thought it wasn’t possible to yell anymore, the whole Ole Miss section began chanting Houston Nutt’s name, in appreciation for the man who stopped the last four years. The postgame celebration truly was one of those moments that, unless you were there, you’ll never be able to understand how happy everyone was.

Thirty minutes after the game ended and the players and Nutt finally left the field, we started to leave the stadium. People were yelling just to yell and screaming about the Cotton Bowl. For the first time since 2003, Ole Miss fans had reason to be hopeful about their team. What happened on Saturday wasn’t just a win over LSU, it was a team that pulled itself, a program and its fans out of an abyss. And it felt good. Damn good.

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