Ole Miss football program needs a fresh start

Published 11:39 am Thursday, September 22, 2011

When your record as an Ole Miss football coach against Vanderbilt is 1-3, you’ve got problems.

When you’ve found, as Houston Nutt has done, a way to lose to three different Vandy coaches, that’s an even bigger problem.

But are recent returns proof of a downward trajectory? The Rebels have lost nine of their last 10 SEC games, including two each to Vanderbilt and archrival Mississippi State.

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But it’s just a trend since 1969 with Ole Miss. What comes up, must come down. Hard.

Since 1980, the Rebels have had 14 winning seasons and 15 losing ones. They’ve had some good coaches: Billy Brewer (64-54-3), Tommy “Pine Box” Tuberville (24-20), David Cutcliffe (40-28) and now, Nutt (23-18). They’ve had a mediocre one, Steve Sloan (20-34). They also endured the error of Ed Orgeron (10-25).

But the underlying fact is that Ole Miss has been relevant on the national football scene just once in the past 40 years, thanks to the heroics of Eli Manning. That was in 2003 and the commemorative coffee table book is already fading with age.

Nutt’s two Cotton Bowl teams of 2008 and 2009 — composed of Orgeron recruits — still couldn’t break through the Alabama-LSU-Auburn axis that rules the SEC West. Even with a ton of future NFL players on the roster (Peria Jerry, John Jerry, Michael Oher, Dexter McCluster and Mike Wallace), the Rebels went 3-3 against those three dominant programs in the two Cotton Bowl years.

The last time the Rebels finished the season ranked in the top 10 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll was 1969. Since then, the Rebels have been ranked in the final poll nine times and seven times in the USA Today/ESPN coaches’ poll.

The truth is that Ole Miss is a second-tier program in the SEC. The Rebels have never made it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game since the league split into two divisions in 1992. The best the Rebels have done was when Manning guided the 2003 team to a West co-championship. The Rebels’ last SEC title came in 1963. Twice in the past 40 years — in 2003 and 2008 — the Rebels have a winning record in conference play.

When the Rebels fired Cutcliffe because he refused to make some staff changes, they shot for the moon, Butch Davis, and got a satellite in low orbit with no batteries, Orgeron. Nutt seemed to be a good fit, but the Rebels have crashed again after another decent run and Nutt’s magic appears to have dwindled.

The Rebels can’t compete in terms of dollars and top-tier recruits in the arms race in the SEC West. Nick Saban built both LSU and Alabama into monster programs and Les Miles has kept the beat rolling. Auburn is a force on the recruiting trail after last year’s championship.

First, the Rebels need new leadership in the athletic department. Any athletic director who thought it was a bright idea to give Orgeron a head coaching gig needed to be sacked after the Cajun Caveman. Pete Boone, pick up the red phone, please.

Secondly, a new A.D. needs to bring in a coach who isn’t going to try to win strength vs. strength battles against the beasts of the SEC West with a vanilla scheme, something that hasn’t worked in 40 years. A coach with an unconventional, yet brilliant offensive scheme can be an equalizer.

Former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, Houston coach Kevin Sumlin or Baylor coach Art Briles might listen to the following sales pitch. Take over a program in the best football conference in the country, with a few scratches and dents, but plenty of potential.

Should be an easy sell for the right guy.

Steve Wilson is sports editor of The Vicksburg Post. You can follow him on Twitter at vpsportseditor. He can be reached at 601-636-4545, ext. 142 or at swilson@vicksburgpost.com.