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Column: Carter Makes His Move and Gives Fans Hope

Football coaching hires normally create a buzz and some excitement. Only once at Ole Miss have I felt the euphoria to equal this. I’ll get to that later.

Ole Miss Athletic Director Keith Carter addressed the media. Photo by Talbert Toole.
The hire of Lane Kiffin is a shift here in how things are done, who was hired, who did the hiring, and what it means for the future. Let’s dissect a bit.

Not a lot of people, I suspect, really believed Ole Miss would hire Kiffin. Or better yet, that Keith Carter would. But he did. It’s why I wrote right after Keith was hired that he was the leader Ole Miss needed.

This was a Generation X and Millennial hire as much as anything. Yes, Hugh Freeze and Matt Luke were born after the Baby Boomers, historically post-1964 births. But this one is the first hire that could have been summed up in the words of a former President – “…the torch has been passed to a new generation…”

A dramatic take? Maybe, but it’s the truth.

The Vaught years were Ole Miss’ winningest. The beloved products and heroes of those years controlled and hired personnel for Ole Miss athletics for decades.

A few weeks ago in Jackson, when the SEC original office historical marker was unveiled, there was talk in the Q&A about current ADs in the SEC, how there are former basketball players and baseball coaches and fundraisers now in those roles. One panelist said he remembered when seven of the then 10 ADs in the SEC were also the head football coach – at the same time they were serving as the AD.

Currently, it was said that day, only one AD, Phil Fulmer at Tennessee, is even a former football coach.

Since the Rebels’ ninth Sugar Bowl appearance four years ago, Ole Miss hasn’t had many big wins to cheer about in football. Starkville in 2017 tops the short list.

Young alums and fans, for point of reference under 50, were basically done, or at least the ones I heard from. That’s not Matt Luke’s fault. That’s just the way it was. It’s just the way folks felt.

Some fans I’d talked to for years, close friends even, actually stopped talking Ole Miss sports with me and were using words and phrases like “done” and “over it.” This was a crossroads.

Keith Carter, top fundraiser for athletics for several years, knew this. He had to hear it too. It’s why he was able to gauge where to take this thing with the new football hire.

Kiffin’s success here is to be determined as we move forward. But his hire has won a lot of approval. The under 50’s I’ve heard from texted me or said to me things like:

“We’re back, Jeff” or “I’m in” or “Thank God for Keith Carter.”

I heard from some across the Mid-South, read others on social media, heard from one who lives in Orlando and one who was on a trip in Boston. All positive.

One mid-20-something I know was at a house in Jackson with a large group of 20’s and 30’s watching football when official word from Oxford was released. His take? All of them, he said, agreed it was the best Ole Miss moment of their adult lives, or at least matching the euphoria of the Sugar Bowl win on Jan. 1, 2016.

These are the types who were questioning if it was worth it anymore to pay what they were paying…..were they being entertained each Saturday they trekked to Oxford or to a road game? Was a major part of the family budget worth pouring into this?

Another text, “I needed hope.” Carter’s hire of this head coach is that for them. That’s what they told me.

And what about the Boomers and those older? The ones I talked to either generally said, “I’m glad it’s over and we’ve got a coach” or they said, “I think I’m OK with this. I talked to my (son or daughter) and they are excited, so I am too.”

That doesn’t mean there is 100 percent approval. That will never be the case for any hire with any fan base.

But Gen X and the Millennials – season ticket holders and premium seat purchasers for the next 40 years and beyond – have spoken and have been heard. Their children, the ones maybe not even driving age yet, are paying attention as well. And one day they’ll be the ones paying for all those seats.

Being a charter member of the SEC no longer means lip service or talking a good game. It’s a tough club and getting tougher. A lot of schools would love to be in. You have to prove your worth over and over. This hire is a sign Ole Miss is doing that.

Oh yes, back to the other coaching hire with enthusiasm arguably to this level. It was also December, 42 years ago, and a young Steve Sloan rode into town to save a mediocre program. There was a pep rally in Oxford and one in Jackson. It was a new day.

Some would tell you Sloan didn’t work hard enough to succeed, and also that some key assistants didn’t come with him. I’ll also tell you that Ole Miss, only eight seasons removed from a Sugar Bowl and the glory years at the time, wasn’t ready for the commitment and improvements needed to compete at the highest level of SEC football. Much of that was facilities, which then were arguably the SEC’s worst.

The way things had always been was still the way things were going to be. After five straight losing seasons under Sloan and staff, Ole Miss hired Billy Brewer.

Keith Carter, with the hire of Lane Kiffin, has ultimately changed things and served notice of it to his own people and to college football nationally. And Ole Miss people I hear from have what they say they haven’t had in a long time.

And that is hope.

Jeff Roberson is a contributor to HottyToddy.com. He has written sports for three decades with most of that time spent at the Oxford Eagle daily newspaper and the Ole Miss Spirit magazine and website. He is the author of “Midnight Train,” the life story of former Ole Miss quarterback and Hall of Fame songwriter Jim Weatherly.

Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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