It was Thanksgiving weekend, 1997, and a cold, damp, miserable day in Starkville, Mississippi.
Duck hunting weather. Maybe spend it in a tree stand, looking for that elusive 12-point buck. But come lunchtime, it was just about time for the biggest sporting spectacle Mississippi has to offer, that year or any other since.
It’s the Egg Bowl. Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The Rebels, from the onetime college of the aristocracy, in place called Oxford, and the Bulldogs, who represent the ag school off the beaten path, two hours from the state capital and 4.5, maybe 5 hours from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the place I called home from 1994 until 2012.
A full generation.
I never missed it, and three years in, I got the full Egg Bowl experience, and then some.
They’re playing again, today, in Starkville. The Rebels are ranked 10th nationally and are 9-2 overall, 5-2 in the Southeastern Conference’s cut-throat Western Division. State isn’t far behind, checking in at 7-4, and 4-3 in the SEC. Both teams have colorful coaches in their second season, the oft-brash but measured Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss and the Bulldogs’ wily Mike Leach.
The overall circumstances were a little more dire in 1997.
State was 7-3, and ranked No. 22 in the AP poll. Respectable. The Rebels, still reeling from NCAA sanctions and scholarship reductions, were 6-4. Word on the street was only one of them would get to a bowl game. There were plenty of bowl tilts in those days, but nothing like the postseason college football orgy ESPN brings into your living rooms every December, when the weather keeps people inside and the game always seems to be flickering on the TV set.
It was one nasty day.
And then they played some football. It just took a while to get there.
“We had come back into the locker room, the linemen, after warming up,” former Mississippi State defensive end Kevin Sluder recalled in a phone interview this morning. “Our defensive backs were out there, maybe the specialists … and we looked out the door, and all hell was breaking loose.”
It sure was.
A full-fledged fistfight, a donnybrook, a melee had unfolded at Mississippi State’s Scott Field. It was 90 minutes, maybe even two hours, before kickoff, but they were talking smack and throwing haymakers and mixin’ it up like nobody’s business.
It was a World Wrestling Federation battle, Starkvegas style.
“They were working out by our (expletive)-talking DBs, man,” former MSU offensive tackle Robert Hicks told The Clarion-Ledger in 2017. ” It just resulted in a big brouhaha because we didn’t like Ole Miss anyway. We didn’t like their symbols. We didn’t like their music. We didn’t like what they stood for. We don’t like Ole Miss.”
“Our DBs were kind of rambunctious, they had a little bit of a reputation,” Sluder said. “They might have kicked over the hornets’ nest.”
The Jefferson-Pilot cameras on hand caught all of it, including one that involved future NFL star Deuce McAllister, of Ole Miss, and JUCO recruit Wes Shivers, a towering offensive tackle who was involved in mixed martial arts after leaving Mississippi State.
It was pretty much every man for himself.
“It looked like a scene from ‘Braveheart,'” Ole Miss linebacker Walker Jones said.
McAllister, the All-SEC tailback who played for Tommy Tuberville and David Cutcliffe at Ole Miss, explained it this way to Antonio Morales of The Clarion-Ledger.
“Somebody hits Wes Shivers and apparently it was an Ole Miss guy. Wes had a Mississippi State pullover. Wes was scheduled to visit us the following week. He gets hit. I’m the closest person to him, so he thinks it’s me. Wes and I literally sparred on the right side on the field from the 40 or 50 and I go all the way to the left side of the field running from this guy. Wes is 6-foot-7, 315 pounds. Huge.
“I didn’t have anywhere else to go and I had to swing at some point and I hit him square. There was blood from his nose and I’m scared to death. I remember (MSU) coach (Jackie) Sherrill coming over, talking about, ‘He should be arrested,’ people saying I hit him with my helmet.”
Whatever happened, it was wild. And it wasn’t just a couple of punches. The Jefferson Pilot Sports cameras caught most of it, and the officials had yet to arrive, so there weren’t any penalties for the part-time pugilists.
“Wes Shivers was on his recruiting trip,” Sluder said. “He really was kind of leaning toward Ole Miss … I think that kind of sealed the deal (for State).”
Sluder had reason to embrace that Egg Bowl.
In 1996, in the mud at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, the late, great Joe Lee Dunn’s Mississippi State defense was putting Ole Miss in a hurt locker. Beating them at the line of scrimmage, beating them up. Pulverizing the Rebels.
Then, in the final two minutes of the game, Kevin Sluder, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound freshman from Pensacola, Florida, pounced on a fumble in the open field. Somehow, he kept his feet and started moving. He slipped down the left sideline on a 60-yard return for a touchdown, the only touchdown he ever scored in his football career. Mississippi State, high school, anything.
Mississippi State’s Jackie Sherrill then stuck it to Tuberville by going for two points, and the Bulldogs added the 2-point conversion to make the final score 17-0. It seemed a lot more lopsided than that.
