In a matter of a few weeks, the University of Mississippi will make one of its most important hires in the long and storied history of its football program. Led by search committee co-chairman Archie Manning, a favorite son at Ole Miss, and Fed-Ex executive vice president Mike Glenn, the decision of who will replace the fired Houston Nutt is critical.
Only one Rebel coach in the last 40 years has won more than 60% of his games. David Cutcliffe fashioned a 44-29 (60.3%) record in Oxford, the best for any Ole Miss coach since the legendary Johnny Vaught won 74.5% of his games during his illustrious career.
The last three Ole Miss coaches have all been fired—Nutt, Cutcliffe and Ed Orgeron in 2007. And, the only coach since Vaught who left Oxford on his own accord was Tommy Tuberville, who bolted for Auburn following the 1998 season.
To say that Ole Miss has been a difficult job is putting it mildly.
Manning and Glen both realize the urgency in finding the right guy. However, the task is somewhat daunting considering the odds against the school.
Ole Miss must find a way to compete in the toughest division in the best conference in college football. The SEC West has three teams in the top ten in the latest BCS poll (LSU, Alabama and Arkansas) and Auburn is the defending BCS national champion.
How then does Ole Miss find a way to compete against the heavyweights of college football?
First, the school must realize it will not have the same talent pool of recruits that its rivals in the division have. LSU and Alabama are traditionally ranked among the nation's elite in recruiting rankings. So are Arkansas and Auburn. Even arch-rival Mississippi State has cornered the market on blue-chip recruits of late thanks to the efforts of the young, energetic coach Dan Mullen.
Second, Mississippi has a population of just over 2 million according to the latest census numbers. It is the smallest of the now eleven states that make up the SEC. It would be one thing if it were just Ole Miss and Mississippi State competing for players from the Magnolia State.
However, there are seven other four-year schools and fourteen community colleges all vying to fill out their own rosters. Southern Miss has built a Top 25 program of its own primarily with players from in-state. Not to mention the number of Mississippi players that dot the rosters of schools such as Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, LSU, Georgia, Arkansas and Tennessee.
And, third, Ole Miss does not have the financial support available to other schools in the SEC. While the budget has increased annually, the Rebel football budget is less than half of what Alabama, LSU and Auburn will spend within its own division.
Here's a look at SEC football budgets for a three-year period:
What about the positives for Ole Miss as it searches for a new coach?
Ole Miss has one of the best indoor practice facilities in all of college football, has a history of graduating its student-athletes at higher than average rates, and offers a small-town family atmosphere that cannot be found in Baton Rouge, Fayetteville or even Tuscaloosa.
The new coach will have his work cut out for him, but the right man can do miraculous things in Oxford. Just ask Tuberville.
Which leads us to the right man for the job. Tuberville.
Now the head coach at Texas Tech, Tuberville knows where the land mines are buried at Ole Miss and across the SEC. He has been successful at every stop and is quickly turning the Red Raider program into one that competes on a regular basis in the Big 12.
True that Tuberville's departure from Ole Miss left a lot of bruised feelings, especially after his comment that the only way he was leaving Oxford was "in a pine box". Two days later he left town on a Leer jet headed for Auburn,
Yet, Tuberville is an older, wiser coach now, and is the man Ole Miss needs to rebuild this program. When he first took over in Oxford prior to the 1995 season, the Rebels were mired in NCAA scholarship sanctions. Two years later he was the SEC Coach of the Year after leading Ole Miss to an improbable 8-4 record.
In spite of the NCAA penalties, Tuberville dominated the state of Mississippi in recruiting, luring several top-rated high school prospects to come to Oxford as part of the rebuilding effort.
Along the way, Tuberville never complained about a lack of financial support or a lack of quality facilities. Essentially, it was his groundwork that laid the foundation for Ole Miss to grow by leaps and bounds in all areas. The support Nutt enjoyed at Ole Miss was a direct result of the blood, sweat and tears Tuberville poured into the despondent program.
If the Ole Miss administration and its fans can let bygones be bygones and bury their past resentment, Tuberville can do for the Rebel program what he's done once before. This time, he'll likely stay longer.
The decision is critical. The timing is crucial. The choice is obvious.