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Sometimes, it’s hard being an Ole Miss fan

 

I was recently asked to make a pledge for the production of an Ole Miss license plate for the state of Georgia.

Those types of license plates have become popular in recent years.  There are special plates for all in-state universities, NASCAR, dogs and cats, the military – you name it.  Auburn, Florida and Tennessee logos on Georgia tags are extremely popular also. Now, if  a school, not in Georgia, wishes to have its own license plate available for alumni, it has to pony up $25,000.  Roughly translated, if 1,000 people pay $25 in advance (the standard cost for any special license plate in Georgia), then the $25,000 initial production fee is raised and state convicts go to work printing an Ole Miss license plate that would be very similar to those seen in Mississippi and Tennessee.

Despite the best efforts of the local alumni, Ole Miss can’t get 1,000 people to sign up.  That’s been the situation for the last two years.  Thus, I was asked to make a pledge, you know, as despite having written my check for $25 two years ago, throw out another $100 or $500 or whatever to cover for some sorry excuse that won’t pay his share.  Sorry, I’m not doing that.  It’s not about money, it’s about principal.

There are 5,000 Ole Miss alumns in the metro area.  And I’m being told we can’t get 1,000 to sign up for the license plate.  My first reaction is they are a bunch of penny-pinching grubs out there who won’t pay $25.  While that may be true with a tiny fraction, I think the bigger issue is they don’t want an Ole Miss license plate on their car.  Let’s be honest here – it’s not easy being an Ole Miss fan – why advertise.  Yes, we alumns take pride in things like the movie “The Blind Side”, not so much because it was a feel good movie, but because it shows the world that it’s still not the 1960s in Oxford.  Yes, we have something to prove in that regard – most Ole Miss fans feel obligated to show they are not racist.  And, in Atlanta, I’m not so sure that bantering around anything Ole Miss doesn’t automatically result in some stereotyping. But back to the tag (tag if you grew up in north Mississippi, license plate if you are a northern transplant).  Do Ole Miss fans really want one on their car?  I drive around 350 miles to work each week to down town Atlanta and I can’t remember the last time I saw an Ole Miss emblem of any sort anywhere.  They should give an indication that maybe Ole Miss and tags might not be such a good idea to begin with.

When it comes to showing off a school’s colors, it’s easy if you are Alabama.  I mean they can go 0-12 next year and they still have more national championship banners (and several not 50 years old) than you can count on two hands and you can bet those will be brought to your  attention regardless of any current record.  It’s easy if you are Kentucky, they have basketball.  LSU has baseball.  Tennessee has women’s basketball.  What does Ole Miss have?  Tennis.  Sorry, don’t care for that and they always disappoint in the end anyway. If anyone tells me we have the Grove, I think I’ll throw up – it may be the biggest distraction in Ole Miss football – too much emphasis on partying instead of team support and winning, but that’s a discussion for another day.

When it gets down to it, I don’t really care one way or another if I have an Ole Miss license plate on my car.  After last football season, that feeling is re-enforced.  If I had an Ole Miss tag on my car after the Jacksonville State fiasco last year, I probably would have garaged it for a couple of weeks.

The truth is, Ole Miss wants to play like the big boys when it comes to deals like this tag.  But Ole Miss hasn’t played like the big boys on the field of competition to realize that type of support.  I hope that changes one day.  I hope we make it to Atlanta, not to play, to win, and I’m not talking about the Peach Bowl.  I hope we make it to a BCS bowl. I hope we give Andy Kennedy a new facility and the seats are more than 12 inches wide and leg room more than 18 inches and he does something with it.  I hope Mike Bianco hires some worthy assistants and allows them to coach all the way to Omaha.

But, today, I just hope we can beat Mississippi State next fall, South Carolina today and Lipscomb this weekend and right now, all three seem like big challenges. That’s why it’s hard being an Ole Miss fan and why selling license plates may not be such a great idea, at least for now.

 

On Jerrell Powe

Jerrell Powe zeroes in on a QB

I like Jerrell Powe.  I have since I first met him in Ole Miss’ Indoor Practice Facility in 2007 and saw that big wide grin.

I had been covering Powe since he was rated the top recruit in the country for the 2005 signing class.  His road to the playing field and potential as an NFL prospect was a long one filled with many bumps and turns. Call it the Blind Side II without the help of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy.

Powe was declared academically ineligible by the NCAA in 2005, attended Hargrave Military Academy, where his academic shortcomings were supposed to be remedied, only to be declared ineligible again in 2006.  He worked as a jailer in Wayne County Mississippi in 2006 and 2007 while working on his grades and was finally approved by the SEC for admission to Ole Miss in 2007 under a weird ruling – he had to show he could handle academics for a year before he could play football.  There had never been a previous ruling like that one and there will never be another.

