COLUMN: Shortly after Hollingsworth Field was washed over by a boozy wave of Ole Miss students celebrating a 41-24 Egg Bowl victory, the two patriarchs got down to spinning the night’s events forward. They couldn’t have been more different.
Dan Mullen, the incumbent coach of the bitter rivalry game was a bundle of jargon and comebacks. For three years he’s infuriated one half of the state while invigorating the once apathetic Bulldog fan base. His has been a tapestry of quips and taunts, and his now most-famous — the quote that MSU “was never losing to that team (Ole Miss) again” following the 2010 Egg Bowl — was drug out on the Vaught-Hemingway jumbotron for his embarrassment. And Ole Miss ran the video three times.
No crow for Mullen
Yet to no one’s surprise, Mullen refused to dine on crow.
“I stand by that statement,” he said in the postgame interview, ensuring that, once again, Mississippi State would never, ever lose to Ole Miss while Mullen was in Starkville… again.
His only comment on the hubris-soaked video package delivered by Ole Miss: “They love me here!”
Just a few yards away inside the IPF, Hugh Freeze wouldn’t bite when asked about Mullen’s latest guarantee. He took the Hugh Freeze route, which Rebel fans are learning isn’t nearly as funny, headline-making or infuriating for rivals, but it will likely never, ever create the kind of video board fodder that Mullen has.
There’s absolutely no doubt that the Egg Bowl is now the biggest and most important game on the Ole Miss schedule. Throughout history Ole Miss has flirted at marrying its hatred to LSU, but the last five years have fortified the acrimony of this in-state affair, and with the Rebels so far behind the Tigers, it’s ludicrous to make that claim anymore.
And Freeze, the native Mississippian, didn’t parse words when addressing the importance of the game:
“I know how important it is to this state and to our University, and our kids were very aware of that tonight,” Freeze said. “I think our coaches did a great job of going through the week and making sure that whether a kid was from Tennessee or Alabama or Florida or Illinois or California that they better understand that the University of Mississippi has signed them on and is paying for their scholarship here and that this game is important. Our kids proved that tonight.”
Regardless of your allegiance, credit Mullen and Mississippi State’s three-year end zone dance of a marketing campaign – the passion hasn’t been at this level in a long, long time. He wasn’t too concerned with taking credit for a renewed vigor from his opponents, though.
“I can’t imagine it playing to any more stakes than for us. This is such a big game for us, and we take this game extremely serious. I would be shocked if they didn’t have that much energy for this game,” Mullen said.
Egg back in Oxford
But with the Golden Egg sitting comfortably in Oxford for the first time since Houston Nutt routed Sly Croom in 2008, Freeze’s next moves in this rivalry are key.
Don’t expect an Egg Bowl Trophy countdown touting the number of days the Egg has been in Oxford (MSU did that), or gold Egg-inspired uniforms for the annual game (MSU did that), or a litany of billboards and advertisements claiming ownership of the state (as you’re well aware, MSU did that).
Freeze — and to his credit, A.D. Ross Bjork — won’t allow that level of rancor. Ole Miss prides itself on being the “flagship” university of the state, and with all the talent they’re housing in the video department, could’ve easily unfurled banners and videos galore as a responsorial to State’s “Our State” campaign as soon as the clock ticked down to zero on Saturday.
They didn’t. They jabbed Mullen — a pop that any impartial observer could’ve seen coming — and then went about the business of being (and celebrating) Ole Miss. Freeze shifted the postgame narrative from maroon and white at every chance he got Saturday, and there’s a ton for the first-year coach to be focused on.
There’s the likely commitment of multiple top recruits both state and nationwide (can you spell “Nkemdiche?”), as well as the true “reward” for coaches when a team gets bowl eligible: extra practice. It’s not sexy, but for a team as young and thin as the Rebels, a month’s worth of work will go a very long way towards the future.
No gold-inspired party
By the time you read this, the Egg Bowl will be long since committed to memory by Freeze’s staff. It’s over. It was sweet for Rebel fans and players, but don’t expect Freeze to linger or lord over it.
Even if he’s starting his own three-year run, there won’t be any gold-colored public parties. The videos are likely over and done with. If anything, Freeze and Ole Miss will silently remind Rebel fans and all Mississippians alike that if you’re truly the flagship, you don’t have to advertise it.
And you can expect that silence to infuriate Dan Mullen and Mississippi State.
(Steven Godfrey can be reached at email@example.com) (November 26, 2012, Page 4B)