Column by Scott Coopwood
Recently, I ran into former Ole Miss Chancellor, Robert Khayat in Oxford. For those who may not know Khayat, he is one of the most impressive individuals you’ll ever meet.
After graduating from Ole Miss in 1984, I moved to Jackson and was determined to travel in another direction and not hang around Ole Miss, like so many do. Back then, I was more interested in pursuing greener pastures, and I wanted to meet new people, have new experiences. Because of this, 12 years passed before I made it back to Oxford, and the one and only reason I was re-introduced to Ole Miss is because of Robert Khayat.
One dark winter afternoon, just before we closed for the day, our receptionist paged me and said, “There is a man on the phone that wants to speak with you. He said his name is Robert Khayat.” Of course, I knew who he was, but I had never met him. I picked up the phone and after saying hello, Khayat said this: “Scott, you are an Ole Miss graduate. You seem to have a lot going on over there in the Delta with your publishing concerns, but I have one question for you … why don’t you participate in anything Ole Miss?”
My reply was that I had never been asked to do anything for Ole Miss. A few nights later, I was in Oxford sitting at a table with him and the late Mike Lynn, an Oxford resident at the time and former general manager of the Minnesota Vikings. That evening marked the moment I returned to Ole Miss, and Khayat and I went on to become good friends after that.
Bumping into him recently made me think about reading his book for the second time that he wrote back in 2013. Entitled “The Education Of A Lifetime,” in it, he talks about the trials and tribulations of his life. And in several parts, he writes about the difficulties he experienced as chancellor, doing his best to turn around the school. The challenges he faced were significant; and one day when he announced he was going to “get rid” of the Rebel battle flag, I thought to myself, “That will never happen, he must be kidding me.” I was wrong. Khayat was successful in removing the flag from the fans in the stadium, and he had help from the great Ole Miss grad and PR man, Harold Burson from New York, who produced the heavy lifting.
Khayat has been associated with Ole Miss most of his life and, of course, he is a UM graduate. While there, he was a football standout. He is a former college football All-Star, and he went on to play for the Washington Redskins. Besides Ole Miss, Khayat also has degrees from Yale, and for many years after his football career, he taught at the Ole Miss law school before becoming chancellor.
Not many realize it, but when Khayat arrived at Ole Miss back in 1995 as the new chancellor, Ole Miss was in rough shape financially, and enrollment was also on the decline. Tons of other problems also existed. To begin the turn-around, Khayat started looking for ways to cut costs, increase enrollment, enhance the school’s athletic program, raise money and at the top of his list was bettering the image of the school in general. He put a top-notch team together, and he led them down a very bumpy road that eventually saved the school and actually took Ole Miss to another level. By the way, a key player in all of this (that Khayat brought on board) was Rex Deloach from my neck of the woods, who grew up in Alligator. Rex’s brother is the well-known Delta artist, Gerald Deloach.
Khayat retired in 2009, and while his health is not what it used to be (too many football injuries he told me), he is still involved in the school.
It was good bumping into him, and Ole Miss supporters should be thankful for the great work he produced while he was chancellor. Khayat’s efforts will live on for many generations who will pass through the doors of The Lyceum.
Scott Coopwood is a seventh-generation Deltan who lives in Cleveland, Mississippi with his wife Cindy and their three children. Scott is the publisher and owner of Delta Magazine, one of the South’s leading lifestyle publications, the Delta Business Journal, the first business publication in the Mississippi Delta; and Cleveland’s weekly newspaper, The Cleveland Current.