Rebels vs. Bulldogs is the nation's most unsung rivalry — and perhaps its bitterest
Ole Miss fans swarmed Scott Field looking to tear down the goalposts in Starkville after finally ending a long losing streak against their in-state rival.
Opposing fans grabbed wooden chairs in response, smashing them over the heads of those reveling in their defeat. As spectators watched the chaotic scene from the bleachers, it was all authorities could do to prevent a full-fledged student brawl.
That happened in 1926.
As the Egg Bowl rivalry gains infamy around the country, Mississippians know that it’s long been this way. This is a rivalry that prompted students from Mississippi State, then Mississippi A&M, to march in the state’s capital with a fake “Ole Miss” baby inside a big pine coffin following a 1905 win. A rivalry that moved more than 500 Ole Miss faculty and students to stage a mock funeral for Mississippi A&M in the campus chapel after a win in 1918 as a band played taps.
The schools introduced the Golden Egg trophy after the 1926 game to temper the game’s intensity, but more than 90 years later it burns on as the country’s fiercest rivalry you know nothing about.
“They just absolutely love to hate each other,” says Rick Cleveland, a long-time sports columnist in Mississippi.
It doesn’t have the name recognition of the Iron Bowl or The Big Game, but in just the last three years, the rivalry has experienced brawls, an NCAA investigation that pitted the two schools against each other and a rival fan reporter taking down a head coach through escort phone calls.
There’s no other rivalry like it.
To understand the Egg Bowl rivalry, you first have to understand the state of Mississippi. As a rural state in the Deep South, Mississippi is used to being looked down upon. Whenever you see a ranking of states, regardless of the criteria or topic, there’s a good chance Mississippi is at the bottom. It’s so expected at this point that it’s spawned a popular phrase in other states: “Thank God for Mississippi.”
With a population of a little less than three million, Mississippi is one of the smallest states to possess a Power 5 school. Only one state, Kansas, has a smaller population while being home to two Power 5 schools like Mississippi is.
There are no professional sports teams or major cities that serve as tourist attractions. Mississippians have been told time and again that there isn’t much for them to puff out their chests about.
But they do have college football.
There are fans of schools like Southern Miss, at times a football power, and historically black schools such as Jackson State and Alcorn State, but it is Ole Miss and Mississippi State that dominate the conversation.
There is a lot of self-worth wrapped up in those two college football programs as, for many, they represent Mississippi’s best shot at garnering positive national attention. Mississippi isn’t going to lead the nation in education overnight, but with one great recruiting class, who’s to say Ole Miss and Mississippi State couldn’t be among the nation’s best at football?
And, naturally, fans want their school to be the one receiving the praise. It’s at the heart of why fans take the rivalry so seriously.
“So much of this comes from this insistence between the two programs of who better embodies what the potential of Mississippi can be and which football program can better serve as this positive force for the state,” says Bob Lynch, co-founder of SBNation blog Red Cup Rebellion. “Mississippians are looking for something positive to latch on to, and Ole Miss and Mississippi State fans want to own that and be one of those things.”
The two schools have battled for state supremacy virtually since their inception. Ole Miss, the state’s flagship university, arrived in 1848 as a place for wealthy doctors, lawyers and farmers to send their sons. Mississippi A&M, established in 1878, appealed more to working-class agricultural families who didn’t want their children going to Ole Miss. In the 141 years since the start of their co-existence, there has been a constant clash of cultural identities. The debate about which school better represents the state will never end and is almost always subjective — except on the football field.
The first time the two met on the gridiron in 1901, Mississippi A&M beat Ole Miss in a 17–0 shutout. A&M had a good bit of success against its in-state rival in those early years, including winning a Southeastern Conference title by defeating Ole Miss in 1941. Once Johnny Vaught arrived in Oxford in 1947, though, it all shifted in the Rebels’ favor. Vaught orchestrated a 17-year Egg Bowl unbeaten streak that stretched from 1947 to 1963, a period that included nine appearances in the final AP top 10. During that same period, the Bulldogs went through six coaches, with more losing seasons than winning ones.
Cleveland, who has closely watched the two schools battle for more than 50 years, believes that’s when the rivalry ratcheted up another level. Ole Miss was at the top of the college football world — a perch it would never reclaim post-segregation — while Mississippi State stumbled along as the bullied little brother.
“They just dominated it so much,” Cleveland says. “I think that hatred really intensified among State fans because they just couldn’t beat [Vaught].”
A history of trash talk
For decades after the Vaught era, Mississippi State fans stewed as the school rotated through coaches. There were brief moments of success — like when Emory Bellard guided the Bulldogs to a win over No. 1 unbeaten Alabama in 1980 — but MSU largely remained irrelevant.
