The trees were dying and everyone knew why.
It didn’t stop fans from flocking to Oxford for the 1982 season opener against Memphis, all eager to claim their parking spots beneath the shade of the Grove’s storied, century-old trees. What they didn’t know was protestors were strategically scattered throughout the Grove that morning—all sitting on blankets near trees they were determined to protect, all taking up space unofficially reserved by students and alumni who hadn’t arrived.
The protestors were part of a “Save the Grove” movement debuting days after three dead trees were cut down for the same reason: “asphyxiation by root collapse.” University botanists determined the weight of parked vehicles in the Grove threatened the trees by smothering their roots and risking their premature death.
“They’re ruining our trees,” Ole Miss student Elizabeth Rankin said, pointing to the tree-lined midsection of the university campus. “People who wouldn’t park cars on their own front lawn are parking here.”
The Clarion-Ledger, September 5, 1982
University officials were aware of the threat tailgaters posed to the Grove’s storied oaks, elms, firs, and dogwoods. So they made a new policy that year allowing “light vehicles” to park in the Grove while trucks, vans and recreational vehicles had to park elsewhere.
It was a compromise built to protect the Grove while trying to appease alumni and fans who had grown increasingly sensitive about losing their cherished traditions, regardless of what they had to give up to maintain them.
Tailgating in the Grove was a relatively new ritual that was growing in popularity and form. Back then, the Rebels didn’t play more than two or three games in Oxford per season, playing the other half of their “home” games in Jackson, where tailgates were also popular.
By the 1980s, Groving was considered enough of a tradition for fans to be upset over any attempt to change it.
And while fans understood the issue of protecting the Grove, it wasn’t enough to convince everyone to find a solution. After all, what would Ole Miss become if it followed the recommendation of establishing off-campus parking, a game-day shuttle system, and freestanding tailgates in the Grove?
Lisa Bartlett, a 1978 graduate who now lives in Jackson, said, “Take away The Grove and you take away the tradition of Ole Miss.”
The Clarion-Ledger, Sept. 5, 1982
It wasn’t about the Grove in 1982. Not entirely, anyway.
The larger and louder concern among fans was how much the school’s image and rituals had been challenged in recent years. Even the slightest changes involving the university resulted in heated letters published in newspapers across the state accusing people in power of trying to destroy what they said made the school unique.
The sideline debut of a cartoon Colonel Reb mascot dressed as a “Southern gentleman” was seen by some as a strategy to replace the traditional student mascot dressed in Confederate garb. Head football coach Steve Sloan, on the hot seat in 1982 after a slew of losing seasons, was harshly criticized after a failed campaign to replace the Colonel Reb logo on the team helmets with the Ole Miss script. Even a handful of attempts to scrap “hell” and “damn” from the Hotty Toddy chant was perceived by some as yet another example of erasing the school’s history.
Then came the most significant challenge to the university’s Dixie-dusted brand when John Hawkins, the university’s first black cheerleader, announced at the start of the 1982 season that he wouldn’t carry the Confederate flag during Ole Miss football games.
’”While I’m an Ole Miss cheerleader, I’m still a black man. In my household, I wasn’t told to hate the flag, but I did have history classes and know what my ancestors went through and what the Rebel flag represents. It is my choice that I prefer not to wave one.’’
The New York Times, Sept. 4, 1982
Hawkins’ words led to public and private discussions on campus about how the Confederate flag and other racially divisive symbols affected the university’s image—particularly when it came to recruiting, something Sloan understood and felt powerless to change.
“He (Sloan) understood human nature, the congenital inclination of the Rebels’ passionate followers to relive the glory years, from tailgating in The Grove to sipping bourbon from Coke cups, from standing for the playing of Dixie to waving flags. … He also knew what the black kids thought. What that flag meant deep down in the gut for those kids’ parents. What their grandparents had suffered with the jackboot of Jim Crow crunching heel first on their necks. He knew there was trouble ahead.”
Orley Hood, The Clarion-Ledger, Nov. 9, 1997
The 1982 season was frustrating as hell.
The Rebels, who hadn’t won more than six games in a season since 1971, went 4-7 without a single SEC win. Fans were tired of losing and Sloan and his staff appeared tired of trying to overcome the negative symbolism that hurt Ole Miss in recruiting.
“No question the symbols were our No. 1 problem,” Sloan’s recruiting coordinator Tommy Limbaugh told the Washington Post in 1983. “We had circumstances where the Ku Klux Klan was marching in Oxford and pictures were being taken and circulated. Then the blacks would come and see the flag being waved in the stands and would get real excited.”
Limbaugh told the Post that in 1979, a rival school sent every African-American prospect “five, six, sometimes seven letters, with various materials indicating racial prejudice at Ole Miss and why they should not go there.”
Ole Miss fans missed winning. That much was clear. But many didn’t believe that the school’s image had anything to do with its ability to attract talent, which only made them fight harder to preserve the problematic symbols.
Tradition for the sake of tradition might have been the surface-level argument, but it’s not the only reason so many people clung fiercely to school rituals tied to Sugar Bowls and the Vaught era during a time when the Rebels could barely win four games.
“Mediocrity breeds lethargy, not tradition,” legendary sportswriter Orley Hood wrote in a 1997 column for The Clarion-Ledger. “...forgetfulness, not memory; exhaustion, not adrenaline.”
“With every victory in 1959 and 1960 the traditions, the routines, dug a little deeper into the soul, to the point where the flag and Dixie and The Grove and victory all merged into one tingling recollection, one titanic tidal wave of memory, leaving the loyal fans’ cognitive nerve-endings alert to any challenge to orthodox dogma. Steve Sloan found out quickly that Ole Miss fans cared more deeply about their traditions than whether some fast linebacker’s mother from Natchez was repulsed by the idea that Dixie was Ole Miss’ national anthem.”
Regardless of who approved, things were changing in 1982. The Grove was changing. The flag was changing. The discussions were changing. The university’s image—slowly but surely, and not always positively—was changing.
Would fans be willing to accept change for the sake of the university’s future? Or would they resist it for the sake of remembering the past?
“I want to save that tree,” alumnus Frank Allen Jr. told The Clarion-Ledger in 1982, pointing to a dying tree in the Grove. “I’ve parked close to that tree since 1959. That tree and I have a love affair... But like I say, it’s tradition.
“I don’t want to kill the trees, but I mean, man, it’s tradition.”