I know that it's a little for all the decade celebrations and such, but I've been going over in my mind recently who has most defined Ole Miss sports since the 2000s began. I've always been an Ole Miss fan and went to all the sports for years, but my cognizance first grew during this time. So who are our greatest Rebels, our most influential, most defining? My opinions are below.
Top Ten Ole Miss Rebels of the 2000s
Maybe this seems low, but I just couldn't justify putting Patrick Willis any higher based on our lack of success with him on the team. He may very well be the best football player to have played at Ole Miss in years, but unfortunately despite his unbelievable skills, there wasn't much influential or defining about his career. He was just a flat out great player. And he still is today, being consistently regarded as one of the top defensive players in the NFL--though again on a so-so team. But all the credit in the world goes to Patrick Willis for getting noticed despite his teams. He was recently awarded the professional Butkus Award, becoming the first player to have won both as a college player and a pro.
#9-The Revitalizers: Houston Nutt and Dexter McCluster
All we want at Ole Miss is a little redemption. Give us something to make us think, "Maybe we have some hope." That's what Houston Nutt and Dexter McCluster orchestrated over the last two years. The misutilization of Dexter and the tumble of the 2009 season are well-discussed, and of course are critical points for why these individuals also represent the sadder parts of Ole Miss. But what the revitalizers did is make us care about football again and make us believe that we could win. Dexter's performance against Tennessee might go down as one of the most memorable in any of our lives, and our 9-win Cotton Bowl season a year after going 0-8 will hopefully be looked at as a turning point for Ole Miss football.
It's not very often we get national championships at Ole Miss, so even though Devin Britton's time here was limited, we've got to honor that when we do. I think there's some sort of irony/significance here in that our lone Mississippi player (ever?) was the one to bring a national championship back to Mississippi, and that's one thing that's special. But the other is that the guy was simply amazing. He is the youngest player ever to win the NCAA singles title and beat several seasoned vets along the way. There's also the tiny bit of sting from his early departure: of course, as Ole Miss fans, we can't expect the greatness to stay around for long.
From one national champion to another. Did you like Britton's one national championship? Well how about two? And two world championships since leaving Ole Miss? Reese also appeared in the 2008 Olympics, and apparently having not quite matured all the way, finished 5th. She currently has the best mark of the year in the world. Let's say that again: the best long jumper in the world went to Ole Miss. Even if it is track and field, that's awesome.
#6-The Baseball Greats: Stephen Head, Brian Pettway, Seth Smith, Chris Coghlan, Lance Lynn, Scott Bittle, Drew Pomeranz, etc.
A lot of this decade was about baseball, but given the team nature of the sport, it's hard to pinpoint only one player to be on the list. Therefore, I've categorized all 7 of these players as "the baseball greats." There obviously could be debate upon who is included here (and I may have forgotten a few), but the point is that we've had some great players during the 2000s who have led to some fantastic days of baseball. These players helped to build the program into the
juggernaut (ha ha, sarcasm from the Bianco hater! but seriously) nationally relevant program that it is today.
#5-The Disappointers: Rod Barnes, Ed Orgeron, Jevan Snead, Micheal Spurlock, Brent Schaeffer
Yes, this is a sad section. This is about all those people who we thought were great Rebels, but turned out to just be okay...or worse. But I felt it necessary to include this group because many of them had a significant role in characterizing Ole Miss sports during this time. We had Barnes, the coach who started the era with a Sweet 16 appearance, but followed it up with 4 win SEC seasons galore. Orgeron, who maybe wasn't ever a good idea to begin with, but turned out to be even worse. And then the quarterbacks, from each of whom a lot was expected, but despite certain talents, was never really realized (save for Snead's 6 game run--but his early departure makes up for that.)
My bias for women's basketball might show up a little here, but I don't know how anyone could have watched Armintie play and not honor her as one of our greatest Rebels. She just might be the best athlete to have played at Ole Miss in the 2000s. But her athleticism was only part of what made her a great player; her effort and hustle was what elevated her. Think about this: Armintie Price led the SEC in rebounding at 5'9'' (yes, even for women's basketball that's small). She also became the only player ever to lead the SEC in both rebounding and steals. These were her stat lines for her senior year run to the Elite 8:
TCU: 21 pts, 7 reb, 6 ast, 3 stl
Maryland: 29 pts, 7 reb, 5 ast, 3 stl
Oklahoma: 31 pts, 10 reb, 5 ast, 5 stl
Tennessee (loss): 30 pts, 4 reb, 2 ast, 2 stl
If that's not a tour de force, I don't know what is. If you can't tell, I love Armintie.
This is an easy pick, and maybe too obvious, but Eli Manning represents everything we want for Ole Miss athletics. A guy loyal to his school who delivers great memories--and doesn't lead the nation in interceptions. Eli's success in the NFL has only strengthened his legacy as a Rebel, continuing to give us someone to root for on the big stage and to inspire our thinking back: "Remember that one time when we had a good quarterback?"
The second spot is reserved for the man that is the most consistent winner on the Ole Miss campus. Not satisfied with the fact that we've beaten State 24 times in a row? How about that we've won the West every year since the divisions were separated (9 straight)? Sweet 16s in 2002, 2006, 2007, Elite 8s in 2003, 2008, 2009, Final Four in 2005? All Chadwick needs to do is take the next step to a national title, but at Ole Miss being among the last eight standing in a sport 4 out of the last 7 years is as good as we get.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a card-carrying Bianco hater. But is there anyone who more defines the 2000s than Mike Bianco? He began in 2001, and slowly but surely increased the significance of baseball at Ole Miss to the point where we are now third in the nation in attendance. During this time we have gone from an afterthought to a player in the SEC, and every Ole Miss fan looks forward to those weekends at Swayze Field. But of course, Bianco would not be fully representative of Ole Miss if he did not have flaws (and a lot of them). He's brought us some good times, but also a lot of times where we want to bang our heads against the wall...and isn't that what being an Ole Miss fan is all about?