That changed the day Jackie Sherrill swaggered into Starkville in 1991. Sherrill, who left Texas A&M in 1988 amidst NCAA troubles, ignited the Egg Bowl rivalry in a way Mississippi State fans had never experienced. Sherrill refused to refer to Ole Miss by its longtime nickname, calling it “Mississippi,” a dig that irritated its fan base to no end. Ole Miss head coach Billy Brewer disliked him and his recruiting tactics so intensely that he called Sherrill a “habitual liar,” which landed Brewer a public reprimand from SEC commissioner Roy Kramer.
“He was really the guy who gave us, Mississippi State people, our pride,” says Steve Robertson, who covers MSU for 247Sports. “Jackie was the first one to really spit at Ole Miss in the face and dared them to spit back.”
Sherrill guided the Bulldogs to six bowls and left as the program’s winningest coach when he retired in 2003. There was trouble along the way, including a 1997 pregame Egg Bowl brawl and the NCAA problems at the end, but he proved that Mississippi State could build a respectable football program in the stout SEC West.
“It goes back to ‘I own the farm and you work the farm’ mentality,” Sherrill says. “Mississippi State, when I went there, had a lot to be proud of and stick their chest out, but that wasn’t what was portrayed, and that came from the dominance of Mississippi over Mississippi State on the athletic fields.”
Sherrill provided the blueprint on keeping the rivalry’s fire burning year-round. Sherrill, an Oklahoman who played for Bear Bryant at Alabama, might not have many cultural similarities with Dan Mullen, a Yankee from New Hampshire, but he served as his trolling spiritual guide. Mullen, taking a page out of Sherrill’s book, refused to say Ole Miss, instead referring to it as “the school up north,” a play off the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. “That was a copy from Urban Meyer from Ohio State,” Sherrill says. “Mine wasn’t copied.” Mullen zeroed in on what his fans wanted and weaponized their insecurities to keep the attention on Ole Miss. Mullen became obsessed with the rivalry and wanted to win in every aspect — on the field, on the recruiting trail, on the billboards.
Bulldogs fans loved it.
Mullen ran Houston Nutt out of Oxford and won his first three Egg Bowls before he met his match. Hugh Freeze, a native Mississippian who was as much a Southern preacher as a football coach, was the perfect foil for the cocky Yankee who thought he had the state locked down. Freeze sold his Southern roots and faith on the recruiting trail, and parents ate it up. Recruiting is an all-out war in Mississippi given the limited quantity of SEC-caliber players available each year, and Freeze now had the edge. He snuck into a bowl game his first year after winning the 2012 Egg Bowl and then signed a top-10 recruiting class that featured five-star prospects Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell.
Ole Miss had the in-state momentum and national attention, though not all of it was positive. That 2013 recruiting class led to some of the highest highs — the school’s first Sugar Bowl appearance since the 1969 season — and the lowest lows of Ole Miss football history. It sparked something that brought out the worst in the fans. Twitter gave the lunatic wings of both fan bases a public forum to air out their hostility and jealousy. Both head coaches seemed to encourage the nastiness as a way to pump up their own programs. It marked one of the few times that both teams were actually good — particularly in 2014, with both ranked in the top 5 at one point — and a chunk of fans couldn’t handle that.
“You get that taste in your mouth,” says former Ole Miss athletic director (now at Texas A&M) Ross Bjork. “We want to knock them off, they want to knock us off and then you throw some of the off-the-field things that have happened and have no place in the sport, and it heats up even more.”
The NCAA, already investigating Ole Miss’ women’s basketball and track and field programs, set up shop in Oxford after that 2013 recruiting class. Investigators couldn’t find the smoking gun to pin serious infractions on Ole Miss until they met a recruit named Leo Lewis. Ranked as the nation’s top inside linebacker out of Brookhaven High School, Lewis had a bevy of options and was at one point committed to Alabama and Ole Miss before signing with Mississippi State. Believing his testimony to be confidential, Lewis admitted to receiving money and gifts from Ole Miss boosters after the NCAA offered him limited immunity. The NCAA used Lewis’ testimony as the centerpiece of its case against Ole Miss, which resulted in a one-year bowl ban, a multi-year probation period, scholarship reductions and multiple coaches hit with show-cause penalties. It also triggered a lawsuit from Rebel Rags owner Terry Warren against Lewis, who claimed he received $400 worth of free merchandise at the Oxford store during the recruiting process.
Somehow, an Ole Miss booster suing an active State player isn’t the craziest thing to happen in the last few years.
