Two nights ago, I spent an hour-and-a-half at the vet getting the new puppy* a fresh round of vaccinations. For anyone who hasn't done this, such an endeavor involves car rides with a likely nervous, nauseated dog; lectures on proper canine hygeine, grooming, and disease prevention; and lots of pee**. Still, all of this was more thrilling to me than watching Ole Miss Rebel basketball yet again lose to a less talented squad in the Tennessee Volunteers, 73-60.
So uninterested I was in this game, in fact, that I had completely forgotten its taking place until ESPN's app alerted me to such. At halftime, just as I was getting to the vet, my phone blurted out the Sportscenter tone and informed me that our men's team was up on Tennessee, 31-30.
"Oh, yeah, that's right. We do play Tennessee tonight... Huh. A one point lead? That's neat."
Then, at the expiration of the second half, the second ESPN alert came. I looked at my phone, saw the final score, said "of course," and then laughed a bit at both this basketball program's lingering futility and my newfound apathy for Ole Miss hoops, an apathy that, until this point, I can't remember having since Andy Kennedy was hired. I literally forgot that we were playing an SEC opponent in basketball, and proceeded to give exactly zero damns when I was made aware of it. This attitude of mine - an attitude which is hardly different from many of you, I'd suspect - contrasts sharply, though, with the way many of us feel about Ole Miss Rebel baseball, and with good reason.
The day before the Tennessee loss was opening day at Swayze field which, by all accounts, highly and enthusiastically anticipated and attended by Rebel baseball fans. Students were especially enthusiastic about opening day, something which earned them significant praise from the baseball coaching staff. Fan-damned-tastic weather and the licence to bring beer unfettered into the student section certainly had a lot to do with it, but Ole Miss baseball, over the past decade, has given us Ole Miss fans legitimate cause for enthusiasm.
True, OMAHA does stand for "Ole Miss At Home Again," in the eyes of our detractors and more cynical fans, but this is a club which, since Bianco's hiring eleven years ago, has been to nine postseasons and four super regionals while winning an SEC tournament and an SEC "championship". Even without College World Series appearances, the Ole Miss baseball program is now generally considered to be one of the premier programs in college baseball. (In that sense, we're the Georgetown Hoyas of NCAA baseball. We're seemingly always ranked and oftentimes towards the top of our conference, but we struggle to make it past the Sweet Sixteen.) We've got excellent facilities, we recruit well, we compensate our coaches mightily, and we have impeccable fan support, routinely bosting attendance levels towards the top of the nation.
This is why, when football or basketball coaches - principally Andy Kennedy - complain about unenthusiastic fan support, I get a bit annoyed. We Ole Miss fans are decidedly supportive. Our baseball enthusiasm is more than evidence enough of this. We are also fickle, but after enduring what we've endured, we have every right to be fickle.
Our demands are rather simple: don't embarrass us and don't let us think we're wasting our time, money, and efforts on these teams. We want championships, as any fan of any team should, but if you can't get those, then it's not a dealbreaker. Mike Bianco has yet to lead his club to the College World Series, despite having the talent to do so and having a stretch of a few seasons with teams ranked in the top-10, but we still show up and give our unwavering support to his program. I do realize that the ease of alcohol consumption, summer weather, access to grills, and mountains of free time have a good bit to do with baseball's popularity at Ole Miss, but we all know that so much of it has to do with Mike Bianco has putting together a winning team more often than not.
When Ole Miss was (briefly) a routine member of the NCAA basketball tournament's field of 64 teams, the Tad Pad was more densely packed than a mosh pit and probably just as loud. When Ole Miss was a routine contender for bowl berths, fans filled the Grove and the stands. We weren't winning championships; we were just winning more games than we were losing and not generally looking like the most haphazard and downtrodden set of athletics programs in our conference. That's all it takes for most of us. Even earlier this year, during games against BYU, Alabama, and Georgia in football and Mississippi State and Florida in basketball, fans showed up and with enthusiasm before watching everything unravel (Mississippi State game aside), and horribly so, right before them.
We fans must commit significant resources to be a part of the Ole Miss experience. For those of us who have graduated and moved to points way yonder, we've gotta do things like travel, take time off of work, and actually buy tickets. If we can't be convinced that all of that would be a waste, then we're likely not to do it. For any coach, who is paid a gargantuan salary to be at and participate in these sporting events, to criticize us fans regarding our support of the school is nothing more than a criticism of their failure to deliver something worth being a fan of.
This weekend, the Ole Miss Rebel basketball team will host LSU in Oxford. The stands will be half-full. The Ole Miss baseball team will host UNC-Wilmington. Swayze will be plenty full. Mike Bianco and Rebel baseball give us a reason to be there. Andy Kennedy and Rebel basketball does not.
*Yeah, I have one of those now. I'll do my best to not mention it too much. I don't wanna be that guy HEY HEY LOOK AT HER SHE'S RUNNING IN CIRCLES AIN'T IT ADORABLE?!
**Seriously, they pee everywhere.