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The Politics of Football

For me, the Ole Miss game has always transcended the sport.

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It was, I've always assumed, an Ole Miss fan who coined the deliciously derisive phrase "Tiger High." You know, as in "Go to hell, Tiger High!"

I always thought Ole Miss fans were the easiest to dislike of all the schools on the University of Memphis' official rivalry list. The UT program has always been so many light-years ahead of the Tigers that the only honest emotion a U of M fan can muster for the Big Orange is envy. As for those extreme rednecks from Mississippi State, with their cowbells so obnoxious they were banned by the SEC, they, like a cousin who is a little on the slow side, deserve our pity. But the Ole Miss fan -- that's another story.

When I think of Ole Miss football fans, I see a frat boy in Duckhead pants, a flask in his back pocket, one hand clutching a Rebel flag and the other arm wrapped tightly around a Southern debutante. I hear him screaming, "Go to hell, Tiger High!"

Such a mean-spirited yell. Translated it means: "Hey, you! Couldn't go to a real school, huh? Had to settle for an urban commuter school. Look at all the fun we're having." They're white, they're right, and by golly their daddies have more money than ours.

Hotty Toddy!

One of my favorite memories from the Ole Miss-Memphis series came in 1977. Several of us had driven to Jackson, Mississippi, to see the game that would kick off the season for both schools. We were excited because for the first time since the two schools began playing football in 1921, the Tigers had beaten the Rebs three games in a row. We got to the stadium early and found our seats in the Memphis student section, directly across from the Ole Miss students. It wasn't long before the taunting started.

"Go to hell, Tiger High!" yelled a Reb fan loudly.

"We're already here, you redneck!" came the reply.

I don't remember much about that game, just this: There was a disputed call which went against Memphis, the school mascot ripped off his Tiger mask and got into a fistfight with some Ole Miss players along the sideline, and, of course, the Tigers lost 7-3. In other words, a typical Ole Miss-Memphis game.

It's a tough pill for Tiger fans to swallow, but the series record with its biggest rival is 8-39-2 and one of the best memories in school history falls in that tie category. Ouch. But that's exactly why this game should be played, as it is this year, at the start of the season, before Tiger fans give up hope.

I would even suggest that the game be played every year in Memphis, with the tickets being split 50-50. That would create the most excitement, game revenue, and post-game party opportunities. Oxford is a great little town, but it just isn't up to hosting a post-game party attended by 50,000 fans.

And wouldn't it be nice if this game could be moved back to the evening? Southern football was not meant to be played in early September in the middle of the day. Ole Miss coach Tommy Tuberville can whine all he wants about ticket sales, but the biggest obstacle this year is an 11:30 a.m. kickoff. Here's the choice for Mid-South football fans: Wade through an Oxford traffic jam, bake in the scorching midday sun for three hours, then do the traffic jam again, or stay home and watch the game free on TV. Hey, it's not fan apathy holding up ticket sales, it's college football selling its soul to TV. Again.

This game is more important to Memphis than it is to Ole Miss. That's a given. The Rebs play in a better conference and have long-established rivalries against teams like Mississippi State, LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas. They don't need the hassle of playing an out-of-conference neighborhood rival who occasionally has the audacity to win the game. Who could blame Ole Miss officials if they took the Frank Broyles highway and ditched Memphis for Northeast Louisiana?

But Saturday's game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium will be the 50th meeting between the two schools. And that is a tradition that is worth keeping, tradition being, after all, the lifeblood of college sports. So what if Memphis rarely wins? So what if the game gets little notice around the United States? It is the traditional kickoff for the Mid-South football season, just as surely as the Mississippi State-Ole Miss game is the conclusion to the football season in this area.

Unlike Texas-Oklahoma, Alabama-Auburn, and Notre Dame-Southern Cal, this rivalry is our little secret. And who can forget Buford McGee scoring the first time he touched the ball in a college game? I can still see him rushing through the Tiger defense. You would have thought he was on his way to pick up the Heisman Trophy. The Rebels won that thrilling game 38-34.

But I can also remember Tiger fans standing and shaking their car keys at Ole Miss fans as they made an early exit from the 1983 game. Rex Dockery's team was coming off successive 1-10 seasons and a win over the Rebels was a great way to start the season. The Liberty Bowl goal posts came down after that one. They wouldn't come down again until November 9, 1996.

I can remember junior linebacker Damon Young making those dramatic hits on third and fourth down at the Tiger goal line in 1987, preserving a 16-10 win. The Tigers were starting the season after yet another 1-10 campaign and the heart-stopping victory was the perfect sendoff for a Charlie Bailey team that would finish the season 5-5-1.

I love it when Memphis plays Ole Miss, loved it even more before officials at the University of Mississippi did away with some of the Old South trappings the school had wrapped itself in for so many years. When the Rebel football team ran onto the field to the sounds of Dixie and thousands of fans rose as one waving the Confederate flag -- well, I'll be honest with you, I've never felt such righteous indignation in my life. For me, that wasn't a football feeling, it was political, pure and simple.

But that was then. Today, Ole Miss is still the biggest rival on the Memphis schedule, but somehow it's not quite as much fun to hate them as it used to be.

This column originally appeared September 9, 1998.

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