My undergraduate years at Ole Miss spanned four losing football seasons. The first was David Cutcliffe’s last in Oxford, a season that was a year removed from a Cotton Bowl trip on the back of Eli Manning’s fantastic senior season. It was a bad year that kicked off with a loss at home to Memphis.
Yes, my first Ole Miss home game as a freshman was a loss to Memphis. Hell of an act in foreshadowing that was.
That season was a general disaster, with Ole Miss winning only four games (one of which a come-from-behind victory against a ranked South Carolina team in Columbia, go figure). Losses included Wyoming in Laramie, a 35-3 drubbing at the hands of Houston Nutt’s Arkansas team, and an overtime loss to LSU in Baton Rouge. It was David Cutcliffe’s only losing season in Oxford, and it marked his last.
Ole Miss fired Cutcliffe and replaced him with Ed Orgeron. People thought this was a good idea! Orgeron was coming from a USC program that, at the time, was probably college football’s best under Pete Carrol. He was a mere defensive line coach, but he was a good recruiter, and recruiting, the argument went, was what David Cutcliffe lacked. Ole Miss would be back in New Years Day bowls in no time—hell, Orgeron even promised fans a Sugar Bowl appearance on his watch.
Our Orgeron optimism was, it turns out, foolish. The following three years of Ole Miss football under Coach O was bad. The team did not win many games (his record was 10-25), nor did they look good in doing so. It was a bad time to be an Ole Miss football fan.
But, even if the football were good, Orgeron’s time in Oxford was still a distinctly weird time for Ole Miss football. Like, fever dream weird. Teenager-going-through-an-identity-crisis weird.
Coach O insisted on replicating USC, but in Mississippi.
Consider when Orgeron was hired. It was late 2004, and Ole Miss had just undergone a huge shift in identity. In 2003, Colonel Reb was removed as the team’s mascot, as the school moved to gradually phase out old South symbolism in favor of literally anything else. Shortly thereafter, Ole Miss won a lot of games behind Eli, who graduated and got drafted into the NFL. So the program lost a Manning and a mascot back-to-back; what in the hell was Ole Miss football at this point even?
Coach O, perhaps not deliberately, seized on this. Ole Miss was going to look and feel like the USC Trojans, the football program he was leaving. The formula for success there could surely be replicated here, so his program did little things, like take the players’ names off the backs of the jerseys (a big deal in Southern California, where people aren’t self-centered enough to want their names printed on things). He did big things like square pegging a round hole by taking Ole Miss’ existing personnel to run a pro-set offense. He did weird things like compare all sorts of recruits to Reggie Bush.
The USC formula did not work because, as it turns out, the USC formula also requires a well-run program loaded with highly-talented football players. He tried to fix that though, and in the process...
He turned Ole Miss fans into recruiting dorks.
If Orgeron’s management of the Ole Miss football program was a crude approximation of the USC model, his recruiting was the same thing with regards to Miami. Coach O tried to take Howard Schnellenberger’s strategy at Miami in the late 70s and execute it in north Mississippi 30 years later, which meant stockpiling local talent in a manner so aggressive as to choke out any nearby competition. Miami was able to recruit the Miami area with great success. Ole Miss would try to do the same with Memphis.
Coach O infamously said he would “build a wall around Memphis” and keep the Mid-South’s best talent in Oxford (as opposed to Fayetteville or Knoxville). This, and recruiting in general, would be the primary focus, and that focus quickly trickled down to the fans. This was also the time when the major recruiting sites—Rivals and Scout, namely—were coming into their own and making terms like “class ranking” and “five-star recruit” a common idea among football fans.
Suddenly, Ole Miss fans were all recruiting dorks. We loved that nonsense. We’d watch high school football highlights and talk about official visits and how many stars so-and-so had on one website and not the other. And we’d get so hyped up about the possibility of things like Joe McKnight signing with Ole Miss, only to see him sign with USC and upset everyone.
An interesting aside to this though, is that Orgeron kept his promise to build a wall around Memphis by recruiting Michael Oher. To make this work, he had to hire Oher’s high school coach to be a part of the Rebel staff, which gave Hugh Freeze his first college-level coaching job. So Coach O gave us Hugh Freeze and The Blind Side, because he had to get a left tackle prospect out of Memphis.
Yes, there was a mascot controversy.
This isn’t something that Coach O had anything himself to do with. I just want to share this image of two potential Colonel Reb replacements that were bandied about in the mid 2000’s.
Whoever thought of this should be locked up in the Hague.
Oh but there’s so much more.
There was the bad football and the recruiting dorkery, as well as Ole Miss’ post-Colonel Reb mascot panic, sure, and all of that made this time in Oxford weird, but there are just so many little, individual things that conspire to make this such a bonkers period.
- Red Bull-specific fridges in the coaches offices
- “O: The Coach” bumper stickers
- Bruce Feldman’s “Meat Market”
- Greg Hardy, and all of the weird crazy things he did, like catch touchdowns as a tight end, play on the Ole Miss basketball team, lead the SEC in sacks, get injured falling down an escalator, and openly discuss his sincere desire to become an artist. He would then go on to the NFL and reveal himself to be a mondo crazy asshole. He’s now an MMA fighter. Neat.
- Chris Vernon’s “Colonel Reb is Crying” song
- The Red High Heel game against Alabama
- Threats to fight Steven Godfrey
- The McCluster Fluster
- Jerrell Powe’s needless uphill battle against the NCAA
- Local Hummer ads
It was all weird! But the one thing we’ll never get over, is...
That stupid Orange County Choppers motorcycle.
Look at this thing.
If you were lucky enough to miss it, or if your memory is merciful enough to have wiped your recollection of this, let me explain: this was a thing that Ole Miss built for no real discernible reason. It’s a big dumb chopper motorcycle that nobody asked for. Like any chopper motorcycle, it served no real purpose. Someone would drive it out of the tunnel during the team entrance and take a lap around the field. It was loud and gaudy and unnecessary, but not in a charming way like most other things Ole Miss does. Nobody liked it. It left permanent tire marks on the artificial turf (oh, that’s another thing, we ditched grass for turf around this time—also weird!). I have this idea that they tried and, presumably, failed to auction it off. Even if that last part isn’t true, I’m going to believe it because that’s hilarious to me.
The chopper motorcycle—dumb little Ole Miss helmet on front and everything—is in a way perfectly emblematic of the Ed Orgeron era at Ole Miss. It was somebody’s big, bombastic idea that, once realized, turned out to be out of place and embarrassing.