Powe finally made it to the football field in 2008 – lesser men would have given up.  He emerged as a force in 2009, often being double teamed and being named to the SEC all-conference team.  In 2010, his performance fell off – NFL scouts wonder why.  The answer is simple – the Rebels had issues at defense end and when you don’t have a Greg Hardy, now with the Carolina Panthers, or Kentrell Lockett on the edge, offensive lines can concentrate on blocking the inside tackles.

Still, Powe made it to the NFL combine this week, where NFLDraftScout.com writer Chad Rueter gave him good reviews. Sadly, Rueter saw fit to close his assessment of Powe with the comment: (Powe has) off-field issues scouts would have to overlook to be selected in the first two rounds.  I wrote to Rueter five days ago and asked him what those off-field issues were.  He didn’t respond.

If you Google Powe and the NFL, it returns any number of hits, with some speculating about Powe’s intelligence level and it impacting where he’ll be selected in the NFL draft.  I’m willing to bet that’s the situation to which Rueter was alluding.

That’s unfortunate.  I’ve interviewed Powe countess times after football games and from day one, I found him bright and articulate – and that only improved as he furthered his education and became more comfortable in dealing with the media.

Of course, the bad rap he gets is related to his academic struggles, as well as his mother being quoted (out of context) as saying “Jerrell’s problem is that he just can’t read.”  That quote was later clarified, but the damage had been done.

Powe was one of my favorite contacts.  I remember privately chastising him for grapping his crotch after Ole Miss had scored – a play where he was blocking as a fullback.  I actually got a picture of the act, and he asked me to e-mail to him.  I told him he could have cost the team a 15-yard penalty and he hung his head and agreed.  The violation took place in the north end zone, and I’m sure no coaches saw it, so I felt compelled to talk to him about it.

As I said, he’s a bright young kid and a favorite interview with many of the media types who covered him.  His intelligence can be questioned, but I guarantee one thing, he can carry on a conversation without 15 “you-knows” in a 30-word sentence and can articulate his feelings and provide insight about a win or loss as well as any player in a room filled with athletes and coaches.

It’s too bad Rueter took to keypad without probably ever talking with Powe.  He would have walked away with a different opinion than what he’s heard or read.

Jerrell deserves better.  I don’t know if he’s completed his degree – here’s betting he has, or he will within two years of graduating.

I wish him the best on draft day.  He’s deserving.  I think whoever gets him will get a winner.  And, I feel that if he had had Tracy Rocker working with him the last two years, he’d probably be a first round pick in April instead of a second or third round pick, maybe even lower.

Jerrell’s a great kid and a true Rebel who will do good things for Ole Miss long after his career has ended.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Andy Kennedy

I had intended to write something in defense of Andy Kennedy before his team knocked off a very good Alabama team today in Oxford, 68-63.  In fact, I fully expected to be defending Kennedy after another loss.

I have some problems with writing about Kennedy because, truth be told, I like the guy.  He impresses me as a good man and his resume while in Oxford impresses me despite the disappointments associated with not having made it to the NCAA tournament during his five years as head coach.

Perhaps the major thing that impresses me about Kennedy and his resume is what Ole Miss basketball was before he arrived, not to mention what it was, or better said, what it was not, in the century leading up to his arrival.  When the dust settles, there’s no disputing that he’s won 100 games quicker than anyone associated with the program.  And, he won right out of the chute after he inherited a very untalented team from Rod Barnes.  Barnes was a good man too, but he couldn’t recruit and when you can’t recruit, there’s very limited things you can achieve whether you are a good coach or not.  That problem continues to plague Barnes at Georgia State, where I don’t think he’s ever had a winning season.  People at Ole Miss and at Georgia State like Rod, but being liked is not a ticket for a tenured position.

While it was clearly time for Barnes to step down at Ole Miss, Rebel fans should think long and hard before calling for Kennedy’s head.  Ole Miss remains a coaching graveyard, as it was once described to Rob Evans, when he was considering taking the position more than a decade and a half ago.  You can take your pick as to the reason that situations exists.  However, it has to start with the facilities and the Tad Pad with its leaking roof and dinosaur appearance is a good place to start.  A fresh coat of paint and new video board will never fix the infrastructure of that facility or its antiquated appearance.  The best thing that can happen to that place is a wreaking ball.

