Lloyd Gray 6/15/09
Khayat stayed close to Ole Miss athletics
By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – From a position that would tend to focus on academics and other university interests, Robert Khayat always remained active within the athletics department, a position that yielded mixed results.
Varied though they may be, Khayat concludes his tenure with the pre-eminent athletic program – football – on an unquestionable high.
The Rebels closed 2008 with six straight wins and a dominating Cotton Bowl victory over No. 7-ranked Texas Tech. They will begin the 2009 season as a consensus top 15 team, a popular top 10 pick by many, and with quarterback Jevan Snead projected by a number of NFL analysts as the No. 1 pick in next spring’s draft.
With the unique perspective of a former Ole Miss football player and former NFL player, it isn’t surprising that Khayat would remain close to athletics.
“With me, the goal has always been for the entire university to be excellent in all that we do, and that certainly includes athletics,” Khayat told the Daily Journal in March.
There have been some unpopular decisions during Khayat’s time, such as the move to disassociate the university, most notably the athletic teams, with the Confederate flag and to remove Colonel Reb as a mascot. Ole Miss is one of few schools now that does not have a student dress in a mascot uniform and perform with the cheering squad at football games and other events.
Khayat also signed off on the hiring of Ed Orgeron as football coach shortly after he and athletics director Pete Boone had interviewed veteran coach Dennis Erickson, now at Arizona State.
Orgeron’s colorful career as Ole Miss coach ended after three seasons with a 3-21 SEC mark.
“David Cutcliffe’s last two years we virtually had no recruiting, no signing of people who could play,” Khayat said. “It was pretty natural to go for the person who was viewed as the best recruiter in the country. What we didn’t realize was that Ed was going to have so much difficulty coaching.”
Some of the most significant improvements in athletics on Khayat’s watch have come not necessarily with personnel moves but with facility upgrades that can serve as a means to an end of attracting qualified employees.
Football coach Houston Nutt, beginning his second season, has raved about the quality of the indoor football practice facility. Khayat has also overseen two expansions of the football stadium with the addition of revenue-generating luxury suites and club level seating, as well as the addition of a $6 million scoreboard with a large, high definition video screen.
Most other sports have not been neglected. Baseball opened this season near the end of a massive renovation projected that increased capacity and added club seating.
Tennis, soccer, softball and track also compete in modern venues.
Tad Smith Coliseum, the basketball arena, has long been a point of contention. While there are no plans to replace the coliseum soon, a basketball practice facility with two courts, and all the associated bells and whistles is expected to open this December.
The athletics department budget, around $10 million when Khayat began as chancellor in 1995, is estimated at $46 million today.
Football leads the way in both expenditures and in revenue, and Khayat is pleased to see it doing well as he leaves his post.
“Ole Miss people are more excited about football than I can remember,” he said. “They were excited about Eli, there was some with Deuce and a couple of times in the Brewer years, but there’s a level of passion now that I haven’t seen in a long time.”