Two lessons learned from Egg Bowl

By RICK CLEVELAND,

At least two lessons can be learned from last week’s Egg Bowl, the 114th in the history of the series that matches Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

Number one: When you score a touchdown that could tie or win the game in the closing seconds, act as if you’ve done it before. Hand the ball to an official. Accept congratulations from your teammates. Then, get ready to finish the game. Don’t act like a dog (and you know the rest).

Number two: If you coach at one of Mississippi’s two oldest football rivals, Ole Miss or State, you are well advised to win this one game above all others. Last Thursday night, it cost one good man his job and saved the job of another good man on the opposite sidelines.

It wasn’t the first time that has happened. It will not be the last.

Let’s just look at the last few coaches who have been fired at each school. You already know about Ole Miss’s Matt Luke, who was given a glowing vote of confidence going into the Egg Bowl and then fired after a one-point loss at Starkville.

Before Luke was Hugh Freeze, who was fired for all together different reasons. Before Freeze was Houston Nutt, fired after a 31-3 loss to Mississippi State in 2011 and a 31-23 Egg Bowl defeat the year before. Two straight Egg Bowl losses will wipe out two straight earlier Cotton Bowl victories faster than you can say Hotty Toddy.

Before Nutt was Ed Orgeron, still another who lost the Ole Miss job in the Egg Bowl when a 14-0 fourth quarter lead turned into a disastrous 17-14 defeat. That’s right: This year’s probable National Coach of the Year lost his job in 2007 because he lost the Egg Bowl.

You have to go all the way back to David Cutcliffe in 2004 to find an Ole Miss coach who won the Egg Bowl and lost his job – and I still can’t believe for the life of me that happened.

Mississippi State?

Same story.

Had Joe Moorhead lost last week, State would be searching for a new coach this week. His predecessor, Dan Mullen, left on his own for Florida after nine years in Starkville during which he won five Egg Bowls. Before Mullen was Sylvester Croom who was ousted after losing 45-0 in the 2008 Egg Bowl. Croom lost three of his five Egg Bowls.

Before Croom was Jackie Sherrill who had a winning record (7-6) against Ole Miss, but lost his last two Egg Bowls. Before Sherrill was Rockey Felker, one of State’s all-time athletic heroes, but who as State’s head coach lost his final three Egg Bowls, including his final game, 21-9, in 1990.

Before Felker was Emory Bellard, who lost his last State game in the Egg Bowl, 45-27. Before Bellard was Bob Tyler, who lost his last Egg Bowl to Ole Miss, 27-7, in 1977. Before Tyler was Charles Shira, who lost his last Egg Bowl game 52-14 in 1972.

Before Shira was Paul Davis, who lost his last Egg Bowl, 24-0, in 1966. We could keep going back and keep giving examples, but surely you get the idea by now.

If not, consider the case of Ole Miss legend John Vaught, who had a career record of 18-2-4 dominance of Mississippi State. During his Ole Miss coaching tenure, he ended the Mississippi State tenures of six Bulldog coaches with victories in the rivalry.

So, today’s chief message: If you are going to coach in the Egg Bowl, you better win it.

Frank Mason learned that long before there was any such thing as a Golden Egg Trophy. Back in 1907 Mason famously coached the Rebels in a 15-0 loss to State on a sloppy field at the State Fairgrounds in Jackson. After a scoreless tie in the first half, Mason provided an urn of whiskey-laced coffee for his team amid the freezing, wet conditions hoping to keep them warm.

So, in the second half, not only the field was sloppy. Asked after the game if he and his team were returning to Oxford that night. “Yes,” he replied, “they are headed north at 11 o’clock. I am headed in another direction and I hope I never see them again.”

He didn’t. He was fired. He might have survived the whiskey, but you have to win the Egg Bowl.

•••

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@mississippitoday.org) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.

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