Cha-ching! No. 8 Ole Miss cashing in on good times

OXFORD — Trip Lobrano and other loyal Rebel fans are enjoying the good times at Mississippi.

And they’re doing more than just cheering.

When No. 8 Ole Miss kicks off against Memphis on Sunday, it will cap one of the strongest financial runs at a school with donors who have already splurged on the program. And much more is expected.

LoBrano, a 41-year-old Coca-Cola sales executive from St. Louis, had the time of his life at Ole Miss’ football fantasy camp. He, along with 64 other campers in mid-July, paid between $1,000 and $5,000 to attend the two- to four-day event. Organizers said they had to turn several people away — another sign of mounting good times in Oxford.

The camp raised about $200,000 that will go to special projects and assistant coach stipends. Most of the same guys at the camp will pony up more cash for tickets, parking and other amenities that will go to the athletic department’s foundation.

The money is helping Ole Miss transform itself into a premier program, something that requires an endless process of upgrades and renovations.

“There’s always something,” coach Houston Nutt said, pointing to the artificial grass beneath his feet as he stood near the Ole Miss logo in July. “Like this turf is going to have to be new next year. The indoor (practice facility) turf will have to be new next year, so there’s always something on the horizon and these guys are great contacts. And as you plant these seeds, they want to help the program.”

Sure enough, a few weeks later the school announced it would be installing new turf.

In its second season with Nutt at the helm, the school ran out of season tickets, selling a record 50,800 for a stadium that holds a little more than 60,000. Students camped out to get their allotment of 7,500 and Boone said the school might start a lottery because 2,000 more likely were left out.

And to get those season tickets, fans had to pay anywhere from $250 to $5,000 into the department’s foundation for premium seating. With all the new revenue coming in, there’s even talk now of bowling in the north end zone and expanding the stadium — something that was out of reach when there were empty seats at home games.

“Now we see if we are offering them a product they feel good about seeing that there are a lot more people than we ever imagined following Ole Miss football, and now they’re wanting to be a part of it financially,” athletic director Pete Boone said.

Boone says the trick is keeping all those cash-bearing fans happy.

The saying, “Good times here are not forgotten,” is popular in The Grove on game day. But the truth is, there haven’t been that many good times to remember.

The Rebels’ heyday came in the late 1950s and early ’60s when Johnny Vaught led the team to three off-brand national titles. Then there were the Archie Manning years in the early ’70s with not much else to report until his second son, Eli, came along this decade and led Ole Miss to a share of the Southeastern Conference Western Division title.

Nutt has turned that around in just one year. A six-game winning streak and a Cotton Bowl win pushed the Rebels in to the rankings last year and they open Saturday against Memphis in the Top 10 for the first time since Archie was flinging the ball around in Oxford.

The former Arkansas coach has done it with his personality, convincing first players, then fans to buy in to a positive approach punctuated often by the word “awesome.”

The fantasy camp participants got to rub elbows with Nutt, received player updates from assistant coaches and met all the support people who work behind the scenes. Throw in a night at a casino and it was worth every dime to participants.

Lobrano made the most of the moment he’s been thinking about his entire life. After he shucked his man at the line with a nifty move, he caught the pass in stride at Mississippi’s Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and scored an easy touchdown. To celebrate he sent the ball into a tight spin, dropped to his knees and warmed his hands over the imaginary fire.

“I didn’t get a good spin on the ball,” Lobrano said. “It only did a half-spin. I would’ve liked a little more fire, you know?”

Arthur Ray, a Memphis lawyer, believes Nutt’s sudden availability after the firing of previous coach Ed Orgeron was like manna from heaven for long-suffering Rebels fans.

“We were incredibly fortunate,” Ray said. “But you know what, it’s about time we were fortunate.”

The financial and morale bumps from Nutt’s hiring spread beyond the athletic department. Boone says Chancellor Dan Jones has attributed record enrollment numbers and an increase in non-athletic donations in part to excitement over football.

“The rising tide lifts this whole ship up,” Boone said.

Chris Talbott/The Associated Press