With SEC West hanging in balance, state of Mississippi braces for historical Saturday

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
With SEC West hanging in balance, state of Mississippi braces for historical Saturday
With SEC West hanging in balance, state of Mississippi braces for historical Saturday

Northbound on Highway 25, Miss. – Rick Cleveland has a drawl so delightful that it feels like his words are coated in melting butter. It is the organic byproduct of spending 60 of his 61 years here, in a state he affectionately refers to as the “poorest, fattest and least educated in America.” He’s as Mississippi as catfish and cotton.

The entire Cleveland family is a state institution. Ace Cleveland was the longtime sports information director at the University of Southern Mississippi and has his name on the school’s football press box. His son Bobby became the state’s leading outdoors writer. And then there was son Rick, who became the foremost voice on Mississippi sports as the longtime columnist at the state’s flagship paper, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger – a man so well-connected that he’s known as “The Governor.”

When the newspaper quit caring, Rick got out. Today he is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and still writes a syndicated weekly column. Riding shotgun through the countryside between Jackson and Starkville Tuesday, Rick’s soft drawl suddenly changed pitch as he contemplated a Saturday like no other in state history.

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“Four undefeated teams ranked in the top 12 playing on the same day, 93 miles apart?” he said, incredulous. “In Missi-bleeping-sippi?”

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Nobody could have dreamed up this Saturday, where the nation’s No. 6 team would visit No. 12, and the nation’s No. 3 team would visit No. 11, without a loss between them. Not here, at least.

Maybe one state to the east, where Alabama and Auburn have won fistfuls of titles and hosted scores of big games. Or down in Florida. Possibly over in Texas, or out in California.

But in Missi-bleeping-sippi? Or “poor old, whooped-down Miss’ippi,” as the late author Willie Morris of Yazoo City used to call his home state? That is some improbable stuff.

It will happen, though. Sixth-ranked Texas A&M will visit 12th-ranked Mississippi State in Starkville at 11 a.m. local time. At 2:30, third-ranked Alabama will visit 11th-ranked Mississippi in Oxford. And a place damned by history and denigrated by demographics will have its grandest moment in the sport it loves most.

“I think I understand the Mississippi people pretty well, and the passion they have for this state,” said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who grew up on a dairy farm in Independence. “To be able to experience a day like this is very rewarding for those who have a part in making this happen.”

William Winter was the sports editor of the student newspaper at Ole Miss in the early 1940s. He was there Nov. 29, 1941, when underdog Mississippi State went into Oxford and shocked the Rebels 6-0 in a game where the winner would take the Southeastern Conference title. A week later, Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Hugh Freeze and Mississippi play host to Alabama on Saturday. (AP)
Hugh Freeze and Mississippi play host to Alabama on Saturday. (AP)

The Rebels and Bulldogs have never again met with the SEC title on the line. Winter, now 91, would go on to become governor of Mississippi. He’s been waiting only about seven decades for another college football Saturday commensurate with that 1941 meeting.

“This is at the top of my experience, in terms of the importance of the games,” Winter said. “It’s unique. I’m very proud of both teams and both schools.”

There have been so many roadblocks to this weekend. So many reasons why it’s never happened here.

Some are simply the facts of life. There are seven Southern states that house the 10 oldest members of the insanely competitive Southeastern Conference: Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. With roughly 3 million people, Mississippi is the least-populated of those seven by more than a million – and there are two schools battling for slices of that small pie.

There are fewer recruits to go around. There also are fewer fans – Ole Miss and Mississippi State rank 12th and 13th in the 14-team SEC in stadium size, ahead of only Vanderbilt and more than 10,000 seats smaller than 10 schools. There are fewer donor dollars to go around in a state that has consistently ranked 50th out of 50 in per-capita income. It also ranks near the bottom in percent of adults 25 years or older with a college degree.

Those are some of the reasons why college football has had a Faulknerian bleakness to it for much of the state’s history. Those are some of the reasons why the Bulldogs have just one SEC football title – one fewer than basketball school Kentucky, and two fewer than Tulane, which left the league in 1965. Those are some of the reasons why the Rebels haven’t won the league in 50 years, and are the only one of the original six schools in the SEC Western Division not to play in the 22-year-old league title game.

But they’re not the only reasons. There also is Mississippi’s racial past. The toll from that has been widespread and long-lasting, with effects felt by the athletic programs at Ole Miss and State.

