Up in the chinaberry tree is where Mississippians are said to head to chew over old times. They go there these days to ponder the sound and the fury of formerly glorious Ole Miss, which once held sway in football as no other school in the Magnolia State ever has. But the steady deconstruction of John H. Vaught's Rebel dynasty has led to a reconstruction in the state of the state's sport. To take in the new times, more than 50,000 fans went up in the stands of swampy Mississippi Memorial Stadium in Jackson on Saturday. What they saw was a dazzling tussle over state's rights between Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi.
Under new coach Rockey Felker—at 33 the youngest head man in Division I-A—the Bulldogs had gone on the road to stun Syracuse 24-17 and Tennessee 27-23. Felker, a former Mississippi State quarterback and the SEC's total-offense leader in 1974, has a chip off the ol' Rock running his team: senior quarterback Don Smith, who was the conference's total-offense leader last season. In the first two games Smith had accounted for 75% of the Bulldogs' 706 yards and six of their seven touchdowns.
Southern Miss—a.k.a. the Nasty Bunch—was as aware of Smith on Saturday as it was of the boxes of cow chips and panties State players had sent to Hattiesburg earlier in the week. While State and Ole Miss play in the vaunted SEC, Southern, a former teachers college, is an independent that sells its underdog status to under-recruited players who have something to prove. (See ROSTERS, NFL: Louis Lipps, Reggie Collier, Sammy Winder.) The Golden Eagles have a geographical edge in recruiting—two-thirds of the small but football-rich Mississippi populace (2.5 million) live within 100 miles of Hattiesburg—but Southern still has to dip heavily into the Florida panhandle and Alabama.
"We don't look for players with potential," says Eagles coach Jim Carmody. "We want players with production." And they've produced. Southern has won 8 of its last 10 meetings with State and 4 of its last 6 with Ole Miss. The Rebels dropped the Eagles from their schedule in 1985.
So when Southern quarterback Andrew Anderson, a hard-nosed, lightly recruited senior from Birmingham, surveyed the 98 yards he had to drive with 4:46 to play and his team down 24-21, he was emotional. "I was breathing hard and acting strange, but I was in control," Anderson said later. "I had a job to do." Smith had done his for State: 46 yards rushing, 225 passing and 2 TD throws. Anderson responded with a brilliant march for Southern, running and passing for 77 of the yards himself. When, with 29 seconds remaining, tailback Shelton Gandy, a walk-on, rolled in from the four for his fourth touchdown, Anderson broke down and cried.
While Southern was sandbagging State 28-24, Ole Miss was getting tied 10-10 by I-AA Arkansas State in Oxford. From 1947 to '70, Vaught went 185-58-12, won six SEC championships and made the Rebels as synonymous with a state as is the Bear's Tide next door. Ole Miss is still the state school most likely to produce lawyers, doctors and Miss Americas, but gone are the days of coaching continuity; the Rebs have had five bosses since '70. Gone are the days when Vaught could stockpile the region's blue-chip players; there are scholarship limits now. All too present is a lingering reputation for racial turmoil on campus; rival recruiters see to that. Says Ole Miss athletic director Warner Alford, "It's like fighting a ghost."