Ole Miss Athletics Director Ross Bjork visited town Tuesday to talk to the Columbus Rotary Club. While his trip might be viewed as an excursion into “enemy territory” where the Rebels fall behind Mississippi State and, quite possibly, Alabama as far as allegiances go, Bjork didn’t pull any punches. He seemed to take a cautious delight in mentioning that Ole Miss has beaten MSU in everything up to and including tiddlywinks over the past year.
Rotarians, polite to a fault, took all this in stride. For that handful of who have close ties to Ole Miss, it was sort of like a papal visit. Hotty Toddy and all that.
There was a time when Bjork’s talk might have been viewed as “fightin’ words,” among MSU faithful.
But Bulldog fans, while not giddy over the way things turned out in the head-to-head battles last year, are in pretty good humor these days.
In truth, both on and off the playing fields, the times have never been better for the two schools. Nowhere was that more evident that the 2014 football season. While both the Bulldogs and Rebels faded a bit down the stretch, the two teams commanded the attention of the nation for a good chunk of the season. While MSU sprinted out to a 9-0 record and held the No. 1 ranking in the nation for five weeks, Ole Miss kept pace for a good stretch, starting 7-0 and moving as high as No. 3 in the national rankings.
As impressive as the teams were on the field, perhaps even more encouraging is what is happening in terms of budgets and facilities.
Both schools have devoted millions of dollars upgrading and building new facilities.
Bjork, at 43, the youngest AD among the major conferences, spent much of his talk Tuesday touting the Rebels’ progress, which includes almost doubling its athletic budget to $96 million in the five years since his arrival at Ole Miss. That infusion of cash has enabled Ole Miss to make improvements and renovations to its football stadium (and its laughably small video board) and the construction of The Pavilion, a multi-purpose, rain-proof facility that will be the new home for the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
That both schools have made such enormous strides over a short period of time can be attributed, in part, to the explosive growth of the Southeastern Conference, by far the richest conference in the nation, with its own multi-million-dollar TV network that has pumped tens of millions of dollars into each of its 14 schools. That rising tide of riches has, indeed, lifted our “local boats.”
But to simply suggest MSU and Ole Miss have been in the right spot at the right time is to seriously underestimate the impact of both Bjork and his counterpart at MSU, Scott Stricklin. Bjork and Stricklin, 45, are young, dynamic, innovative leaders, who are not content to “know their place.”
For much of the past 40 years or so, the Rebels and Bulldogs were, with a few notable exceptions, the runts of the SEC litter, and while the neither school will probably never have the resources enjoyed by schools such as Florida or Georgia or Alabama, the gap has been closed substantially. State and Ole Miss may not have the biggest budgets or the best facilities in the SEC, but both have leveled the field enough to create an environment where success at the highest level is attainable.
Gone are the days when MSU and Ole Miss were locked in a desperate fight for the lowest rung on the ladder, where the success of one meant the demise of the other. Now, as the 2014 football season so powerfully demonstrated, both schools can aspire to greater things.
That has changed the nature of the Bulldogs-Rebels rivalry. It remains fierce and competitive, but it is no longer desperate. The battle for state supremacy is no longer perceived as a fight for survival.
The bitterness of the rivalry has diminished, to a great extent. That’s good for both schools.
Bjork and Stricklin have pretty much the same message these days: Things are good and getting better.
Ole Miss fans will continue to be as insufferable as always, we realize. But somehow, it doesn’t bother Bulldogs all that much anymore.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.