Mississippi concerned about football and images from the past
August 17, 2012
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Tre’ Stallings stands outside a hotel ballroom, his mind clearly elsewhere, a smile on his face.
The former Mississippi and Chiefs offensive lineman was right in the middle of the Southeastern Conference’s football media days last month in Alabama. But mentally, Stallings was, for a brief moment, back in Oxford, Miss., reliving one of the most memorable nights of his life.
"I’ll never forget walking through The Grove in 2003, the year we played LSU at night," said the 6-foot-3 Stallings, who now works in the SEC’s administrative offices. "It was right at 5:30-ish, and it was getting dark. Just thousands and thousands of people. . . . It actually took us an hour and a half to get to the stadium, when it usually took about 30 minutes."
Mississippi did not beat LSU that night, which is surprising considering Stallings’ nostalgia. But the memory cannot be tainted.
"It gets you pumped up, gives you goosebumps, makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up," he said.
Such sentiment-rich game-day memories are not unique in the Southeastern Conference, where every school has at least one tradition that contributes to a raucous stadium environment. Mississippi State fans ring cowbells, while Arkansas has its hog calls. Tennessee sings "Rocky Top," while Auburn chants "War Eagle." And on, and on.
"In the South, football is a culture, a way of life," said Mississippi athletic director Ross Bjork, who worked under Missouri athletic director Mike Alden from 1998-2003.
"To me, that’s what’s great about what we do in the SEC and being around a program like the University of Mississippi. We have traditions that people buy into, that they have latched onto, for a long time."
And few SEC schools have received more national attention for their traditions than Ole Miss. Tailgating on The Grove, a 10-acre plot on campus shaded by oak trees, represents the best of those traditions.
Other traditions at the school, however, have proved to be controversial.
The University of Mississippi was thrust into the national spotlight in 1962, when 29-year old Air Force veteran James Meredith became the first African-American student admitted to the segregated school, and students protested by rioting on campus, leaving two dead.
The stigma associated with that episode never faded from national consciousness, especially when some of the school’s football traditions also doubled as Confederate imagery.
For years, Rebels fans took pride in waving Confederate flags during home games and singing "From Dixie with Love," which students punctuated with the line "The South will rise again." The school’s mascot, Colonel Reb, depicted an old Southern man with a mustache and cane who, to some, evoked the image of a plantation owner.
The school has distanced itself from these images the past 15 years. In 1997, it banned the Confederate flag at games, and in 2003 removed Colonel Reb from the sideline. School administrators banned the playing of "From Dixie with Love" in 2009.
"It was more about the image more than anything," Stallings says. "A lot of fans hate to see Colonel Reb go – but it’s the image that we portrayed, kind of being in this 1950s, 1960s mentality. That’s why the administration wanted to see things change."
Those decisions were made before Bjork, who took over for Pete Boone in March, took the job. But he understands why they were made, and both he and Stallings understand why some fans have had a hard time letting go of the past. Colonel Reb still makes an appearance in The Grove on game day, while fans occasionally sneak miniature Confederate flags into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. A political action committee was created to remove the new mascot – the Rebel Black Bear – and restore Colonel Reb.
"They asked people to love those traditions for a long time, and to take them away stings," Bjork says. "But now we’ve got to create some new atmospheres, some new identity around our program."
That falls largely to Bjork, who is determined to push the university into the future while also recognizing its complicated past.
"We’ve come a long way in terms of our identity, in terms of integration," Bjork says. "It’s the 50th year of James Meredith being a student at Ole Miss, so we’re celebrating all those activities around our Texas football game with our 1962 (national championship) team.
"There’s a lot of events on campus that, again, talk about reconciliation, and being part of our community, part of our state, part of our country. And athletics is a focal point."
The Rebels almost lost out on Stallings, a native of Magnolia, Miss., because of the traditions. Back in high school, Stallings says his parents were hesitant about letting him play in Oxford, because they were worried about how he would be treated.
"My mom and dad didn’t want me to go to Ole Miss," Stallings said. "But when they got there and they saw the people, and they saw what actually occurred on campus, they were both like ‘We were totally wrong. If you want to come to school here, you can come to school here. This is a great place to be.’?"
Stallings remembered a time when the chairman of the math department pulled him aside.
"I thought he wanted to come in ask me how I thought the season would go," Stallings said with a laugh. "But he actually wanted to say ‘Tre’, I know your situation, I know you’re a football player and I know math is not the easiest major to have. But I want to make sure you’re prepared (for the real world), that you have the professors and tutors you need so that you can graduate.’"
Stallings eventually graduated, ever grateful for the interest the math chairman showed.
"If I didn’t have those conversations or tutors, I would have changed my major," he said. "Seriously."
The memory of this makes him smile, much like he does whenever he recalls that special walk through The Grove in 2003.
"Every venue that I’ve ever been to, whether it was Florida, whether it was LSU, whether it was Alabama, or Auburn, you’re talking about places where the fans literally hate you, so you get stuff thrown at your buses," Stallings says with a laugh. "But it makes it that much more personal, that much more fun, being in that type of environment and getting an opportunity to play."