The story of a bet with no loser

Published 9:15 am Friday, October 24, 2014

You lose a friendly wager with a bunch of Wahoos on a college baseball game and you’re rewarded with the most glorious fall weekend you’ll experience this side of heaven or a honeymoon.

Such is the charmed life of an Ole Miss alumnus and football fan these days. If I’m dreaming, don’t wake me up.

First, some context: If you’re a Hokie or a Wahoo, take your frustration over your team’s current football fortunes and multiply it by four decades to understand the plight of the long-suffering University of Mississippi fan. I was an Ole Miss student a decade after Archie Manning and a decade-and-a-half before his son Eli. The Mannings gave us decent, not great, football teams. When a Manning wasn’t under center, we almost always lost. You learned to enjoy the tailgating, because the football was awful.

Ah, the tailgating. The Grove on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford is a 10-acre spread of oak, elm and magnolia trees and lush green grass. Three hundred and fifty-eight days a year, it’s a great place to toss a Frisbee or read a book, to soak up the beauty of one of America’s finest college campuses. On seven autumn game days, it becomes the Holy Grail of tailgating — a sea of people and tents that mesh into one giant picnic with a hundred thousand or so of your friends. We have a saying at Ole Miss: “We may lose the game, but we never lose the party.”

It was the legendary Grove — more so than the expectation of a good football game — that motivated some U.Va. buddies to bet on their Cavalier baseball team to beat my Rebels in the opening game of the College World Series last June. The loser would treat the winner to a home football game at the loser’s alma mater. (In retrospect, I should have insisted on a trip to the ACC basketball tournament as my reward; it would have been a fairer bet.)

In mid-June, I knew that Ole Miss had a chance to field a pretty good football team this fall. New coach Hugh Freeze had taken us to two straight bowl games and recruited two consecutive classes of high school blue-chippers thought to be among the finest in the country. Given the choice of the Alabama game or the Tennessee game, my buddies picked ‘Bama. I figured there was a good chance that the Crimson Tide would be ranked first in the nation when the first Saturday in October rolled around.

Here’s what I never could have dreamed, much less scripted in early summer:

That Ole Miss would be undefeated and ranked in the Top 15 in the country when mighty Alabama came to town.

That “ESPN Game Day,” the Saturday morning football preview show with a cult-like following among college football fans, would broadcast from Oxford for the first time ever.

That God would bless 62,000 of us in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium — and another 90,000 or so tailgaters who didn’t have tickets to the game — with postcard-perfect weather: sunny skies and a game-time temperature in the upper 60s, dipping into the lower 50s for a thrilling fourth quarter.

That Ole Miss, facing a 14-3 halftime deficit (aided by a dreadful “no call” by the referees just before intermission that in prior years would surely portend a heartbreaking defeat), would rally and beat Alabama 23-17.

That my buddies and I would stand, awestruck, as Ole Miss students stormed the field, tore down the goalposts and paraded the uprights around campus.

That my undefeated Rebels would soar to the Top 5 of the national polls.

That 90 miles down the road, our in-state rival, the Mississippi State Bulldogs (to Ole Miss what Tech is to U.Va.), would also beat a Top 5 team on the same day, putting two Mississippi teams at the top of the national polls.

That my native Mississippi, last in many important categories and the butt of many a joke, would be, on this glorious fall Saturday and the weeks beyond, the talk of the nation — for something positive for a change.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Suffolk News-Herald, a former Franklin resident and publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is