So here's something that we as a blog have long tried to emphasize to our readership: using a football team to fill a hole in your personality is dumb. Liking a bad football team doesn't make you an inferior person. Having said that: being an Ole Miss has frequently involved some kind of capitulation when talking with other SEC fans. Some "aw shucks, at least we never lose the party" concession. With Hugh Freeze leading the Rebs to the Sugar Bowl in year four, those times (for now at least) are over.
In attempting to apply context to this Ole Miss football program and its success under Hugh Freeze, it's increasingly difficult to avoid references to John Vaught. In terms of win percentage, success against other top teams, SEC relevance, and complete program turnaround, Freeze and Vaught are the two Ole Miss coaches who stand alone. Mentioning Vaught might induce a cringe or two -- Ole Miss fans are often chided for living in the past. But after climbing into the top 5 two years in a row -- currently sitting at second place in the SEC -- with a Sugar Bowl on the way, what other frame of reference do we have?
And really, losses to Memphis and Treadwell passes aside, we almost do Freeze a disservice by comparing him to Vaught. Vaught was a legend, but coached in a different time. Football games weren't on television, you could sign as many damn kids as you felt like (just so your neighbor wouldn't have them), and the SEC was still fighting an embarrassing battle against integration. Freeze's success has come at a time when it's probably more difficult than ever to build a program and have success as a non-traditional powerhouse.
Of course, I mention Vaught in the first place because Vaught was the first, last, and only Ole Miss coach to lead the Rebels to the Sugar Bowl. Something I wasn't aware of until I researched for this article... Vaught earned EIGHT Sugar Bowl berths.
The Sugar Bowl is of course important and iconic to Southern sports fans for a bevy of reasons. It's the oldest bowl in the real South (the Orange Bowl is older, but is in Miami, blech), it's featured a top ten-ranked SEC team nine of the last 10 years, and is hosted in the South's most unique, historic, and cultured city. And maybe it's the rivalry with LSU, or those eight Vaught-era Sugar Bowls, but it feels as though Ole Miss fans are particularly drawn to the Sugar Bowl, to New Orleans, and even to the state of Louisiana. I've long held the impression that to MSU fans, Alabama was their sister state (NTTAWWT), while Ole Miss fans were more partial to Louisiana and Tennessee. So returning, after a 45 year absence, to Southern football's biggest stage, can't be understated. It was a goal that Ed Orgeron dared to set, but couldn't begin to reach, and one to which Houston Nutt dared not even aspire. And now, here we are.