SEC 360: Alabama, Ole Miss, and the SEC's most Southern rivalry
What do you get when you roll Sela Ward, The Grove, sorority buttons, William Faulkner, Bear Bryant, rompers, Joe Namath, Archie Manning and sweet tea together?
Alabama-Ole Miss, that’s what.
This weekend, the SEC’s most “Southern” rivalry renews when the Rebels and the Tide lock horns in Tuscaloosa. (With no offense to Auburn-Georgia, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, the term “Southern” in this instance is probably more synonymous with the word “preppy.”)
For those of you who are alien to this spectacle, please allow me to introduce you. First, if you’re a not fan of Southern things and Southern culture, it’s best you stay away from the Capstone of Higher Education this weekend, for campus will be dripping with it. Attire will run the gamut. Half of Tuscaloosa will look like something out of a Garden & Gun photo shoot — red trousers and golf shirts for the men, sundresses or rompers for the ladies — the other half will appear as though houndstooth and Affliction shirts had a baby.
Second, those who are envious of physical beauty might also want to steer clear of the T-town metro as well (perhaps take in a movie or visit a museum). Because if you want to see pretty things and pretty people, stroll down University Boulevard or prop up against the side of Denny Chimes, where fella, you’ll get a horn of plenty of pretty.
Individually, both Ole Miss and Alabama evoke a sort of Old Row swagger that sloshes brown liquor in tumblers and wears horsebit loafers sans socks. Reeking of high Southuhn, Steel Magnolias society, fans of both schools couch themselves as the class of their respective states, juxtaposed against the rubes of the agricultural, land grant institutions of Mississippi State and Auburn, who serve as their rivals. Combine the two schools together and you’ve got Preppy Heaven.
These are universities where Greek participation is high, and campus life is often defined by whether you are a Phi Delt, SAE, KD, or Chi-O. Forasmuch as Alabama is known for its Greek prowess, Ole Miss has perhaps been even more defined by the Greek system. As one graduate recently put it, a place of “Chads and Brads who aren’t afraid to get their Dads … to beat you up.”
For the fraternity man or the sorority lady, The Grove at Ole Miss is the cynosure of college life. The Quad at Alabama is a probably a bit more eclectic and dialed down, but at either locale you’ll get a true sense of what “cool” really means (and you’re not it).
In this essay, I will reserve the liberty of offering a few personal anecdotes to “punch up” the proceedings, as they say in showbiz. For instance, I went to The Grove in 2009 for the Alabama-Ole Miss game and there were probably 200,000 people stuffed into that not-so-large area. The grass had been tromped over so much that in spots it had turned to mud, and by the time I went into the game, the bottom of my khakis were brown. Besides that, getting from tailgate to tailgate or to a urinal was a nightmare, and I feared that if something suddenly caused the masses to break for the exits (for example, if someone unleashed a buffalo or tiger), I would be trampled underfoot. I am in no way trying to poo-poo the atmosphere, but rather stating facts about what happened that day.
On the field, this game has not served up much of a rivalry, as Alabama leads the series 51-10-2. But when you pose the question, “Which school is the most Southern?” — ah, therein lies the true debate.
For just a moment, though, please allow me to humor you by reviewing some of the more tantalizing games of the series throughout the years. Let’s begin in 1964.
Jan. 1, 1964 – Sugar Bowl – New Orleans
Ole Miss carried a 17-game unbeaten streak and was a touchdown favorite in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama when the teams departed for New Orleans in late December 1963. Coached by the legendary Johnny Vaught, the Rebels went undefeated in 1962 but were denied the national title for various reasons (allegedly race relations were a factor). In ’63, the Rebels tied Memphis State and Mississippi State but still had not lost when the team wheeled into Tulane Stadium to face the Tide.
