OXFORD, Miss. — The first or second question men ask when they find out you attended a football game at Ole Miss is, How’s the talent?
That’s what my brother-in-law asked when I got home. That’s what everybody asks. I assume this applies to virtually any major school in the South, but it seems to me that the girls of Ole Miss have an especially strong and far-spread reputation.
This being the case, I’ll address this topic immediately so that we can all move on.
Yes, there are lots of pretty girls who show up in The Grove in Oxford, Mississippi on game day. But I have found this to be true of every college campus I have ever seen. The thing is, women tend to look better in their 20s than they do later in life, so if you are in a place where there are a great number of 20-something women, you most likely will observe that this place is “crawling with chicks,” or, as the guy who was standing in front of me in the Porta-Potty line put it: “There is more puss right here right now than anywhere in the world.”
Here is the difference at Ole Miss: These girls dress like they’re going to a wedding or a club, or something. They put on their fancy dresses, get their hair did and turn up the makeup to 11. I don’t think I saw a single girl wearing jeans or shorts or a t-shirt. That’s just now how it’s done in The Grove. It appears to be pretty competitive, as I am told that a fair number of these women are attending Ole Miss in pursuit of an Mrs. Degree, and little else.
All of which brings me to the aspect of Oxford that I consider the most interesting and unique. There is a sense of decorum there that would feel comically out of place in any Midwestern town.
For example, although what you’re doing in The Grove would technically be considered “tailgating,” you should cast off any mental image you have of actual tailgates, or of the parking lot at Arrowhead Stadium, or of Trans-Ams with the T-tops off, or of people tossing beanbags into little holes, or of men wearing wifebeaters, or of cans of Keystone Light strewn about.
A decent analog for Ole Miss is Iowa State. Although the Rebels have more tradition, that tradition is 50 years old now and on a yearly or weekly basis, what Iowa State fans and Ole Miss fans can reasonably expect from their football teams is about the same. They play in similarly sized stadiums which are similarly filled game to game. Now, at Iowa State they tailgate too. Man, do they tailgate. They tailgate as hard as any fanbase in the Big 12 tailgates. But it’s different. They’re setting up little pup tents at night, and they actually sleep in those tents. Then, bright and early, it’s time for “Kegs and Eggs,” which is exactly what it sounds like. And it’s not dresses, it’s red-and-yellow t-shirts. And the whole thing just looks like a giant mess of a party by kickoff.
In The Grove, there is plenty of drinking, they just want you to be discreet about it. They want to walk by and be able to think, “Maybe it’s just Sprite in there.” Your beer can or liquor bottle is not to be seen or heard. It is to be quietly emptied into a Solo cup and deftly discarded into a trash can. It is not to be punctured with a key, shotgunned and spiked into the turf. It is not to have ping pong balls tossed into it. It is not to be slammed, placed on the edge of a table and flipped over. That’s Midwest Power Drinking, and that’s just not how things are done down here.
By all this I do not mean to imply that people are not getting “blacked out,” as my host, Joey, put it. Joey’s father has given up the hooch now, but while stationed in Germany was granted honorary membership on the Bavarian Drinking Team, a distinction he earned by downing 10 liters of beer* in four hours.
*28.17 12-once beers.
One member of my traveling party had, by about an hour before kickoff, loosened his inhibitions to the point he told one young lass she was “Top 10 in The Grove,” told her where she could find him in the stadium, and then amended his evaluation to “top five.”
She did not find him in the stadium.
And so then it was game time. By this point Joey had offered numerous predictions on the outcome between Ole Miss (2-0) and No. 14 Texas (2-0). Among those in my party, the yet-to-be-contested game had been deconstructed many times over, but the most basic evaluation seemed to be that Ole Miss would need to commit no more than one turnover and do such a good job stopping Texas’ running game that Longhorns quarterback David Ash would have to throw.
Joey’s predictions, in order, were as follows:
- Friday night, approximately midnight: 48-11, Rebels.
- Saturday morning, approx. 10 a.m.: 28-24, Rebels.
- 4:55 p.m. Saturday: 41-15, Rebels.
- 6 p.m. Saturday: 19-4, Rebels.
Well, by now you probably have some idea how the game went. The Rebels committed more than one turnover. In fact, I had not yet finished my barbecue nachos (a delicious and immensely popular plate of pulled pork and barbecue sauce over nacho cheese and tortilla chips) when Texas scored its first touchdown by intercepting a pass thrown by the pleasingly coiffed Bo Wallace and returning it. There would be two more turnovers after that.
Ash did end up throwing a fair bit, but with more success than anybody could have anticipated, including Texas fans. His performance was so good, actually, that the Big 12 judged it to be the best by any offensive player in the conference that week.
It reached the point that after a couple Ash lobs had been hauled in for long touchdown strikes and the Longhorns’ score started careening toward 60 that Joey introduced me to an acronym: B-O-H-I-C-A., which is the short way of saying, “Bend over, here it comes again.”
So you can imagine what a disappointment this was. Everybody seemed to agree it was the most anticipated nonconference game Ole Miss had hosted since 1952 and the biggest Ole Miss game of any kind since 2003. Texas’ interception return had taken a lot of air out of the fans, and the game never returned to a point they could assert themselves in a meaningful way. The Rebels never got a chance to make Texas nervous.
So on the way back home we stopped at a gas station, where I bought some fried chicken on a stick. They all were amused that I had never seen such a thing before.
“We don’t have this in Kansas or Houston,” I said.
“There’s a reason Mississippi is the fattest state,” one of them told me.
The next morning we drove by William Faulkner’s house, which he named Rowan Oak. It’s now owned by the university and has tours, though we didn’t take one. They say Faulkner got a lot of inspiration from living there in Oxford, in Rowan Oak, drinking whiskey. He outlined a story on one of the walls for some reason. While he was on the way to being blacked out, I’d guess.
It’s cozy in Oxford. Quaint. Unmistakably Southern. If the fried catfish cakes or the dresses don’t remind you, the Confederate flags will. Yeah, they’re still around. Not on top of the football stadium anymore, but painted on signs, stickered on trucks, nailed to walls. It is the internal (and eternal) conflict of the South. Seems like a lot of people in Oxford wish the rest of the country would let them move on from all that, and yet there are other people in Oxford unwilling to move on from it themselves.
“The past is never dead,” Faulkner once said. “It’s not even past.”
The symbolism slowly fades, though. The beloved mascot, Colonel Reb, has been replaced by a harmless Louisiana black bear. The pep band now cuts off its beautiful signature song “From Dixie With Love,” before the student section has a chance to sing, “The South will rise again,” as it did for so many years.
So Oxford seems to be trying to sort it all out. Find its identity. How much past to keep and how much to bury.
When you’re driving in, you pass a little sign that every town has.
It reads: “Oxford, a nice place to live.”