The rivalry hit its zenith when Nutt, believing Freeze purposefully lied and told media members that most of the NCAA violations stemmed from the Nutt era, hired former Walmart counsel Thomas Mars to investigate whether the Ole Miss coach organized a smear campaign. Mars requested Freeze’s phone records and teamed up with Robertson, a Mississippi State fan/journalist, to go line by line on the numbers Freeze called with his school-issued phone. What they found stunned even them: a one-minute phone call to an escort.
Freeze resigned hours after the bombshell went public on July 20, 2017, losing out on millions because Ole Miss was prepared to fire him with cause. Later reporting detailed how Freeze made at least a dozen phone calls to escorts during his tenure at Ole Miss. The most successful Ole Miss coach in recent memory was undone because a meticulous Mississippi State reporter found a smoking gun.
“I didn’t know we’d get phone records with escort calls in them, but I think we all had a pretty good idea of who that guy was,” Robertson says. “It was nice to be vindicated, and in some ways celebrated, but the bottom line is this story was out there available to anybody. There just weren’t a lot of people digging for it.”
Is the rivalry too intense?
National fascination around the Egg Bowl rivalry has significantly increased in recent years. Everything from the years-long NCAA investigation of Ole Miss to Freeze’s public crash-and-burn to primetime Thanksgiving games has piqued the interest of those who couldn’t place Mississippi on a map. It has led national outlets to refer to it as the nastiest rivalry in college football, a title many in the state bristle over.
Ask anyone in Mississippi about the rivalry and they’ll tell you how big a deal it is 365 days a year. But you’d be hard pressed to find someone involved in the Egg Bowl rivalry who’ll admit it has become too toxic in recent years. There’s a belief that it’s another example of outsiders not understanding Mississippi and overselling the negative aspects.
“There’s been a lot written and said about toxicity in this rivalry, and I think all of it is complete hogwash,” says Matt Wyatt, a Mississippi sports radio host and former Mississippi State quarterback. “If you look around the country, this rivalry and the residual negative effects of it has never reached the level of what we’ve seen in the Alabama-Auburn game, with people getting shot out in the yard on the Saturday of the Iron Bowl.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t real-life consequences from the rivalry. Robertson says he received death threats for months and had rival fans harassing his children on social media after his reporting brought down Freeze. Others claim rival fans they’ve never met have emailed their bosses with screenshots of social media posts in an attempt to get them fired. There’s a chippiness to Egg Bowl Twitter that is fun, but like anything on social media — it can turn vitriolic in a second.
The rivalry has a way of being on its worst behavior when all eyes are on it. The 2018 Egg Bowl promised to be a more low-key affair with Mullen and Freeze gone. Their replacements, Joe Moorhead and Matt Luke, were less bombastic in the lead up. They eschewed the smack talk to avoid pouring “gasoline on a fire that was already burning hot,” according to Moorhead.
But during Mississippi State’s 35–3 win, a brawl broke out in the third quarter resulting in multiple player ejections. Tensions reignited after the game when an Ole Miss associate AD got in the middle of celebrating State players, and Moorhead was caught on camera referring to that Rebels staffer as a “big-mouth [expletive] AD popping off.” It was the culmination of years of sniping between the two schools and their fan bases.
Robertson believes Moorhead’s fired-up postgame moment is what endeared the Pennsylvania native to State fans after an up-and-down first year. Moorhead was now one of them.
“There’s an old saying that you’d rather die on your feet than live on your knees,” Moorhead says. “We wanted to do everything we could to show respect to a game that’s very important to two schools, but we won’t be a program that’s going to take a back seat to anyone. The fans saw the head coach and primary leader of the program stand up not just for the kids but for the school and the team. I think that meant a lot to them.”
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey finally had enough and released a statement after the game that demanded the two sides meet with him to work out their issues. The SEC was sick of the Egg Bowl generating so much negative attention with little to show for it. It had become the Iron Bowl without all the winning.
This offseason, both programs have downplayed the rhetoric around the rivalry. Bjork, in town hall meetings throughout the state (prior to his departure), has called Mississippi State a rival but not the rival. Moorhead says it is one of three important goals — be the best in Mississippi, best in the SEC and best in the country — but doesn’t want it to become more than it needs to be. They’ve promised that this year’s Egg Bowl will be more relaxed and without the theatrics that have overshadowed the last few games.
But will the rivalry ever truly change? Those who know it best have their doubts. It is a cultural battle nearly 120 years in the making between two sides who can’t avoid each other in such a small state. One stern statement from the SEC can’t extinguish a fire that burns that hot. And there are plenty involved in the rivalry who don’t want it to lose the qualities that make it unique.
Sherrill believes in the all-publicity-is-good-publicity mentality. If people think the Egg Bowl is too much, Sherrill says, good for them. As long as they pay attention. “The bigger the game, the better it is for the state of Mississippi,” Sherrill says. “It doesn’t matter how you get there.”
— Written by John Talty
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)