“Ole Miss paid a huge price for our poor decisions with respect to desegregation,” Winter said. “Mississippi State paid a huge price by refusing to let the SEC basketball champions go to the NCAA tournament (where it would face integrated teams). We’ve paid a frightful price for our opposition to racial integration. We’re over that now, I believe.”

Mississippi and LSU were the last of the old-guard SEC schools to integrate their football teams, with their first black varsity players taking the field in 1972. Mississippi State broke the football color barrier a couple of years earlier.

The amount of African-American talent those schools missed out on before integration is staggering.

Walter Payton from Columbia. Lem Barney from Gulport. Willie Brown from Yazoo City. Jackie Slater from Jackson. They’re all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They all attended historically black colleges because the color barrier was unbroken or had just been tepidly broken at Ole Miss and State.

L.C. Greenwood of Canton. Harold Jackson of Hattiesburg. Jerome Barkum of Gulfport. Not Hall of Famers, but NFL standouts who played at HBCs or other small schools because the big programs in Oxford and Starkville weren’t recruiting black players yet.

And then there were the all-time greats, black and white, from in-state that Ole Miss and State flat missed on: Jerry Rice of Crawford, the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yardage; Brett Favre of Kiln, the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yardage; and Steve McNair of Mount Olive, a Super Bowl quarterback in 1999 and NFL MVP in 2003.

“Think of what the Bulldog Hall of Fame would look like if they’d gone to Mississippi State,” coach Dan Mullen said. “It would look a bit different. That’s why I tell our coaches, ‘Do not leave any rock unturned in this state. I don’t want another Jerry Rice, Brett Favre or Walter Payton not coming to Mississippi State because we didn’t identify them.’ “

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When Mullen goes recruiting in the state, he tries to bring assistant Tony Hughes with him. He’s the Bulldogs’ cultural and historical expert on all things Mississippi football.

Hughes is a native of Forest, a graduate of Southern Miss and has worked at all three FBS schools in the state: USM, Ole Miss and State. His eyes twinkle as he ticks off the small Mississippi Delta towns where a recruiter can find players.

Then he does the same for the Piney Woods region. And the Gulf Coast. And all the stops along Interstate 20, which runs like a belt across the state’s midsection. In a rural state, the football factories are few and far between. No place in America may have more athletic gems hidden at small schools in isolated pockets than Mississippi.

Will Dan Mullen and Mississippi State knock off a Texas A&M team taken to the brink by Arkansas last week? (AP)
Will Dan Mullen and Mississippi State knock off a Texas A&M team taken to the brink by Arkansas last week? (AP)

“You can go to any corner of the state and find a small town that has produced a great athlete,” Cleveland said. “In small-town Mississippi, there are two things you do: high school football on Friday nights and church on Sunday mornings.”

The Friday night lights are smaller and dimmer in Mississippi than Texas. On his forays around the state with Mullen, Hughes and his boss have had the same conversation several times as they turn onto a dirt road and head toward a small high school.

Mullen: “Is that the school?”

Hughes: “Yes.”

Mullen: “The WHOLE school?”

Hughes: “Yes.”

That’s where you find some of the rawest talents.

“He may not eat three meals a day,” Mullen said. “He may go to a school with a weight room that’s smaller than my office. But you can project what he may look like in a few years, and if he has character and work ethic, you like those guys. We don’t take many projection guys who are fringe attitude guys.”

Both schools have their share of high-level recruits, four- and five-star guys who could have gone elsewhere. But they also have stockpiled in-state players who might not have been highly sought by the Alabamas and LSUs to form the backbone of their teams. The Bulldogs have 61 Mississippians on their roster, and the Rebels have 53.

“There’s probably more athletes scattered around our state than about anywhere else,” said Mississippi State senior center Ben Beckwith, a walk-on from Benton.

The talent is out there. Mississippi is second to Louisiana most years in number of per-capita NFL players by state. The Magnolia State produces better than one NFL player per 100,000 citizens. And the Bulldogs and Rebels have done a better job in recent years of keeping poaching programs from neighboring states from stealing the best Mississippians.

But the battle against each other may be fiercer than ever.

“There are two universities that have to compete for the same recruits and the same entertainment dollars,” Mississippi athletic director Ross Bjork said. “But we both have things to sell. For us, it starts with attitude: We need to say, ‘Why not?’ instead of ‘Why should?’ ”

Well, why not? After all the lean years wondering what it must be like, why not Missi-bleeping-sippi as the epicenter of college football for one elusive, illustrious October Saturday?

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