Ole Miss last won an SEC title in 1963 but, legend has it, hasn't lost a party since 1848By Doug Ward
Special to ESPN Sports Travel
OXFORD, Miss. -- The Ole Miss campus speed limit remains a genteel 18 mph in honor of Archie Manning, but everything else in Oxford seems to be changing faster than Jeremiah Masoli's eligibility status. In the months since quarterback Jevan Snead last took a snap for the Rebels in the Cotton Bowl and turned his attention to the NFL:
- Mississippi football has gone from the SEC's upper division to expected also-ran.
- The NCAA denied Masoli's request for a waiver that would have allowed the disgraced quarterback to play this season after he transitioned from sociology undergrad at Oregon to recreation grad student in Mississippi.
- And Ole Miss students voted to find a new mascot to replace the goateed, politically incorrect Colonel Reb -- who was banned from the sidelines of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in 2003, six years after the waving of confederate flags was spiked -- as the school continues to distance itself from symbols of the Old South.
With a new sideline mascot pending (Ole Miss will continue to be known as the Rebels), the troubled Masoli seems to have trended past the squeaky-clean Manning and the kind-hearted Michael Oher of "The Blind Side" as the school's most high-profile icon of late.
Things traditionally are much simpler when autumn falls on this college town in northern Mississippi, where Saturdays are as timeless as oxford shirts, which are practically standard issue on the natty campus.
On those eternal fall football weekends, car speeds drop to 18 and everything else soon follows suit, from the speech patterns to overall pace of the surroundings.
There was one of those Saturday mornings in October 2009. Much of the campus is strangely quiet.
Outside The Lyceum -- the white-columned signature building that served as a hospital during the Civil War -- a statue of James Meredith stands proud but alone; the real Meredith could not have felt much more isolated back in 1962, when he became the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi. Nearby, deserted fraternity and sorority houses that look like antebellum mansions or Restoration Hardware stores stand still.
Everyone is in The Grove, a blissful, 10-acre plot of oak, elm and magnolia trees on the Ole Miss campus that before, during and after home games doubles as the school's hub and heaven on earth.
The Grove is more than a tailgate party. It's a little like a family get-together and a lot like a school reunion.
"Coming back to The Grove," said Jay Carmean, an Ole Miss alum from the class of 1999, "is like coming back to a big hug from all your friends."
Mostly, The Grove is like no place else.
Walking through The Grove feels like stepping into the art-directed pages of a Ralph Lauren magazine ad or onto the set of a John Grisham movie.
The good ol' boys here wear navy blazers paired with khaki pants, white oxford shirts, red-and-white striped repp ties and Eli Manning haircuts. Coeds show up for football games in sparkling-new cocktail dresses. The student body, alumni and returning sorority sisters and fraternity brothers all greet each other with, "Hotty Toddy!" A young alum laments the agony of graduation: "God, I wish I still lived here."
On this fall Saturday, gray skies, intermittent drizzles and the Crimson Tide all will roll through Oxford, but no one in The Grove will much mind.
The last time the Rebels won an SEC title, Lyndon Johnson was in the first year of his presidency in 1963. But legend has it Ole Miss has not lost a party since James Polk was in office. Polk's administration coincided with the school's opening in 1848.
No one comes to The Grove to make history; they come to relive it.
Ole Miss put together a run of three national titles in four years as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, and folks here are still feeling it.
"People hear stories from their grandparents about how great it was," said Carmean, now an Oxford attorney. Maybe that's why everyone here is so gracious and upbeat. It's the opposite effect of what happened to all those bedraggled baseball fans in New England, the ones who came of age hearing generational stories about how heartbreaking it is to root for the Red Sox.
Every home football Saturday begins with a red and blue tent city being erected in The Grove even before the sun comes up.
The portable shelters are decidedly upscale, stocked with sterling silver flatware, white linen tablecloths, fresh-cut flowers, even chandeliers and, of course, two kinds of dishes: fine china and satellite television. Menus feature Southern specialties like fried chicken, finger sandwiches and sides of potato salad with bread pudding for dessert. The smell of barbecue floats through the foliage. Beer is banned in The Grove, but bourbon and Coke is practically mandatory.
The crowd is inordinately homogenous but, sartorially speaking, very colorful. Officially, the school hues are Harvard crimson and Yale navy. But some of the guys are bold enough to mix Nantucket red pants with pastel blue shirts and seersucker jackets; some of the gals rock peppermint pin-striped pants and navy sweaters. Ralph Lauren has his own rack in the school's bookstore, and if you're going to The Grove, go preppy.
Then there are some folks -- at least three by my count -- dressed like the school's Colonel Sanders look-alike mascot, the one that has finally fallen from favor.
