If college football is truly allegorical, then here is the title of its harshest lesson: Ole Miss vs. Mis'ippi State. It is perhaps the saddest rivalry in all of Division I, a struggle for pride in a state where pride comes hard, then runs too deep and stays too long.
"Poor old whupped-down Mis'ippi" is what the writer Willie Morris calls his home state. "The last people you want to take a whuppin' from is somebody else from Mis'ippi," says comedian Jerry Clower, a former Mis'ippi State player.
Considering their state's paltry resources, the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University—their formal names—probably shouldn't even be separate institutions, let alone schools that support separate football teams in the high-rent Southeastern Conference. "This state is just too little, in terms of people, and too poor to sustain a major football rivalry," says Morris, who wrote The Courting of Marcus Dupree, a 1983 portrait of the state's sociological relationships with football and black players.
And yet the demographics of Ole Miss and Mis'ippi State—homogenous as they might seem from the outside—are more socially opposite than those of Alabama and Auburn, Florida and Florida State, or Texas and Texas A&M. So Mis'ippi society can't live without what it can't afford.
Ole Miss is the last bastion of the traditions of the old Southern gentry. Its teams are nicknamed Rebels; its fans still wave Confederate flags despite official disavowal of the symbol by the university and its alumni association; its marching band still plays Dixie. The very term Ole Miss is not a contraction of "Old Mississippi," but an old slave term—a plantation owner's daughter was called "the young miss" and his wife "the old miss."
Mis'ippi State's people loathed those symbols long before loathing them was nationally cool. Mis'ippi State was born of a boycott by the working classes against the very aristocracy that Ole Miss embodies. In 1872, after the federal government provided for land-grant agricultural and mechanical colleges, the Mississippi legislature tried to attach an agriculture school to Ole Miss. Land was designated near the Oxford campus, a dean was hired, a curriculum was designed, the school was proclaimed open, and, according to Ole Miss history professor David Sansing, nobody enrolled. "Not a single student came," Sansing says, "because the sons of the industrial classes didn't want to go up to Ole Miss, where they would have to go to school with the sons of the gentry."
So an entirely new school was created in Starkville. It opened in 1880 as Mississippi A&M but quickly acquired a popular nickname: People's College. No vestiges of class structure, such as those that prevailed at Ole Miss, were allowed at what would become Mississippi State.
Last Saturday in Starkville, just before the 88th renewal of the rivalry, there were a few seconds of very conspicuous silence. Traditionally, right between the "Amen" of the invocation and the "Oh, say can you see" of the national anthem, Mis'ippi State folks chorus from the depths of their lungs, and their genes: "Go to hell, Ole Miss!" It has happened for years, after every football invocation, no matter where or whom the Bulldogs were playing.
Local ministers' displeasure with the same-breath utterance of prayer and curse had for years gone unheeded. Saturday, at last, there was neither prayer nor curse—maybe because, after all those decades of wishing Ole Miss in torment, State folks finally had the Rebels just about where they wanted them. The game was back at State's little Scott Field (seating capacity 41,200) for the first time in 20 years—finally moved from the longstanding neutral site at Jackson, where the Bulldogs had lost seven of their last eight meetings. Ole Miss came tailspinning into Starkville at 5-5 after four straight losses. State wasn't a lot better off at 6-4. But to see Rebel hopes of putting together three straight winning seasons for the first time since 1969-71 crash and burn right there on Scott Field would be about as much bliss as any descendant of Mis'ippi's industrial classes could hope for.
And gravy, thy name is Jackie Sherrill, poured smoothly over a stewing Billy Brewer. Sherrill left the coaching job at Texas A&M following the 1988 season, after the Aggies were put on NCAA probation for major violations—though Sherrill still points out that he was not linked directly to any of them. Since his hiring by State last December—which was controversial everywhere but in Starkville—Sherrill has had Ole Miss coach Brewer seething. Last May, Brewer publicly called Sherrill "a habitual liar" in a dispute over recruiting tactics. Brewer claimed that Sherrill had phoned a former Ole Miss quarterback who had transferred to Texas A&M, Chris Osgood, who is black, and asked him to help influence a black recruit away from Ole Miss. Sherrill claimed he simply gave some recruits Osgood's phone number. Brewer's accusation prompted a reprimand from SEC commissioner Roy Kramer and a warning that a further public outburst against Sherrill could lead to Brewer's suspension under the conference's rule against criticism of member institutions and personnel. Sherrill just sat there, issuing polite disclaimers like "I don't have any problem with Billy."