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College football's great rivalries: Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State

This profile of the Ole Miss and Mississippi State college football rivalry originally appeared in Athlon's 2008 Southeastern college football magazine. As the two in-state rivals prepare for the 108th "Egg Bowl," we thought it would be relevant to take a look back at the history of the biggest game played every year in Mississippi.

The Egg Bowl

By Michael Bradley

Because he grew up listening to both Ole Miss and Mississippi State radio broadcasts with his daddy in tiny Drew, a rural hamlet in the northwest part of the state, Archie Manning never did develop much of a hatred for MSU, even though he ended up playing quarterback for the Rebels. The way his father figured it, the Mannings were Mississippians and therefore supported both schools.

“My daddy was a sports fan, but more than anything, he was a Mississippi sports fan,” Manning says. “He rooted for the home schools and the pro teams that had Mississippi natives on them. He liked the New York Giants because of (former Ole Miss quarterback) Charlie Connerly and the St. Louis Cardinals because of (second baseman) Don Blasingame, who was from Corinth.”

Manning’s father never had a strong rooting interest when the Rebels and Bulldogs squared off. As for Archie, he leaned toward Ole Miss, “because they won more.”

Now, during his three years as a starter for Ole Miss, Manning wanted to beat the Bulldogs. Anybody who played for John Vaught did. The venerable coach lost only twice to MSU during his 24 years in Oxford and went undefeated over the first 17 games his teams played against the people from Starkville. But Manning never felt anything “nasty” about the rivalry. OK, he did catch some grief from the MSU fans when he played baseball against the Bulldogs, but things never got too out of hand.

In 1969, however, the rivalry went to a different level for Manning. The Ole Miss junior was enjoying a great season, as were the Rebels, who came to Starkville with a 6–3 record. Vaught promised his team that a win over the Bulldogs would lead to a Sugar Bowl berth. (Back then, bowl invitations were the result of politics as much as performance.) That added some motivation for Manning, but when he came out to warm up before the game, a sign that ran the length of the wall behind the Ole Miss bench fired him up even more.

Because of his strong play, Manning had been receiving considerable attention in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News, two papers that circulated statewide and were owned by the Hederman brothers. The MSU crowd didn’t take too kindly to the publicity, which it considered excessive. Thus the sign: “Archie Hederman.”

“That inspired me,” Manning says with a laugh.

Over the past century, players on both sides of the rivalry have been similarly “inspired” to conquer the other side. Some, like Manning, have used their incentive to fashion great victories, like the 48–22 beating that he and the Rebels laid on the Bulldogs that Thanksgiving afternoon. Others have taken it a little far, like when the teams staged brawls during the first quarter of the 1990 game and prior to the ’97 meeting.

No matter whether the fighting was real or a metaphor for the effort required to earn a victory, the Ole Miss-Mississippi State Egg Bowl game is one of the nation’s finest, if somewhat underrated, rivalries. Because neither team is a perennial national powerhouse or even SEC contender (the teams have combined for only eight titles in the league’s 74 years), thanks to their modest athletic budgets, the contest doesn’t generate the same interest as Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Georgia or even Georgia-Auburn, the Deep South’s oldest rivalry. Add in the fact that the state is largely rural and has a population of only around three million, and you get the sense that the battle for the Egg Bowl is a parochial concern. Maybe, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of history and tradition behind it.

“In the state of Mississippi, people understand that for Mississippi and Mississippi State to compete against Tennessee and Florida with their large budgets is a handicap,” says MSU athletic director Larry Templeton, who grew up in Starkville, went to MSU and has been AD for 21 years. “When we stand up against each other, all things are equal.”

College football in the Deep South was 12 years old when Mississippi entertained Southwestern Baptist University (now Union University) in 1893. MSU (known then as Mississippi A&M, a land-grant school), meanwhile, didn’t begin intercollegiate football until 1895, when it broke away from its intramural roots. Once the Aggies began playing ball, it didn’t take too long for someone to decide the two schools should get together on the gridiron.

