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Pain and Progress at Ole Miss: 48 Hours in the Grove

Ole Miss hits the big-time, in the most heartbreaking way possible.

The weekend started on a Tuesday. That’s when the College Football Playoff committee released its first-ever set of rankings and threw a curveball at the world. Ole Miss fans were just 72 hours removed from seeing their team’s undefeated season crumble in the final seconds against LSU, at Death Valley, Saturday night. By Tuesday, it didn’t matter. Their team was sitting at no. 4 in the rankings, in complete control of its destiny the rest of the way. The no. 3 team was Auburn, headed to Oxford on Saturday.

I’d been planning on a trip to Ole Miss all year. I couldn’t go to the Alabama game because of a wedding, so November 1 for Auburn became my target. I booked flights and credentials the week of the LSU game. Then Ole Miss and Bo Wallace became the latest victims to the Death Valley legend — “Where opponents’ dreams come to die” — and it looked like my dream of a top-five matchup died with it.

The selection committee changed all of that. Auburn–Ole Miss was supposed to be huge anyway, but it suddenly got bigger. This would be the first true elimination game of the playoff era. I was left with some combination of relief and ecstasy. I imagine Ole Miss fans felt the same way, only multiplied by a hundred.

What follows is a collection of notes from the weekend.

Friday, 11 p.m. It’s freezing cold in Oxford. Like, low 30s and windy. Big Ten shit. Isn’t the South supposed to be warmer?

It doesn’t matter. Watching the Square in downtown Oxford, the streets are overflowing with students and alumni from both sides, 80 percent of whom are in Halloween costumes. Every bar is charging cover, and they’re all still elbow-to-elbow full, which is why I’m standing in the freezing cold on a balcony at The Burgundy Room watching it all.

It’s kind of amazing how perfect this place looks. It’s a collection of bars and restaurants and preppy clothing stores with a giant white courthouse in the middle, and it has probably looked this way since the 19th century. You can feel the history here. Sometimes you feel it from traffic jams on tiny one-way streets or cell service that drops out as soon as you hit anywhere with more than 100 people. But you can also feel it in the brick buildings and wooden balconies that can’t have changed much since Teddy Roosevelt was president.

Later in the night, someone informs me that the balcony I’m standing on is the same one off of which Eli Manning peed when he got arrested at Ole Miss. Feel the history.

Around this time, a bunch of Auburn fans start screaming beneath us on the balcony.

Bodda getta, bodda getta,
bodda getta, bah,
Rah, rah, rah,
Sis boom bah,
Weagle, weagle,
War Damn Eagle!

Twenty seconds later, someone screams ARE YOU READAYYYYYY? and a hundred Ole Miss fans respond at once.

Hotty Toddy,
Gosh almighty
Who the hell are we, Hey!
Flim Flam, Bim Bam
OLE MISS BY DAMN!

I’m officially ready for tomorrow. I have no idea what any of that means. But I’m ready for tomorrow.

The Grove

Auburn v Mississippi

1 p.m. You can’t go to a football game anywhere in the SEC without someone telling you to go to the Grove.

Plenty of schools around the country have great tailgating scenes, but that happens in parking lots and tents dotted all over campus, and around stadiums. The Grove is a giant park in the middle of the Ole Miss campus, with carefully manicured grass, stone walkways twisting through, and a canopy of trees providing shade overhead. It’s like tailgating in the middle of a postcard.

Everyone’s in one place, too. Most schools scatter tailgates all over campus. At Ole Miss, you have 50,000 or 60,000 people in hundreds of tents, all more or less guests at the same party. The best part of all this is people-watching.

The best part of the people-watching is the Auburn fans. They’re all here for the same reason I’m here — because the Grove is on everyone’s bucket list, and this season-changing game is as good an excuse as any of us will ever have — and most of them blend in with the Ole Miss crowd just fine. They talk good-natured shit, toast with passersby, and everyone’s in a good mood.

This is one element of SEC football that will never make sense to me. Imagine Eagles fans showing up in droves of SUVs to a Giants tailgate. There should be more cursing, more fights, more general belligerence. None of that’s happening.

It’s all cheerful smiles, hat-tipping, and drink-sharing. Welcoming the enemy sincerely and cheerfully seems like the the most universal tailgating tradition the SEC has. It restores your faith in humanity (or bourbon), but it’s still a little disorienting every time. Finally, a group of Auburn fans passes us, and a few steps behind them someone yells at them, “Cow fuckers!”

For exactly one second, it feels like I’m at a regular sporting event.

2:15 p.m. I finally get up the courage to ask friends where Hotty Toddy comes from. Various answers: “No, I should know, this is embarrassing.” “I used to know, but I forget.” “No idea. WHO CARES.”

“Hold on … I know it. [Five seconds pass.] Gimme a second. [Another five seconds.] Man … I can’t remember. It’s a good chant, though. It’s on Google if you want to know.”