There are other reasons beyond facilities.  Recruiting to a program that doesn’t put players in the NBA and to one with hardly any tradition is another reason to soften expectations when it comes to Kennedy and Ole Miss basketball.  Recruiting is the life blood of any program and the list of players that Kennedy has heavily recruited but came up short on is long.  Even if Kennedy continues to go after top talent, expect him to come up short if for no other reason than that thing called that would be more appropriately named the “Sad Pad.”

Am I disappointed with Kennedy’s shortcomings when it comes to the NCAA tournament?  You bet, just like any other Rebel basketball fan.  I look back at this season and the two losses to Mississippi State sting as well as a performance against Georgia where the team seemed to give no effort.  But, that happens with other teams and in other sports.  I’m not sure Ole Miss coaches – ones named Houston Nutt and Andy Kennedy – completely get the rival thing with State.  Nutt has lost two in a row and must return to Starkville this fall. Kennedy is working on six in a row.  If those two don’t stop that bleeding, it should go a long way in determining the future of their contracts.

However, in the meantime, I’ll stick with Kennedy.  As with Nutt, I don’t see anyone better on the horizon and both are highly experienced and capable.  If Ole Miss were able to attract another Tommy Tuberville – a first time head coach who has had great success – or a similar basketball coach who enjoyed great success at Ole Miss, the school would be used as a stepping stone for bigger programs. Fans who fail to understand the challenges facing Ole Miss basketball can throw out names all day long – from a possibly soon-to-be  fired Bruce Pearl to whatever top assistant suits you, but it’s nothing short of wishful thinking.

The Ole Miss administration – as well as fans, to some degree – have never been overly serious about basketball.  Until both become that way, they have no right to place lofty demands on a head coach who probably has done as well as can be expected considering the circumstances under which he’s forced to operate.

Kennedy may continue to disappoint this season and beyond, but until he is given more to work with, I’ll take his twenty-win seasons any day over 10-13 win seasons so many of his predecessors notched.

On oversigning

If you have never heard Tim Wilson’s “I Could be Wrong,” you are missing a pretty good ditty about being tired of Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil, Martha Stewart, and others.  While it’s a funny song/video, it is laced with profanity and is offensive to some.  If you might be offended, don’t bother; if you can take it, Google Tim Wilson and the song’s name and you can catch it on YouTube.

The song came to mind as something appropriate to describe my feelings regarding college football and oversigning, a situation in which Ole Miss and Houston Nutt are dead in the middle.

Nutt signed 38 players a couple of years ago.  That’s really no big deal to Ole Miss fans as Tommy Tuberville once signed 41 prospects in a year in which Ole Miss was on probation and could only put 13 of those 41 on scholarship.  Tuberville’s strategy was nothing short of brillant.  There’s no NCAA restriction on how many prospects a school can sign, only the bylaw that says only 25 can be placed on scholarship at the beginning of a school year.  And, to show how uninformed the general college football fan is; there’s nothing that says a school can’t exceed the 25 rule,, it’s just that if you enroll one player over the 25 initial counters, the following year you have to pay back the NCAA – in double.  So, allow 26 initial counters this year and next year you can only bring in 23. 

But back to Tuberville.  He told many signees they would not get a scholarship during their first two years at Ole Miss, but if they contributed for two years, they’d be placed on scholarship their third year.  You see, once on the team for two years, a student athlete can be placed on scholarship and not counted against the initial 25 allotment, only against he overall 85 players allowed by the NCAA to be on scholarship at any give time.  Tuberville had a lot of takers, including Matt Luke (his brother had played QB at Ole Miss). Luke, now the offensive coordinator for David Cutcliffe at Duke, was an outstanding center for the Rebels and part of the team’s resurgence after several probation strapped years.  Many kids signed with Ole Miss simply to be given a chance to win a scholarship along with the lifetime bragging rights that comes with signing with a major college program, especially one in the SEC.

Nutt didnt’ have to deal with probation, but he was trying to achieve something else – relationship building with coaches and high school prospects in-state.  Evidently, it worked to some degree as Ole Miss just achieved its best signing class from within state in years, if not decades.

Media focus, of which I’ve grown tired of, including an ESPN story today about Ole Miss’ “disappearing players” has generally been critical of colleges where a player has to wait a year to enroll (known as a grayshirt) or in situations where a player here or there may lose his scholarship.  Let’s be straight about one thing – when a prospect signs a letter of intent and grant-in-aid, that is for one year and is subject to review from year to year.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Granted, most student athletes who take care of business in the classroom and on the field, and keep their nose clean with the law, have their scholarships renewed.  Others who don’t care for getting up in the off season at 5:30 a.m. to head to the weight room, prefer lifting televisions to weights, and occasionally puff the magic dragon are also at risk of losing their scholarship regardless of talent or on-the-field achievements.