Yellow fever stopped football at both institutions in 1897, and MSU didn’t resume play until 1901. And that occasion was deemed worthy of a matchup between the two in-state rivals.

The contest was played Oct. 28 on the Oktibbeha State Fairgrounds in Starkville and featured some pregame wrangling over eligibility issues. That was hardly news, since teams from all over the country were rather elastic in their requirements for inclusion on football teams. Once the dispute was settled, the game began, and the Maroon and White prevailed, 17–0. In his fine book on the game, The Egg Bowl, William G. Barner reprints accounts of the contest from the A&M student newspaper, The College Reflector, and from the University of Mississippi Magazine about the game. It was clear that a rivalry had been born.

First, The Reflector: “The University boys…played the dirtiest game of ball that we have seen. They would do anything to put our men out so long as the referee was not looking.”

Then, The Magazine: “’To one who has never indulged in any exercise more violent than…the milking of a patient cow, football seems a brutal sport. Our bucolic friend of the Agricultural College should confine himself to mumble-peg and townball.”

That type of back-and-forth prevails today and is somewhat typical of the relationship between any state university and its land-grant counterpart. Michigan students and alums refer to Michigan State as Moo U, and a similar arrogance can be found in the relationship between Mississippi’s two largest schools.

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“This is a fact: the Ole Miss people seem to think they are the upper crust of the state,” maintains Jack Cristal, who has done play-by-play of State football games for 54 years. “They look down on the Mississippi State people.

“Ole Miss people think they’re better than most.”

The Ole Miss crowd doesn’t refute that assessment. “People like to tease them about the cowbells (rung by Bulldog fans at home games), and they get real mad about that,” says Mississippi chancellor Robert Khayat, who played for the Rebels from 1957-59. “It has always been a rural-against-city rivalry. It’s funny, though. Mississippi is mostly rural. There isn’t too much that’s cosmopolitan about the state.”

The two sides do respect each other, though, even if Warner Alford, who played at Ole Miss from ’58-60, says, “We are THE university of Mississippi.” From 1911-25, the Aggies had little reason to consider the Red and Blue anything but a doormat. Mississippi State was 11–0 in the rivalry during that stretch (no games were played from 1912-14) and outscored its overmatched foe 327–33 in those games. What began as Ole Miss dominance had swung to an iron-fisted Maroon and White rule.

That changed in 1926, when Ole Miss broke through with a 7–6 win in Starkville. The win was huge, but the postgame mayhem changed the rivalry forever. The Rebel contingent celebrated the end of its heroes’ drought by storming the soggy field and deciding to take the goalposts as spoils of victory. As one might imagine, this didn’t sit too well with the Aggie students, who defended their turf vehemently. The resulting melee, which was wisely avoided by the players, surprised and upset officials from both sides. By the next year, some changes had been made.

The biggest was the introduction of a real trophy for the game’s winner. The award, a solid-gold football, was agreed upon by students from both schools and was thought to be a deterrent to future goalpost abuse and subsequent violence. What a difference a trophy could make! After Ole Miss’ 20–12 win, accomplished before an overflow crowd of 14,000 in Oxford, there was a dignified presentation of the Golden Egg and an unparalleled spirit of cooperation. There were even calls, echoed by the new governor two months later, for combining the two institutions in order to create one fine university — and a heckuva football team.

Fortunately for Egg Bowl fans, that didn’t happen, and the teams continued to play each Thanksgiving Day. Not that State (the school was renamed Mississippi State College in 1932) got too much out of it. The “Flood,” a nickname given the Mississippi team in 1929, was undefeated in the series from 1926-35, winning nine and tying one (7–7 in 1929). When the Maroons finally did break through, in 1936 with a 26–6 win in Starkville, there were no riots, just an enthusiastic celebration and the beginning of some prosperity. Over the next six years, Mississippi State won five of six, including a 6–0 decision in 1941 (eight days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor) that clinched its first SEC title.

The arrival of John Vaught in Oxford in 1947 changed everything for the Rebels, who embarked on a dominance of the Bulldogs (Mississippi State adopted the nickname in the early ’40s) over the next two-plus decades, as the Rebels became an SEC and national power. “(Vaught) always said, ‘Never forget that Mississippi State is your rival,’” Alford says. “And he wanted to beat them.”