As far as I can tell, nobody here ever bothered to Google it, which only adds to the legend. But while we’re here, Auburn’s “War Eagle” has this origin story:

The story tells of a Civil War veteran and his pet eagle he had found on a battlefield and rescued. During the game, the eagle soared into the sky over their field as the Auburn football team simultaneously charged the Georgia end zone and achieved their first, exhilarating win over Georgia. After the Tigers’ victory, the eagle suddenly nose-dived, crashed into the field and died. But the “War Eagle” lived on in the hearts and spirits of proud Auburn fans everywhere.

A Civil War veteran’s pet eagle took a nose dive into the middle of a field and died, the fans thought he had magical powers, and they turned him into a hero for the next 100 years. SEC forever.

3:15 p.m. Speaking of history, if I’d come here 10 years ago, it probably would’ve been just as fun, but a little more complicated. Ole Miss has spent recent years divorcing itself from ties to the Confederate flag, “THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN” chants, and other artifacts of a Confederate past that never really got buried. A few years ago they got rid of the Colonel Reb mascot, a move that pissed off a whole bunch of people. Today, I still see him pop up once every hundred yards in the Grove. With art:

photo(26)

And inflatable mascots:

photo(19)

And real mascots:

photo(28)

Still, for a school that’s been tied to the Confederacy for the past 100 years, the break is remarkably clean. It helps make the whole atmosphere more accessible to outsiders. And for every Colonel Reb you see, there are just as many giant inflatable sharks celebrating the Land Sharks defense. Maybe that’s the real point here: People may still be pissed off at the mascot change, but from an outsider’s perspective, sharks will be a lot more fun in the long term.

ole miss

4 p.m. It’s time for something called the Walk of Champions. A giant policeman clears a path and a sea of humanity separates along the stone walkway through the Grove.

Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss team walk through the Grove, to the stadium, high-fiving 60,000 people as they go. They do this before every home game, and it’s sacred but not really unique. Most big-time football schools do something like this. But the fans love it, and the players love it, and I’m thinking two parallel thoughts after I high-five Robert Nkemdiche.

1. This would be so cool for any sport, but it could never, ever work in any pro sport.

2. All of this — the walk, the Grove, and six hours of a 60,000-person party — is why college sports will probably last forever.

Third thought: Robert Nkemdiche’s hands are fucking gigantic.

The Game

photo(20)

6 p.m. The game starts with the national anthem and then the Ole Miss anthem. A country singer pops onto the Jumbotron to ask, ARE YOU READAYYYYYYYYYY? and the entire stadium breaks into another Hotty Toddy chant. A few minutes later, the whole student section is swaying back and forth, and the stadium is vibrating, but I can’t really hear it all in the press box. I go outside and perch next to guys from the stadium crew. We’re on a ledge between the press box and the Auburn coordinators.

6:15 p.m. The game starts, and Auburn walks right down the field to score. The drive turns on a gorgeous throw from Nick Marshall and a bobbling third-down catch from D’Haquille Williams to get them inside the 5. I take a note. Auburn is fucking GOOD.

7:15 p.m. Ole Miss stops the next Auburn drive, gets the ball back deep in their own territory, and then goes 91 yards down the field for a touchdown to tie it. Around this time, me and one of the stadium guys, George, start talking about Bo Wallace. He’s not a huge fan. It’s understandable. Wallace is a little bit like College Tony Romo.

He’s a veteran QB in a conference that has very little experience at quarterback. He can extend plays, improvise, and come up with huge throws that defy logic. On the other hand, he’s a veteran QB who constantly makes rookie mistakes — he gets happy feet on almost every dropback, and when he scrambles, there’s more terror than excitement.

The end of the LSU game was a perfect example. He had an awful game for most of the night, drove the team down into field goal range on the final possession for a chance to tie it, and then … threw a head-splitting interception on the final play, before Ole Miss could try a game-tying kick.

“Too much bullshittin'” is the official criticism from George.

7:30 p.m. Almost like a response to all this, Wallace comes up with a 59-yard run into Auburn territory.

“You shoulda been here for Bama,” George says. He points to the press box windows. “These windows were about to crack.”

The announcer cuts in … First down! The entire stadium calls back, “OLLLLLLE MISS.” They do this all night long. There are only 62,000 people here, but it feels like more. “That’s another thing about Ole Miss fans,” George says. “These people will get hype for anything. You could call a timeout and they will find a way to go crazy.”

Wallace follows his run with a touchdown pass to make it 14-7, and it looks like Ole Miss has control. Right on cue, Marshall hits Sammie Coates for a 57-yard bomb, and it’s tied again. Auburn coordinators pump their fists next to me. Ole Miss adds a field goal before the half, and I need oxygen.

