Bear with me, Got a story to tell…
We walked along the wooded trail to a clearing. He motioned ahead, “There’s a picnic table over there. Let’s take a seat and talk for a spell.”After a moment he began, his voice resonating in his chest like distant thunder.
“In the fourth year of his tenure leading a storied SEC West team, an embattled coach watched his team disintegrate before his eyes. Narrow early season losses to rival teams following a disturbing opening day loss against a non-conference team gave way to crushing blowouts by SEC power teams as the season progressed. Even mid-tier SEC squads seem to have little difficulty defeating this team. The season wound down without a single conference win.”
“There was little to energize the fan base, and few bright spots for the team on either side of the ball. Worse, there was no apparent improvement on the field or the sidelines throughout the season. In fact, the performance of the team followed a distinct troubling pattern: Repeated mistakes, costly turnovers, a porous defense and a seemingly complete inability to move the ball in the second half. After the last humiliating blowout loss to their instate rival, the head coach was gone.
A brief coaching search ensued with input from a revered quarterback from the late 1960s who helped on the search committee during the interview process. The University quickly hired a former coordinator from his current head coaching at Arkansas State, denying that school its coach in the upcoming GoDaddy.com bowl.”
“There was hope again, mainly due to a talented mobile sophomore quarterback named Wallace who the fans thought could make a difference under this new coach and his staff running a spread offense with lots of read option plays.”
“They felt that maybe this would all turn out well. After all, the quarterback’s nickname was ‘Bo’.”
“Wow” I said, “I never took you for an Auburn fan.”
“Auburn?” he snorted “I was talking about Ole Miss!”
“But I admit, the resemblance is remarkable. Hugh Freeze was a surprise hire in late 2011 after the firing of Houston Nutt. He had limited head coaching experience, but had led Arkansas State to a Sun Belt conference championship that year after implementing a read option game plan with multiple sets.”
“By any measure, Ole Miss football in 2011 was a disaster. After a narrow first game loss to BYU and an uninspiring out of conference win, they dropped games to Vanderbilt and Georgia, ending their first month at 1-3. A promising young sophomore, Barry Brunetti, was highly touted throughout the spring and summer as a smart, mobile, big arm quarterback. Numerous news articles mentioned his leadership and skill running Houston Nutt’s offense.”
He sighed, a deep rumbling exhale.
“He ended up being sacked so often in the first game that he was benched and replaced by a more experienced QB that he had beaten out of the job that fall. The remainder of the season witnessed a collapse of epic proportions, with Ole Miss joining Kentucky as the only SEC teams to average less than 20 points per game.”
“I know” I said, “Auburn and Kentucky were the only two SEC teams to average less than 20 points per game this year.”
He nodded. “Know what ESPN’s Chris Low said after Ole Miss lost to Vanderbilt?”
“To be fair, the Rebels’ defense has not played that poorly, and it’s certainly been an upgrade from last season. But when you lose 30-7 to Vanderbilt – the Commodores’ most lopsided victory over an SEC team in 40 years – it’s a team thing. It’s not just one phase, one group of players or one coach. It’s everybody, and the simple fact is that Ole Miss is reeling right now. The offense, in particular the offensive line, has been a huge disappointment.”
“Does that sound familiar?”
I hung my head. “Yes”
He continued “Do you remember the 2011 Auburn Ole Miss game?”
“Sure!” I said, brightening “We were tied at 17 by halftime, but in the second half the Ole Miss offense went into hibernation, going three and out for most of their remaining drives and only managing to score once while Auburn piled up 24 points to win 41-23!”
He grunted, “And this year?”
I was stunned. My tail twitched. I heard my own voice say in a ghostly echo, “We were tied at 17 by halftime, but in the second half Auburn’s offense went into hibernation, going three and out for most of their remaining drives and only managing to score once while Ole Miss piled up 24 points to win 41-20.”
“Do you know what that means?” He asked.
I looked sharply at him.
He nodded. “That’s right. You became Ole Miss for a season.”
“Oh my God!” I said. “You’re right! How horrible!”
“Um, sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.”
He shrugged and sniffed glumly. “It’s OK, I get that a lot.”
“But you guys are going to a bowl game this year! Your program is looking up. You took LSU to the wire and spanked your in-state rival! You’ve got to see that Hugh Freeze was a great hire!”
He nodded. “We do and he is. But so is Gus. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you”
He looked away with that thousand yard stare. “Things will improve with your new coach, maybe not as fast as you would like, but they will improve and give you hope this coming year. You’ll just have to be patient.”
“But we were SO bad this year, it’s hard to believe we’ll turn it around quickly.”
He shook his head, “It’s a trap. Don’t fall for it.”
“You’re always saying,…”
“Stop that, I’m being serious. You’ve got to let the last season go. Start the new year fresh.”
I considered this for a moment, and concluded he was right.
“Thanks, Ack. I really appreciate the talk, but I’ve got to find a bathroom. You coming?”
He gave me a look. “Is the Pope Catholic? ”
“Sorry, I forgot. Well, I’ll see you at Jordan-Hare next year. Later.”
“Later, Aub.” He yawned. “I’ll be in the Grove if you need to talk in the Spring. Just not too early.”