Strolling The Grove can be a little disorienting because it seems to go on forever and everything repeats itself. An inordinate amount of men look like one of the Manning brothers, and a lot of the women look like future or former Miss Americas. Everyone speaks in a slow, soothing drawl that's smoother than the gin-fueled Pimm's Cups they mix over at City Grocery on Oxford's Grisham-esque town square.
The deeper you venture into the thicket of The Grove, the more it feels like the entire state of Mississippi has come together for one big Super Bowl or New Year's Eve party. Indeed, this bash will still be going well past midnight.
"The great thing about The Grove," said Wilson Hubbard, class of 1999, "is that everywhere you go, you see the people you haven't seen since you went to school here."
And a whole lot of people you didn't go to school with.
While The Grove feels a lot like an official Ole Miss reunion, not everyone who parties here went to school here. An incredulous first-time visitor surveys the scene, then screams into his cell phone, "I've never seen anything like it!"
Who has?A little more than two hours before kickoff, the festivities reach a crescendo as the Rebels players make their way through a famous arch of red brick and black for the Walk of Champions, during which players and coaches are cheered en route to venerable Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Players high-five their way along as fans bust out the "Hotty Toddy" ditty:
Hell yeah! Damn right!
Hotty Toddy, gosh almighty,
Who the hell are we, hey!
Flim, flam, bim, bam,
Ole Miss, by damn!
"Hotty Toddy" has no real meaning, but it means everything in Oxford. For students, fans and alumni, it is a greeting, cheer and secret handshake all rolled into one. "Hotty Toddy" is the spirit of Ole Miss.
This being the SEC, the visiting team is well represented, too. Speakers atop a crimson SUV blast Kid Rock's "All Summer Long," which samples "Sweet Home Alabama." Bama fans accessorize outfits with all manner of black houndstooth. Caps, skirts, sport coats and scarves all are fashioned from Bear Bryant's favorite fabric.
Lessons learned so far on this day: The Grove is awesome, and houndstooth makes everything look better.
After surveying the happenings at The Grove, the Alabama-Ole Miss matchup begins to feel like a sideshow ... until, that is, you walk through the gates of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, which on this day establishes an attendance record of 62,657 but feels much more intimate. Were it not for contemporary sky boxes and a press box above the sidelines and the south end zone and the Jerry Jones-style giant video screen in the north end zone, the place could pass for something out of "Friday Night Lights."
And like in Permian, Texas, football is the only game in town. Oxford's population of 19,000 quadruples on game day.
Fifteen minutes before kickoff, the Ole Miss band plays "Slow Dixie" as fans pump blue and red pompoms that look like they were around when the school won those national championships in 1959, 1960 and 1962. The pompoms give the proceedings an old-timey feel, as if all those folks in their Saturday best hadn't already done so.
Nothing at Ole Miss takes you quite as far back -- or as aback -- as what follows the rendition of "Slow Dixie." Did the revelers really just chant, "The South will rise again"?
Yep, they did. (If Ole Miss chancellor Dr. Dan Jones has his way, they won't anymore. Jones banned the song "Slow Dixie" -- otherwise known as "From Dixie with Love" -- in November, when students refused to stop the "South will rise again" exclamation mark. "Here at the University of Mississippi, there must be no doubt that this is a warm and welcoming place for all," Jones wrote in a letter. "We cannot even appear to support those outside our community who advocate a revival of segregation. We cannot fail to respond.")
As the band prepares for the national anthem, the public address announcer invites attendees to remove their "headgear."
Nutt leads the team onto the field. Today's jersey color: Harvard crimson. A videotaped message on a board the size of a drive-in movie screen comes from former Rebels linebacker Patrick Willis, now with the 49ers, and asks, "Are you ready?" The answer, which comes in the form of a "Hotty Toddy" cheer, is a resounding, "Yes!" It's very loud.
Fans spike industrial-size soft drinks with miniature bottles of Jim Beam. The ensuing smell of whiskey mixes with that of Corky's barbecue and wafts through the seating bowl as fans nibble on pork nachos and hot dogs.
The lights are on from the opening kickoff, and so is the crowd. On every play. To the left is a prepster with a pledge pin and college tie; to the right is one of those Colonel Reb impersonators wearing a white suit and bolo tie.
You are from California and have no vested interest in today's game, but you find yourself caught up in the proceedings, even speaking in a bit of a drawl. Ole Miss will sneak up on you like that.
By halftime, Alabama leads 16-0. Many Rebels fans head back to The Grove to watch the second half on TV as the game by this point becomes a bit of an afterthought.
The second half is no contest. Eventual national champion Alabama dominates and goes on to hand Ole Miss a 22-3 loss. The Rebels drop to 3-2 and fall out of the Top 25. And inside Vaught-Hemingway, the Rebels' last national championship of 1962 seems like an eon ago.
But back in The Grove, Ole Miss remains timeless. And absolutely perfect.
Doug Ward is a Southern California-based freelance writer.