Someone once asked Woody Hayes about the same kind of move, why he went for two points in the final moments against Michigan, and he said, “because they wouldn’t let me go for three (points).”
Sherrill said something about the chart, that the coaches’ chart tells you to go for two.
“I guess Jackie was thinking, ‘well, in the final minute or two, they could have three scores,'” Sluder said with a laugh.
In 1997, the Bulldogs were probably the better team. Certainly they were, defensively. Stewart Patridge was the crafty Ole Miss quarterback, though, and the Rebels had some talented skill players, including the likes of McAllister and All-America tight end Rufus French. Future Ole Miss coach Matt Luke was the Rebels’ center. (I covered him at Gulfport High School before he signed with the Rebels, too.) They had some undersized but productive linebackers, guys like Broc Kreitz and Walker Jones.
Mississippi State led most of the game, again on a soft, wet field. The Bulldogs were protecting a 14-7 lead late in the fourth quarter when Sherrill sent reliable place-kicker Brian Hazelwood onto the field for a 48- or 50-yard field goal.
The kick had no chance.
“We should have punted the (rhymes with ‘drive-by trucker’),” MSU cornerback Anthony Derricks said.
Yeah, they should have. Years later, Sherrill acknowledged that.
Patridge had about two minutes to get the Rebels just 64 yards for their second touchdown of the game, a nifty scoring pass to wide receiver Andre Rone. Tuberville had already decided he’d go for two points, and the victory, instead of playing for overtime. The Bulldogs were definitely the bigger and stronger team. Deeper, too.
I was standing just beyond the goal line, with homeboys such as Gene Phelps of the Daily Journal in Tupelo, the Clarion-Ledger’s Rusty Hampton and a couple others. Patridge took the snap from Luke, rolled slightly to his right and threw across his body, to junior wide receiver Corey Peterson.
Peterson was well covered, just past the goal line.
“The ball zipped over my hand, by an inch or two, it seemed like,” Sluder said. “Stewart threw it low. It was a helluva pass.And it crushed us. If we’d won that game, I’d have gone 4-0 against Ole Miss in my time at Mississippi State.”
Peterson made the catch. The Rebels won 15-14, and went on to defeat Randy Moss and Marshall in the Motor City Bowl. It was December in Detroit, not such a great bowl trip, but the Rebels weren’t gonna be choosy. Mississippi State stayed home, with a 7-4 record, and former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer failed when he didn’t help the Bulldogs squeeze into a bowl game.
State’s fans travel. En masse.
Sluder played during one of Mississippi State’s greatest eras. They shared the SEC West title with Arkansas in 1998 but represented the division well against No. 1-ranked Tennessee in the SEC championship game in the Georgia Dome. State actually had a 4-point lead on the Volunteers, early in the fourth quarter, but Phil Fulmer’s UT squad came storming back to win 24-14. In 1999, Sluder’s senior year, the Bulldogs relied on an air-tight defense to go 10-2, beating Clemson 17-7 in the Peach Bowl. With two future NFL cornerbacks, Robert Bean and Fred Smoot, Joe Lee Dunn could take some chances with the blitz.
And that’s what Joe Lee did.
“We were two-deep on the defensive line, and I started with Alvin McKinley and John Hendrick,” Sluder said. “The second group had Ellis Wyms, Dorsett Davis and Toby Galladay. Dorsett played in the league, and John did, too. Ellis won a Super Bowl. It was a special group.”
Sluder said tonight’s Egg Bowl has plenty of intrigue, and it’ll be in Starkville, where the Bulldogs fans will be clanging their cowbells until, well, the cows come home.
Then again, Jerrell Powe, the colorful defensive tackle for the Ole Miss Rebels during the post-Eli Manning era, had a different message for the Ole Miss faithful. The Ole Miss athletic department made a slick video that Powe narrated for the university. I mean, it was epic.
“In this state, you play 12 games in a season,” Powe intoned. “But in this state, that 12th game defines the next 12 months. You can’t ever predict what’s gonna happen in an Egg Bowl … You know they’re gonna talk, so let ’em talk. Last time I checked, we were still the flagship (university) of the state …”
And so it goes.
“I can see it going either way,” said Kevin Sluder, who’s in the family business, third generation, Gene’s Floor Coverings of the Florida panhandle. “Attendance wise, it’s gonna be packed. It’s gonna be wild. I always liked playing on Thanksgiving, which I did my last two years at State. You’re the only college game going on, in the whole country. Everybody’s watching.”
That’s what awaits Mississippi State and Ole Miss tonight. When it’s over, they’ll hand over the Egg Bowl trophy, a weathered piece of hardware with a silver football, the more oblonged version of the early 20th century college football. I loved each and every one of them, when I was in the daily sports scribbling business, and I have tried to take in as many as I can since leaving the state.
Like tonight’s game. (OK, full disclosure. I’ll be monitoring the Saints and the visiting Buffalo Bills, too, in the Superdome. That goes without saying.)
It’s gonna be a blast.