But make no mistake, some players are cut lose or encouraged to transfer simply because they’ll never contribute to the program.  A head coach once told me the hardest part about evaluating high school players was to look at a 17-year old kid and try to figure out what he was going to look like in three, four or five years.  Mistakes are made.  Coaches don’t make millions of dollars a year to live with mistakes; they must correct them, and unfortunately, that means back tracking on a promise.  For those media types who treat college football like it’s above business rules, get a life, grow up, and face reality.  Business leaders make hard decisions to be profitable and being profitable in college football has always meant winning more than you lose.

Ole Miss is probably no more guilty or innocent than most others when it comes to managing it’s roster.  The Rebels changed coaches in late 2007 and the first couple of recruiting classes under a new head coach are sometimes subject to higher attrition as the new coach comes to understand several nuisances, including those of an administration that often can say yes or no to prospects who have anything less than a pristine academic and conduct record.

While there is no NCAA rule (that could change soon) about oversigning, the SEC did pass a rule that went into effect for the 2010 signing class that limited schools to signing just 28 prospects.  There is, of course, rules around that, such as signing midterm transfers in December if certain conditions exist.

Perhaps that will stop some of the “concern” from mainstream media over the situation, where they love to focus on a player who has been “wronged” by a coach, that without the benefit of knowing the full story, as coaches are too smart to get into a discussion in the media as to why a prospect was dismissed.

At least I hope the rule has that effect because I beginning to have the same feeling about oversigning as Tim Wilson does about Oprah.

Thoughts on expansion

Pete Boone, Ole Miss’ athletics director, has always been nice enough to me, and overall, I think he does a pretty good job running the program.

His current tenure has seen numerous facility upgrades from the new basketball practice facility to an overall upgade and expansion of baseball facilities.  There are numerous other projects completed in the “secondary” programs, like track, golf, as well as women’s facilities.

Boone often gets a bad rap from Ole Miss fans, and as much of that is caused by his failure to communicate with ordinary fans as it is from things he does wrong.  I’ve found, more often than not, when questioned about his rationale for doing, or not doing, something, he comes up with solid reasoning.

I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of what all is involved in taking on a massive project like stadium expansion.  But, I do understand that because of Title IX and other considerations, the sports other than the big three – football, basketball, and baseball – cannot be ignored.

That said, I do think it has been – and is – a major mistake not to bring improvements to the four-sided wonder known as Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.  I call it that because none of the four sides match.

When Ole Miss had about 20,000 fans – at best – in the stands for the Northwestern State game in late 2007, I’m sure that Pete was applauding himself for any decision to not expand the stadium.  By the same token, he probably saw money going down the drain when he didn’t have enough seats to meet demand for games like Alabama, LSU and perhaps Tennessee last fall.

In truth, attendance has always been a problem for Ole Miss.  After all, we are talking about a school that is struggling to find 1,000 fans who will invest $25 for an Ole Miss prestige license plate only two states over in Georgia.

I recall being in the football offices the day before Ole Miss played ULM in 2008.  The team had won two games in a row and coaches were thinking excitement and a big crowd.  I told a couple of coaches they wouldn’t have 45K in the stands and they were shocked and in disbelief.  “Why,” they asked.  I said you can start with the cold weather.  It was 48 degrees that day and the Rebels drew just over 43,500.

Such is the problem – or if you like, call it an issue – surrounding Ole Miss football.  The diehard fans equal any in college football, but there’s a lack of commitment from the secondary, and perhaps third tier of fans.  The Alabamas of the world don’t have that problem, but it’s not limited to just the “big boys” – South Carolina was selling out during the middle of a long losing streak a decade ago.  The fans might leave early, but they bought the tickets and they showed up.

Fan support or not, if Ole Miss wants to keep pace in the SEC, something has to be done about the stadium, in particular, that eye sore called the north end zone.  Ole Miss fans who never travel to road games may ask what’s wrong with the stadium.  Those of us who have seen the chair back seating in the Swamp and the massive structures at South Carolina, Georgia, Auburn and Alabama know what Ole Miss has is second rate.

Of course, there’s always the argument that “we still have the Grove.”  I’ve never found that argument germane to the situation for no game has ever been won or lost at that location.

I don’t think Ole Miss needs to do a $200 million overall, it just needs to bring the north end zone out of the early 19th century and perhaps upgrade the press box area and club seating on the west side to match the east side.  Seating needs to be bumped up to the 70K to 75K capacity with plans in another ten years or so to fill in some of the gaps to get it to the 85K capacity.