By no means was this a pillow fight. Described as “rugged action” by one writer, this clash of SEC foes was a low scoring affair that saw 17 fumbles (11 by Ole Miss, 6 by Alabama) in 60 minutes of pure pigskin Hades. Bama kicker Tim Davis footed 4 field goals and the Tide defense held the Rebels, led by quarterback Perry Lee Dunn, to only 7 points.
Leading 12-7 in the 4th quarter, the Crimson Tide defense was backed up to its own 3-yard line, where Ole Miss had 2nd-and-goal. But instead of giving way, the defense — led by Ed Versprille, Al Lewis, Bill Wieseman, Jack Hurlbut, Dan Kearley and Butch Henry — stiffened, stymieing the Rebels on two consecutive plays. That set up a 4th-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Before the play, Wieseman had a gut feeling the play was coming to his side and yelled at Hurlbut, “watch our side!” It turned out his suspicion was correct, and a convoy of crimson was waiting for Dunn as he scrambled toward the goal line, where he was stuffed just short.
“There were a lot of big plays, but the game was won when we stopped them on the goal line,” said Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant after the game.
Oct. 4, 1969 – Legion Field – Birmingham
Without question, this is the most famous game in Ole Miss-Alabama history. This contest is important for a couple of reasons. First, it was the first college football game that aired on a network television station during primetime. The second was the arrival of Archie Manning.
The sophomore hailing from the tiny town of Drew, Mississippi, was a one-man show that night in Birmingham, connecting on 33 of his 52 passes for 436 yards and running for 104 more. Across the field, Alabama quarterback Scott Hunter wasn’t so bad either, throwing for 300 yards and helping the Crimson Tide to escape narrowly in a 33-32 victory.
Bryant groused— “no one is (awed by Alabama) any more” — after giving up 609 yards of total offense to the Rebels in a game that shattered at least 23 national, SEC, and team records, including a national record of most pass completions by two teams (55). The Alabama coach knew that while Ole Miss’s star, Manning, was rising, Alabama’s was flickering. The Tide finished the 1969 season at a disappointing 6-5, followed by a 6-5-1 season in 1970. Although Manning got redemption that year by beating the Tide 48-23 in Jackson, Mississippi, the game will forever be overshadowed by the magnitude of 1969.
Sept. 11, 1976 – Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium – Jackson
As you’re leafing through the annals of this rivalry, don’t sleep on the ’76 game. At the time, the rivalry was still alternating between Jackson and Birmingham (Ole Miss would not host Alabama in Oxford until, can you believe it, 1993!) and when the two teams met up in the first game of the ’76 season, the Tide, fresh off an 11-1 campaign the previous year, swaggered in ranked No. 6 in the country.
But Ken Cooper’s Rebels would not be denied, whipping the Tide’s offense into a state of anemia and allowing only 7 points on the afternoon. A touchdown and a field goal proved to be enough, as Ole Miss walked away with its first victory over an Alabama team ranked in the top 10.
The following week, a visitor arrived at Alabama’s practice, Norm Van Brocklin, who was no stranger to offensive potency. When the former NFL quarterback offered to draw up a trick play or two, Bryant railed, “trick plays, shoot … we can’t even get in from the 5.”
Oct. 8, 1988 – Bryant-Denny Stadium – Tuscaloosa
Billy Brewer had a simple plan: Stay away from Derrick Thomas. “If he was on the right, we did everything to left,” Brewer said. “If he was on the left, we did everything to the right. And they couldn’t understand why he wasn’t making plays. We just ate ’em up with options.”
This is what Brewer told me 2 years ago when I interviewed him for an article for Saturday Down South. Now, of course, Brewer was talking about the Derrick Thomas, the Crimson Tide’s super-elite All-American linebacker, but Alabama’s main problem that day was that it couldn’t complete a pass. Literally. Tide quarterbacks Vince Sutton and Jeff Dunn combined for an 0-for-11 day.
The heroes for Ole Miss, among others, were Shawn Sykes, Darrell Smith and Joe Mickles. Sykes scored 2 touchdowns, Smith was a beast at nose guard, and Mickles added insult to injury with an insurance touchdown to put the game out of reach. The final score: 22-12 Rebs.
