I used to be a Rebel fan.
As a child during the Billy Brewer era, I simply appreciated the Rebels vicariously through my dad, until 1992's Egg Bowl - also known as "the Stand." Sitting in the now non-existent south end zone bleachers, all the pieces came together for me in the last few minutes of that game. Watching a courageous - and borderline miraculous - performance by the Rebel Defense, I came to appreciate the game of football in a whole new way.
I became a fan. An Ole Miss fan.
But as anyone reading this site knows, that's just the beginning. Over the next few years I got invested in my Rebels, and it was a fantastic time. The excitement reached new heights with the return of a Manning to campus. My team suddenly mattered on the national level again, and I suppose I got spoiled. I expected, like many of us did, that our Rebels had begun a new era of relevance. That the trajectory would continue to climb higher. Well, let's just save ourselves the pain and agree that didn't quite pan out.
Through all of that, I became a different type of fan. It didn't happen overnight, but looking back, it seems all too clear. Like the majority of Rebel fans, I developed a very unhealthy relationship with my team. Expectations went unmet, coaches came and went, promising recruiting classes dematerialized, and quite simply, trust was broken. Obviously our well-publicized administrative issues factored in, but a mentality crept into our program and our fanbase, and none of us were immune. As high as our hopes might soar, we collectively understand that there will always be a "WAOM" moment that improbably crushes our dreams. So we come and cheer our team - but always from a distance. We are scared to get too close or believe too much, but we desperately want things to have changed. We want so badly to bust out of SEC mediocrity, and when the struggles arise, we turn on the only people we feel superior to - our team. Coaches get mocked, players get criticized, and split-second decisions are dissected by arm chair QBs for days on end. Frustrations mount, changes are made, but we generally just do the whole thing over again year after year.
In my observation, this describes a huge portion of our fanbase. And many other hungry fanbases.
But I think I'm done with it. I think Hugh Freeze and his staff are helping me to change.
Perhaps being an Ole Miss fan should be about being a fan of our actual players and coaches. As the world gets smaller due to extensive technology and transparent media productions, I feel like I get the chance to know the men who take the field each Saturday. Whether it's learning personal stories from watching 'The Season,' seeing the twittered interactions between players and coaches, or watching Rebelnation wrap their digital arms around a new High School commit; we aren't cheering for a logo anymore. We are getting to know these people from afar, and it's changing the way I see our football team. It hurt me personally to lose that game to A&M, but I kept thinking about the frustration our guys have to feel after giving it all out there for 60 minutes. I no longer look at our injury list as holes that must be filled, but I truly don't want these guys to miss a chance to suit up and play after all the work they've done to prepare.
Maybe an Ole Miss fan should celebrate the bright future of our program. I can't say for certain that we will be Atlanta bound anytime soon, but it's obvious that we are headed in a better direction. The effort of our players has been consistently exceptional, the recruiting work from the staff has been tireless, and the skilled coaching has produced more sound fundamentals across all the phases of the game. If all those trends continue, our program is going to attract a lot of attention and talent. There will still be bumps in the road, but I hope our fans don't miss the forest for the trees. The coaching staff is producing results far beyond the football field. The men who play for us are being mentored and shaped by some really excellent husbands and fathers. These young men are going to be better human beings because of the time they spend in Oxford.
Maybe an Ole Miss fan should understand that this program depends on us. It's no secret that the last decade has been full of controversy and division in Oxford. Amazingly our coaches and staff are managing to get prospects to look past all that stuff, on the promise that those days are over. We don't have the resources of some of the bigger schools, or the recent championships to boast about. What seemed to be so infectious and attractive to so many recruits last year was the "Family" atmosphere that Coach Freeze preaches and practices. His radical pregame speech at the 2012 Egg Bowl sums it up pretty well. At Ole Miss, we play the game out of love for each other, and our University. Not out of hate for the other team. What a paradigm shift. If we want to see another level of success in Oxford, I think that mindset has to seep right out of the locker room and spread through Vaught-Hemingway like a virus. Those men on our sideline need to know without a doubt that we will be there for them, that we believe in them, and that they are a part of one of the greatest families in College Athletics.
Trust me, I want the Rebels to win as badly as anyone. But I don't want to cheer for some imaginary team and be angry when the actual team doesn't meet my expectations. These coaches and players work harder than most of us dare to think about, and they have all chosen to represent our beloved University of Mississippi. Moments like these are important: after three tough losses, our team needs us this week more than ever. They don't need a bunch of fans who turn against them when things go wrong. They don't need fans who give up hope when our injury list is long, or the point spreads begin to grow.
Yeah, I know that's a lot to ask of typical sports fans. But aren't we supposed to be Rebels?
Maybe we shouldn't be Ole Miss fans anymore.
Let's be a part of the Ole Miss Family.