The north end zone needs to be renovated in the next three to five years and other plans implemented in about five year increments.

Boone is a banker by trade, and he doesn’t like deficit spending.   I disagree.  Interest rates are at a point where the school doesn’t need to have the funds in the bank before beginning a project.  Other schools certainly aren’t.

And, while Ole Miss can hang its hat on the IPF and other improvements to facilities campus wide, when it gets down to it, the games are played in the stadium and what prospect on a recruiting visit is ever going to be more impressed with Ole Miss’ north end zone over the view in Bryant-Denny Stadium.  And, when it gets down to it, winning those recruiting battles will be what it takes for Ole Miss to be a championship contender.

Thoughts about Ole Miss’ ongoing mascot saga

I wrote the below blog during the vote for a mascot, and not much as changed since then. Ole Miss continues to be embarrassed by people stupid enough to introduce legislation to bring back Colonel Reb and by adopting a Black Bear when a make over of Colonel Reb into a Revolutionary War patroit would have served the school better. Anyway, here’s my blog from last summer …

It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years since Ole Miss shelved Colonel Reb and the Rebels have been without a sideline mascot for so long.

Every time I stood on the sidelines in recent years and saw mascots from other schools, I was reminded of how stupid it is for Ole Miss not to have a mascot. There is probably no other situation at Ole Miss that embodies the term ineptness more than what has gone on with the mascot challenge over the last seven years.

Make no mistake, though, Pete Boone did the right thing in shelving Colonel Reb in his current form when he did. In 2003, it was a time that the NCAA was reviewing mascots and teams like Arkansas State ended up with a new name and a new mascot. Exactly how Arkansas State could have lost the name ”Indians” when Florida State retained ”Seminoles” remains a mystery to me and shows how the NCAA runs roughshod over smaller programs while allowing the larger schools to do as they please, well, at least unless they begin flaunting it, like USC did under Pete Carroll.

Had Boone not taken the action he did, there’s little doubt in my mind that not only Colonel Reb, but Ole Miss and Rebels, would have come in the cross hairs of the NCAA with there having been a major risk of losing all three.

While Boone did the right thing, the ensuing campaign to find a new mascot he ran that resulted in Bruiser and Mr. Clean – or whatever he was – was nothing short of a laughing stock. Bypassed in that that campaign was the skipping over of the Colonel Reb logo shown on this site, which was designed by Torch Creative, Inc. and would have been an acceptable replacement – at least in my opinion, and the opinion of many others.

When it comes to a mascot, Ole Miss doesn’t need a Hotty or a Toddy, a Bear, or a Land Shark, or whatever – it has a mascot and that mascot is Colonel Reb.

Let old times be forgotten, because in current form, Colonel Reb is dead thanks to Robert Khayat being stupid enough to say that Colonel Reb was a plantation owner back in the day. Any opportunity to rehabilitate Colonel Reb, or any semblance of the the form he had appeared in since the 1940s, was lost at the point Khayat finished uttering those incredibly stupid words.

I still feel there’s room for Colonel Reb to be rehabilitated, that is transitioned into a kinder and gentler, and more importantly, politically correct, version. The guys at Torch Creative are ready to do that. Boone, for some reason, seems averse to dealing with them.

I’m not one to think that Ole Miss needs something for the pre-school or juvenile crowd. That’s incredibly short sighted. My kids are far beyond the potty training stage – or juvenile phase – and I have the knowledge that while they may be fans at a young age and impressed by a muppet, when they get old enough to start slugging down beer and running cars into stationary objects, a school’s mascot isn’t quite as impressionable.

The trick is to have a mascot to appeal to the masses – the kids, the teenie boppers, the preppies, the middle aged crowd and the old timers. It’s doable and it can be done without have to turn to some symbol that is on the far periphery of the school – like the Cardinal or Bear.

The mission should be all about a redesign of Colonel Reb – not about finding something remotely tied to Ole Miss and trying to sell it to a fan base because of political correctness.

But the agenda has been set and the decision made. Ole Miss will muddle through this – again. It’ll manage to take center stage during the middle of a Rebel five game winning streak – or an upset loss – as it will flame some of the passionate.

I’m all for stakeholders having a say, but in the end, a decision has to be made and it’s up to the leadership to gain consensus and support, even from those that may be disappointed by the outcome.

But, in the end, isn’t leadership – or the lack of it – the reason Ole Miss hasn’t had a mascot for the last seven years?

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