Alabama coach Bill Curry summed the game up succinctly: “We got whipped.” Brewer, on the other hand, was elated, telling the press, “This was one of the biggest wins in Ole Miss history.”
Although Brewer passed away last May, he could go to his grave knowing he’d done what only one other Rebels’ coach has been able to do: beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Oct. 7, 1989 – Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium – Jackson
I remember listening to this game on the radio and feeling crestfallen as Ole Miss jumped out to a seemingly insurmountable 21-0 lead. The season that had begun with so much promise seemed to be crashing down, and for an 11-year-old kid who grew up thirsting for a national title, the fear of heartbreak was almost palpable. Enter Gary Hollingsworth.
The Hamilton, Alabama, native promptly threw for 5 touchdowns — setting a school record in the process — and the Crimson Tide hung half-a-hundred plus twelve on the Rebels in a 62-27 rout. By the end of the afternoon, Hollingsworth had posted remarkable numbers (25-of-43, 363 yards passing) for a quarterback relishing only his second official start.
Alabama coach Bill Curry said the key to the game was not panicking when the Tide got down by 3 touchdowns. “When we were down 21-0, nothing changed on our sidelines,” Curry said. “We just said we’ve got to get those guys and we did.”
It was the comeback, particularly the rapidity of it, that impressed Curry most. “I have never been in a situation where a team fell behind and came back that fast, though. It was just bang, bang, bang. They’d turn it over and one or two plays later, we’d score.”
Oct. 13, 2001 – Vaught-Hemingway Stadium – Oxford
Eli Manning hosted a coming-out party in October 2001. Though he needed no introduction, the sophomore quarterback from New Orleans needed a good win under his belt as starting quarterback of the Ole Miss Rebels. Against Alabama and coach Dennis Franchione, Manning got just that.
Connecting on only 53 percent of his pass attempts, Manning hit Joe Gunn with 46 seconds left to play to give the Rebels a thrilling 27-24 victory. “You’ve got to give Ole Miss credit, you’ve got to give (Eli) Manning credit,” Franchione said. “We hit Manning a lot of times. That might have rattled a few quarterbacks. He just stayed in there and made one more play than we did.”
The Crimson Tide faithful emptying out of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium that afternoon lamented that the team could simply not get a first down when it mattered most. Alabama led 24-14 in the 4th quarter, where its offense idled and died.
It should be noted that this was the weekend’s 11:30 game on JP Sports, and many co-eds, including Yours Truly, brazenly entered the stadium unshowered and wobbling from a well-watered night out in Oxford. The game itself wasn’t much prettier, but I remember in particular two exchanges that occurred after the game. The first occurred as I was conversing with a buddy from my hometown as we were going through the tunnel to exit the stadium. There, we were aghast at Ole Miss faithful, draped over the tunnel, wagging shakers in our face and giving us all kinds of hell. Already frustrated from a horrible ending, my friend threw up his arms as if giving a Shakespearean soliloquy and said, “You’re still Ole Miss!”
Score one for Alabama.
Then, as I was walking back to the car, I was conversing with another friend, ticking off all of the reasons Alabama lost, blaming the players, Franchione, anyone. About that time, an Ole Miss fan — I remember he was older and short and had a cushion tucked under his arm — zipped by quickly and said unsympathetically, “Just got beat! Just got beat!”
Alabama 1, Ole Miss 1.
Oct. 4, 2014 – Vaught-Hemingway Stadium – Oxford
A funny thing happened on Oct. 4, 2014. Somehow I had ended up at a tailgate at the Auburn-LSU game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama, while the Alabama-Ole Miss game was being broadcast.
