The Ole Miss and Mississippi State football rivalry, one of the oldest in the nation, will be decided for the 106th time on Saturday.
And it will be decided by two coaches with few ties to the state beyond the lure of opportunity.
While the Battle for the Golden Egg generates passion and emotion on both sides of the fence, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt and MSU coach Dan Mullen are two of the state’s most recognizable employees, though they’d seen this rivalry only from long distance before being hired.
Former Ole Miss coach Billy Brewer was 8-3 in this game. He attributed his success to understanding what the game meant to the state’s citizens impressed its importance among his players.
“You knew it was important to him,” said John Darnell, a quarterback under Brewer.
Former Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat understood the game from the perspective of resident, player and CEO. He did own coaching of the coaches when Game Week arrived. Tommy Tuberville, David Cutcliffe, Ed Orgeron and, last season, Nutt all got Sunday morning visits from Khayat.
“When he was in my office unannounced for a special meeting, I knew what a big, big game this was,” Nutt said.
Nutt was coach at Boise State and experienced a state rivaly game against Idaho but for just one season. At Arkansas, no other state school challenged Nutt on the field or in recruiting off of it.
“All the coaches I worked with, I made it my business to go over the Sunday before the Mississippi State game and underscore the importance of that game to the university,” Khayat said. “It’s a university issue. It affects the way we feel.”
Khayat’s MSU pep talks were never long on the clock but were long on substance.
“Every one of those coaches would say, ‘Oh, I know,’ and I’d say, ‘No you don’t, and that’s why I’m here.’ ”
Nutt’s first experience was a resounding success, a 45-0 Ole Miss win in Oxford last season.
“You can feel the intensity, the competitiveness all over the state for this game,” he said.
As the Rebels did in 2008, they approach this meeting with Mississippi State rolling with momentum. The Rebels, 7-0 in November under Nutt, have won three straight since a 33-20 loss at Auburn on Oct. 31.
Nutt did not have an in-state rival but built his resume in other ways. At Arkansas he led the Razorbacks to eight bowl berths, three SEC West titles and two trips to Atlanta. Two weeks ago the Rebels’ win over Tennessee was Nutt’s 50th within the conference, making him the 14th coach to reach that number.
And he’s 10-1 against Mississippi State.
Wearing the emotions of the series on their sleeves earlier this week, Nutt and Mullen sparred a bit without naming one another. Nutt charged other schools with “negative recruiting.” He named no school or coach in particular but did say, “That’s fine. It’s not going to help them. This is one program in the state that’s getting very strong.”
Mullen responded with something less than absolute denial: “We don’t do a whole lot of negative recruiting.”
About a month after he was hired by MSU, Mullen installed a clock above the doorway leading from the locker room to the players’ lounge. That clock serves one purpose: Counting down to the Egg Bowl.
That clock is a reminder that Mullen has dived headfirst into this rivalry. From Day 1 he has referred to Ole Miss as “the school up north,” in the tradition of Ohio State’s Woody Hayes, who called Michigan “the team up north.”
Mullen, a native of New Hampshire who helped Florida win two national championships, has worked his way seamlessly into the fabric of this intense rivalry. That’s because he understands the basic nature of it.
When he was an assistant at Utah, he was involved in the annual “Holy War” with in-state rival BYU. Like Ole Miss-MSU, it’s not a rivalry that gets much national attention, but it’s as impassioned as any other.
“When you get part of that geographical rivalry, when you go around this state, there’s people that are maroon, and there’s people that aren’t,” Mullen said. “When you have that sort of passion amongst the fans, amongst the people in the state, there’s year-long bragging rights that go along with the game.”
When he was at Utah, Mullen and the other Utes referred to BYU as “the school down south.” When he was at Florida, Florida State was “the school out west.” And when he was at Bowling Green, Toledo was “the school up north.”
Mullen has gone so far as to put up Egg Bowl posters in the locker room that say, for example, “MSU 17, The School Up North 14,” from the 2007 game.
During the offseason, he explained why he refuses to say the words Ole Miss: It’s akin to cursing.
“Ever since Day 1, that’s the one thing he’s talked about, is the team up north,” senior quarterback Tyson Lee said. “And that’s how we refer to them now, the team up north.”
It’s quite bold for a man who had never before been a head coach nor faced Ole Miss on the field to be such an antagonist, especially in light of last year’s game.
That’s Mullen, though. Always looking forward, never looking back, and always expecting the best from himself and his team.
Truth be told, Mullen’s approach to the rivalry is more for the benefit of the fans. Ultimately, the Egg Bowl is just another chance to win.
“We look to go out there and find a way to win every game, whether we’re playing Florida, Georgia Tech, Alabama, or anybody, we’re going to go out as hard as we can and try to win the game,” he said.
Mullen actually puts little stock into just being competitive and closing the gap between Ole Miss and MSU.
“I don’t know if there is (a gap),” he said. “I haven’t played them yet this year. Hopefully, we come out with a win and there’s a perceived gap between them and us.”
Win or lose, that clock Mullen put up will keep ticking. The Egg Bowl always looms over these programs, no matter the time of year.
“It’ll start over on Sunday,” Mullen said. “It’ll reset itself and count down to next year’s game.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or email@example.com Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Parrish Alford and Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal