By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — The past nine months have produced a Mississippi athletic season worth forgetting.
For the first time since the 1995-96 academic year, Ole Miss did not qualify for a bowl game in football or reach the NCAA tournament in basketball and baseball. Along the way, there was an embarrassing football loss to Jacksonville State, a controversial mascot change and mounting losses to rival Mississippi State.
Ole Miss athletic director Pete Boone admits its been a struggle, but said he’s still confident that the athletic program is moving in the right direction.
“It’s one of those years you dust yourself off and move forward,” Boone said.
Boone’s positive overall assessment of the athletic program is mostly tied to financial gains.
He said membership in the University of Mississippi Athletic Association — the private fundraising arm of the athletic program — continues to rise with donations at an all-time high. Season ticket sales also have improved. There are preliminary plans to build a new $50-$70 million basketball arena that would be ready around 2015.
But all that money doesn’t entirely ease the sting of recent losses.
In many ways, this year’s collapse was stunning.
The Ole Miss football program was coming off its best back-to-back seasons in 40 years, with 18 combined wins and two Cotton Bowl victories. But Houston Nutt’s third season was a disaster, beginning with the loss to Jacksonville State, a program that plays at the Football Championship Subdivision level.
The Rebels finished with a 4-8 record, punctuated by a second straight loss to Mississippi State.
“Nothing went the way we expected it to go,” said Nutt, who has a $6 million buyout after the 2011 season. “I understand the disappointment out there. The coaches are just as disappointed as the fans. It just eats at you and tears you up inside. We’ve really done a lot of soul searching and feel we’re ready to turn this thing around.”
The basketball team won 20 games, but failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the ninth straight season. Coach Andy Kennedy became just the third coach in the SEC since the 1980s to be retained for a sixth season despite not making an NCAA tournament. Kennedy has three years and approximately $3.9 million remaining on his current contract.
Then the baseball team, which has consistently been the school’s most successful program over the past decade, missed the Southeastern Conference tournament and NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.
There’s also been off-the-field drama. Ole Miss introduced a new mascot, Rebel Black Bear, to replace Colonel Reb, the Southern gentlemen who had been banned from the sidelines since 2003. The move has not been popular.
The combination of issues has led to a disenchanted fan base, which is growing increasingly more organized. Boone said he’s aware of critical e-mails from groups like Rebels Nationwide — which claims it represents a group of more than 160 donors.
“I think it’s frustration of this past year,” Boone said. “There’s no question about it. A lot of it has to do with losing to a rival team. Those scabs don’t heal very easily. But at the same time, when we have record donations, more people are members of our foundation than ever before, the facts say that Ole Miss is ready to move forward.”
Read more in the NEMS Daily Journal newspaper Friday.