In January of 2009, Ole Miss ended a football season in which it won its last six games to finish with a 9-4 record. That six-game winning streak displayed more pillaging and burning than I've ever seen delivered by an Ole Miss team, as the Rebels outscored their opponents 222-75 during that stretch. To put it mildly, things were going well to quite well in Oxford.
Then the 2009 season happened. Though finishing with another 9-4 record, which rarely happens at Ole Miss, it was an incredibly frustrating season. Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead threw 20 interceptions and the Rebels lost to three teams with inferior talent, including Mississippi State under first-year head coach Dan Mullen.
Ole Miss fans were not satisfied with the way the season went, but it was hard to complain about back-to-back nine-win seasons at a place like Ole Miss where something like that had not happened since black players started playing college football in the South. Plus, Ole Miss still had fresh wounds from the slow program death set in motion by David Cutcliffe and exponentially accelerated by the Shrimp Boat Captain. So at that point, any kind of winning served as a great distraction to the usual stink of Ole Miss' shortcomings.
In Starkville, Dan Mullen didn't realize it, but he was setting in motion a fire to drastically change things at Ole Miss. After the win over Ole Miss in 2009 and the emotional response from State fans (a combination of ending the season on a high note, beating Ole Miss, and having a competent coach in place of Sylvester Croom), Mullen fully recognized the importance that the majority of his fanbase placed on the Ole Miss game. Many believe that no matter the outcome of the first 11 games, a win over Ole Miss at the end of the year makes the season a successful one. Through a series of verbal jabs over the next year, Mullen made every effort to play up that win and united State fans behind the idea of always beating Ole Miss.
The 2010 season turned out to be the most successful season for Mississippi State since Sly Croom Les Milesed his way into the eight-win 2007 season, and tops of the last decade. The excitement surrounding the season lead to record attendance and a State community, both fans and administrators, together like never before. For Ole Miss, the 2010 season was the worst since the Shrimp Boat Captain era, and included another loss to Dan Mullen's team.
Ole Miss fans were outraged over a team that didn't care, was poorly coached, and offered little hope for improvement in the immediate future. Adding fuel to their anger, the Ole Miss basketball and baseball teams completed seasons in which they failed to reach the postseason (no, the NIT doesn't count). And during all of this, Ole Miss was being led by an administration that, other than a few "we're going to do better" quotes, seemed to stick to their decades-long attitude of apathy and the problem will eventually fix itself. All the while, Mullen continued his verbal stick-poking, which eventually was adopted by the entire school, administrators included, and morphed into the "Our State" ad campaign, a rallying cry for State fans and a shot at Ole Miss (a perfect storm for the State fanbase).
Complete with disappointing teams, a fractured Ole Miss community, and the incessant yapping from everyone at State capable of talking to a media outlet, times in Oxford could not have been much worse. But then, and I can't remember the exact tipping point, fires started to be lit under people's asses. A privately organized group of donors (allegedly of the high-dollar variety) presented Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones with a demand for more accountability and people to act proactively, or, more simply, do their jobs for the first time ever. A close look was taken at the Ole Miss gameday experience for the fans, which included the infamous survey where people got to bitch and moan about not having access to Coke Zero and other minor details. And, incredibly, marketing/branding/advertising was finally turned over to trained professionals and not done by the same people who have done it poorly since the beginning of time.
Now, despite how silly some of this sounds, especially the minutiae of some of the survey details, the point is, proactive behavior started taking place. Granted, it was proactive behavior that should have been done 30 years ago, but it finally happened in my lifetime, which I didn't think was possible. Amazingly though, none of this behavior began by a sense of wanting to make Ole Miss as strong as it can be, or a responsibility to do one's damn job as it should be done, which should be fireable offenses across the board. Instead, the fires under comfortable asses, though not entirely built by Dan Mullen, were lit by the State coach.
His consecutive victories over Ole Miss and playing to the "little brother" syndrome so entrenched in Mississippi State culture finally irritated, and perhaps caused enough fear in, enough people at Ole Miss that, for once, everyone associated with Ole Miss said enough with the half-assery, got on the same page, and decided to find ways to make Ole Miss better. Though, it continues to be embarrassing that the chancellor and athletic director have gotten involved in a pissing contest of sorts with their constant reference to Ole Miss as Mississippi's "flagship" university, a return fire shot at State for the "Our State" business.
But, for the first time in a long time, they're showing that they care, or are at least pretending to care, about ending Ole Miss' half-assing ways that have dominated the school since ever. It was a change in attitude that was INCREDIBLY overdue, and I can't believe it took a man from Pennsylvania and not pride to get it done, but it has and continues to happen.
Which brings us to yesterday, when a professional presentation (a HUGE step for Ole Miss) took place in which plans for a new basketball arena/multi-purpose building and expansion to the football stadium were revealed, complete with a legitimate website to provide more information and instructions on how to donate to the buildings.
Even the most jaded and bitterly cynical Ole Miss fan (not quite me...YET) cannot help but get excited by what has been planned. More than likely, even if Dan Mullen had never arrived at Mississippi State, this would have happened on its own. Probably right after the roof of the Tad Pad collapsed, crushing all those buckets used to keep the leaks off the floor. But thanks to Mullen and his ability to understand what makes the culture at Mississippi State tick, he's driven Ole Miss fans and administrators together now to change the culture of the school.