7:45 p.m. Just for a second, I stop to let myself be baffled by what’s happening here. By the stakes, by how well everyone’s playing, by the Grove from earlier in the day. It shouldn’t be possible to have a party that fun during the day and go to a game this good at night.

9 p.m. Every time it looks like Ole Miss has control and the crowd is going to overwhelm everything, Nick Marshall makes a play. This is the converted cornerback who led Auburn to the national title game last year. Even then, he was so fast it felt unfair to play him at quarterback — like a video-game trick that would be outlawed among friends. Now he can pass, and that makes him twice as evil. He’ll never be able to do this in the NFL, which only makes it more fun to watch him tear through college football.

Examples:

  • Ole Miss is up 10 points, and on third-and-11 Marshall hits a receiver for 41 yards. Auburn scores three plays later to make it 24-21.
  • The next Auburn drive, a combination of Marshall runs and passes, makes it 28-24.
  • Ole Miss scores again to take back the lead, and it’s back to Marshall. On third-and-9 on his own 29, he hits Sammie Coates for 41 yards.

Auburn scores again a few plays later, and it’s 35-31. I take another note. “Nick Marshall is winning the Heisman.”

9:20 p.m. Ole Miss is driving for the go-ahead touchdown. “They can’t stop no. 1,” George says next to me. “They can’t do anything with him.” They really can’t.

Bo Wallace hits no. 1, sophomore receiver Laquon Treadwell, on three straight passes to take them right down the field. On the fourth play, inside the 10, Wallace drops back, and if he just throws it straight up in the air, I’m convinced it’s going for a touchdown because nobody but Treadwell is coming down with it.

But Auburn’s defense gets there too fast, Bo pulls it down to run, and then he gets folded between two linemen and fumbles. Auburn recovers. Six minutes left on the clock. This is getting dangerous.

9:25 p.m. Auburn goes nowhere, Bo gets another shot with three minutes left. Ole Miss moves the ball down the field, and suddenly they’re on the Auburn 20. George next to me: “And they still got no. 1!” Right on schedule, it goes to Treadwell again on a screen, and he breaks off a 20-yard run to the end zone. The stadium goes delirious, but then there’s a pause.

It takes a second for the refs to signal touchdown and put the game-winning points on the board. When that finally happens, the stadium erupts again.

Then another awkward pause.

Treadwell’s not getting up. Did he get hurt? Teammates are crowding around him and it looks serious.

Then out of the corner of my eye I see the Auburn coaches watching the monitor and waving their arms for no touchdown.

Oh shit.

No way.

The refs review the score. Ole Miss brings out the cart for Treadwell.

The stadium is chanting his name.

Auburn v Mississippi

The refs come back before he’s on the cart. No touchdown. Auburn coaches high-five in the box next to me, a burst comes from the Auburn section in the corner of the field, and the rest of the stadium goes dead silent.

The score goes from 37-35 with 90 seconds left back down to 35-31. And it’s Auburn’s ball now. I watch the monitors and see that Treadwell got dragged down awkwardly. As his leg and ankle broke, he fumbled just before he crossed the goal line. Ole Miss gets the ball back with 26 seconds left, but the drive goes nowhere. Thus ends one of the best football games I’ve ever seen in person — one of the cruelest endings you’ll ever see in any sport.

9:40 p.m. As I’m headed downstairs, a group of Auburn coaches are squeezing onto an elevator after surviving. Two more coaches hustle past me to join them, and one of them says, “Shit, I need some whiskey.”

Ole Miss coaches probably need it more.

10 p.m. Everyone’s headed out, but the path back to the Grove isn’t moving. So thousands of fans are stuck standing in place, muttering to themselves. “College football,” says the guy next to me. “Two fumbles inside the 10, man.”

A few people are on their phones, watching video of that last play. In the stadium it was hard to tell just how horrific the injury to Treadwell was. Now it’s all getting worse. Losing this game was bad; losing it that way is something that’ll never be forgotten. When the crowd finally clears, a forty-something man is standing at the edge of the Grove, yelling, “It’s over. It’s over. Everything is over.”

12:30 a.m. (Sunday) Going out was a bad idea. The bars aren’t empty, but nothing’s full, and everyone is just exhausted. Lots of blank stares. There is a band at this bar, but nobody’s dancing. Somewhere in the middle of this misery, I remember what a friend said when we were walking home after the loss.

“All this is still new for Ole Miss. We’re not used to having real hope. That’s what makes this so much worse.”

That’s also the only possible consolation right now.

This team was about to win the biggest game of the season and a freak accident ruined it. People will focus on the surreal ending, but the team itself is a whole lot more real than anyone ever could have expected. Nobody was overrated, and nobody was overwhelmed by the moment. It’s the biggest reason I ended up in Mississippi in November and finally saw the Grove. Ole Miss could always throw an amazing party, but now it’s getting the games that make the whole country pay attention.

Sometimes those games end in horrible ways.

But maybe pain is part of the progress.