Khayat can speak to the pressure on the Rebels when they met Mississippi State. In 1957, he was a sophomore charged with kicking the point-after that would forge a late 7–7 tie. He had tried dozens of such kicks before, but none so important. “If I had missed it, I might have been hanged,” he says.

There wasn’t too much drama during the period. There were some moments, like in 1964, when a strong MSU ended 17 years of winless desperation with a 20–17 triumph that triggered a huge celebration that included canceling of classes the following Monday and presentation of the key to the city by the Starkville mayor.

One of the more controversial aspects of the rivalry surrounded the decision in 1973 to move the games from their campus homes to Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson. The decision was made to accommodate the growing number of people who wished to watch the game live, and the first year in Jackson brought a record throng of 43,556. Over the next 17 years, upwards of 62,000 fans would pack the joint for the game. In 1991, Templeton made a decision that was unpopular in some corners but made good business sense for his school. Even though Jackson’s business community made a spirited — and lucrative — bid to keep the game, Templeton brought it home to Starkville.

“Moving the game back helped us raise the funds to build skyboxes and club seating,” Templeton says. “It’s a cornerstone game on which you can hold down your base of season ticket holders. Both schools have doubled the size of their stadiums since bringing the game back on campus.

“But when I moved it, I wasn’t very popular, because the majority of the state’s population is around Jackson.”

The following year, Ole Miss did the same thing, bringing the game to Oxford. Alford, then the Ole Miss AD, caught much of the same flak Templeton did. Not that he apologizes for the move. “We added to our stadium and renovated it because of the move,” Alford says. “We put lights in. It’s a big thing to play the (MSU) game in Oxford.”

Safely at home, the rivalry has delivered plenty of excitement over the past 10 years. The ’97 edition featured plenty of drama, from the pregame fight that brought state troopers onto the field to restore order, to the last-minute TD and two-point conversion pass from Stewart Partridge to Cory Peterson that gave Ole Miss a 15–14 win. The ’99 game was even crazier. There was no brawl but fireworks nonetheless.

The Bulldogs had staggered into the game on a two-game losing streak — after winning their first eight. Through three quarters, it appeared as if the losing streak would continue. Ole Miss held a 20–6 advantage and looked pretty safe. But a pair of fourth-quarter TD passes by Wayne Madkin, the last with 0:27 remaining, knotted the score at 20.

Ole Miss could have played for overtime. Should have played for overtime. Didn’t play for overtime. Because he felt his team was completely gassed, coach David Cutcliffe directed quarterback Romaro Miller to throw downfield, even though the Rebels had the ball at their own 27. Miller’s first pass was deflected by MSU’s Robert Bean and collected by teammate Eugene Clinton, who returned the ball to the Rebel 26 with 0:08 left. From there, Scott Westerfield drilled a 43-yard field goal that won the game.

Last year, the Bulldogs staged similar dramatics in a contest that appeared to be lost heading into the final period. Ole Miss held a 14–0 lead and a total offensive edge of 290 yards to 144. The futility extended another few minutes before MSU awoke. The Bulldogs stuffed a 4th-and-1 run by Rebels star BenJarvus Green-Ellis with 12:44 remaining. MSU took over on the Ole Miss 46 and drove for a TD, with Wesley Carroll hitting Anthony Dixon from four yards out to make it 14–7, with 7:51 to go. Five minutes later, MSU’s Anthony Pegues scooped up a short punt and galloped 75 yards for a game-tying score. The comeback was completed with 0:12 left when Adam Carlson drilled a 48-yard field goal — the longest of his career — giving the Bulldogs a 17–14 win and their seventh win of the year, which cemented the team’s bowl résumé. A month later, the Bulldogs played in the postseason for the first time under coach Sylvester Croom.

“For what it meant to Mississippi State, it was obviously one of the more important ballgames we’ve played,” Cristal says.

Of course it was; the game was against Ole Miss. All of those games are important.