When Archie Manning's final season at Ole Miss ended in 1970, the glory years of Ole Miss football breathed its last breath. The program had been on its way down from the dominance of the 1950s and early 60s, but with Manning and the old coach, John Vaught, there had remained hope that another run like the one a decade before could be made. The Manning and Vaught combination never did win a conference championship (or obscure national championship), but their series of winning seasons extended Ole Miss' appearance on the stage of college football legitimacy.
Since that time, Ole Miss has drifted in and out of minor relevance. A pair of 10-win seasons ('71 and '03), 14 bowl games (Cotton Bowl as the most prominent game; Houston Nutt would like to take this time to remind you of the BACK-TO-BACK Cotton Bowl wins he coached), and more Independence Bowls (five) than should ever be allowed in five lifetimes are the greatest accomplishments by the Rebels in the last 40 years. And when you examine the records during those years, the details are even more underwhelming.
Beginning in 1971 and through the 2010 season, Ole Miss' overall record is 231-225-4 (.506; 17 winning seasons out of 40). The SEC record in that time is a putrid 112-175-1 (.390; I easily could have missed a game or two, but you get the point), which includes just 10 above .500 SEC seasons in 40 seasons. After the 1992 season, the next season Ole Miss had a winning conference record was 2003, and since 2003, the Rebels have had one winning record in conference play (2008). Even the horrid days of the late 70s and early 80s didn't see a stretch as worthless as that (thanks to bowl expansion and increased conference tie-ins, the Rebels did go to more bowls in recent years despite .500 or worse conference records; also, in the record listed above, I did not count forfeit wins; if we lost on the field, I counted it as a loss).
Currently, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another run of futility, losing, and embarrassment. The latest of which was a 30-7 thrashing of thrashings at the hands of unmighty Vanderbilt, marking the end of the Houston Nutt era at Ole Miss. As of this writing, he hasn't been fired, but it's a matter of when, not if that decision is made. And so, for the fourth time since 1998, we will be undergoing a coaching search.
I don't have the slightest idea who is on our radar as the next man to take over the program. You can throw out just about any name right now and at least part of it will stick, as things tend to do during these searches. I have a few favorites in mind, but it's not my ass that will be on the line when the decision is made (though, you could argue that if Pete Boone survives the Nutt firing, neither will his since he's also lived through the Orgeron debacle; also, for the record, which I know you diligently keep, my top three are Gus Malzahn, Kevin Sumlin at Houston, and Art Briles at Baylor).
However, what I do know is that Ole Miss cannot afford to hire someone who believes in a conventional style, most notably on offense. For the last 40 years, we've tried to do things the way everyone else does them. Recruit the best players we can get, then play a similar style of football. We've tried to do this against a lineup of Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Tennessee, and Georgia, all schools with more of everything than we have. It shouldn't come as a shock that this approach has failed for 40 years.
Granted, as I mentioned above, there have been some successes over those years, but nothing of the sustained variety (I would call the Cutcliffe years sustained mediocrity). And the majority of those successes came during a period in which the window for opportunity for success in the SEC for everyone, no matter pecking order status, was still open (and we had one of the five best quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC). If you recall, the mid-to-late 90s were dominated by Florida. No one else, save for the '99 Alabama team and Tennessee, could remotely threaten the Gators for conference supremacy.
In the SEC West, it was virtually anyone's game. Nick Saban had not arrived at LSU, Alabama was coming off probation, and Tommy Tuberville had not built Auburn into a monster. If you went 5-3, you had a pretty good shot at making it to Atlanta. And anyone could crawl through that window, as evidenced by a Wayne Madkin-led Mississippi State team going to Atlanta in 1998. But then, the arms race began in 2000 when Nick Saban showed up in Baton Rouge and that's when the window began to close.
As we know, Saban turned LSU into what they are, Tuberville matched him nearly step for step, and Alabama, while not nearly as successful, only needed a quality coach to challenge those schools, which they eventually got in Saban. From then on, it became clear that unless your school had excellent recruiting (meaning: top ten) and pumped million of dollars into the football program, you weren't winning consistently in the SEC, particularly the SEC West.
Ole Miss cannot match those schools in recruiting or in money raised and spent. In 2006, we had our best recruiting class ever, finishing 15th in published rankings. That was good for FOURTH in our own division, and sixth in the SEC. Since 2006, we have not had a recruiting class match that success, nor will we anytime soon. Even if we kept up that level of recruiting, it means we're still bringing in the fourth best collection of talent in the SEC West.
In order to offset the recruiting deficiencies we will always have, we have to change our approach, particularly on offense. The conventional way, which has 40 years of data saying it does not work for us, has to go. Ole Miss needs someone who believes in an aggressive and non-traditional offensive philosophy. We're never going to have the players to allow us to overpower other teams on offense and rely on a defense to shut teams down, like an Alabama or LSU. And any effort to continue to play this way is pure insanity.
What we have now is an opportunity to change Ole Miss football. We can break free of the mold in which we've buried ourselves for the last 40 years and try something new. It's the same type of strategy change employed by Texas Tech, Navy, Oklahoma State, and other smaller schools attempting to cut down the gap between themselves and the bigger schools. And for the most part, they've made themselves competitive year after year. There are no guarantees it will work at Ole Miss and in a place like the SEC, but we already know what doesn't work: the last 40 years of Ole Miss football.