As a devout Alabama fan, I knew better than to wear my customary crimson in enemy territory, so I wore a neutral black pullover and sat rather inconspicuously in a chair under a tent, surrounded by a bevy of Auburn fans. An older gentleman, an Auburn fan who, let’s just say, was more “country” than “rock n’ roll,” discovered I was an Alabama fan and calmly assured me when the game began, “I always pull for Alabama when they’re not playing Auburn!”
Boy, was he a liar. As the game began to unfold and Ole Miss was about to win, I noticed that the man had suddenly amended his allegiance (by this time, I had snuck to the back of the tailgate area, where I was standing on its fringes with gritted teeth). And when the Rebels, led by quarterback Bo Wallace, were driving to tie the game at 17 in the 4th quarter, I noticed the Auburn man, standing directly in front of the TV, pumping his fists vigorously and yelling, “Come on, Ole Miss!”
By the end, it was a disaster. Since the Auburn game kicked off before the Ole Miss-Bama game ended, most of the tailgating area had been emptied, save for a few fans, including myself. As I watched Senquez Golson intercept a Blake Sims pass in the back of the end zone to seal the game for Ole Miss, many of the Auburn fans still present began running around in glee, celebrating their bitter rival’s demise. But my friend who I’d come to the game with, a big Auburn fan, surprisingly dispensed grace — and not braggadocios — as I joined him inside the stadium.
Needless to say, it was a huge win for Ole Miss and coach Hugh Freeze — one that would propel the Rebels to victory the next year.
Sept. 19, 2015 – Bryant-Denny Stadium – Tuscaloosa
In the second dumpster fire game in a row, Freeze and his new quarterback/henchman, Chad “Swag” Kelly, defeated Alabama in dramatic fashion. In my mind, this game will be remembered for two things: a tipped ball that ricocheted off a crimson helmet and into the arms of Rebel WR Quincy Adeboyejo for a 66-yard touchdown, and a courageous 4th quarter effort by Alabama quarterback Jake Coker.
At one point, when Ole Miss was leading 30-10, one had to wonder how Freeze, of all people, was getting the best of Nick Saban for the second straight year. After all, Freeze was a former girls’ basketball coach at Briarcrest High School in Memphis and had cut his teeth for only one year before becoming the head man in Oxford.
I remember that it was nearly midnight when we walked out of the stadium. Alabama was down 19 points in the 4th quarter and we (me and my girlfriend at the time, now my wife) needed to get home, an hour’s drive away. “It’s over,” I grumbled. “Can’t beat Ole Miss at home. Let’s get out of here.”
But as soon as we left the stadium, the comeback began. Derrick Henry ran it in from 2 yards with just over 6 minutes to go. Then Coker hit Richard Mullaney for a 2-yard strike with 4 minutes and change left. As we loaded the shuttle to take us downtown to our car, I learned that it was 43-37 Ole Miss with Alabama driving. Could this really happen?
Unfortunately, no. Bama was put in the Freezer for the second straight year. (If you’ll remember, the next season’s meeting was a wild ride as well, Ole Miss taking the lead at 24-3 before freshman Jalen Hurts ran and threw for about 4,000 yards in a 48-43 squeaker that took several years off of my life.)
After Freeze’s demise and unceremonious ouster, this series has been the most lopsided it has ever been. Don’t expect anything different Saturday. Tua Tagovailoa will throw for at least 5 chickens and 4 bills once again, Najee Harris will get at least a hundred on the ground, and the Bama D will feast on the fine cuisine of Land Shark.
Me and my uncool dad bod will be watching from the man cave, eating beef jerky and drinking ginger ale (I gave up the alcohol life 7 years ago). As the game begins, I’ll probably think about what it’s like to be a college kid again. What it would be like to be in attendance in the Alabama student section. But then I’ll call for my wife and 1-year-old son, and I’ll remember that this is the life.
This is the life.
And if Ole Miss happens to win. I’ll sit back, tip my cap, and not offer any excuses. I won’t blame Saban, or the players, or anyone.
And you better believe I’ll wonder if that short little Ole Miss fella is thinking to himself, “Just got beat. Just got beat.”