Rick Cleveland

OXFORD – Long-time readers of this column know of my affinity for the Class 1A State Championship football game, which matches the smallest high schools in the state.

You will see players go both ways, you will see 120-pound cornerbacks and 175-pound guards. You will see raw emotion. You will see kids playing for the sake of playing and for town pride. You will see tears shed in victory and defeat. What you won’t see is many players with a football future.

Hollandale Simmons, which trailed 14-0 at halftime Friday morning, fired back for a 22-20 victory over Nanih Waiya Friday afternoon at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium for its third straight state title. I saw the first half, missed the comeback entirely because of a 1 p.m. press conference next door at the Manning Center. There, Ole Miss officials expressed disappointment, outrage and no small amount of angry defiance at the NCAA’s decision to add another year’s bowl ban and a charge of “lack of institutional control” to already harsh penalties Ole Miss had self-imposed.

Ole Miss Chancellor Jeff Vitter said Ole Miss will fight vigorously in its appeal of the NCAA decision after a five-year long investigative process that, to date, has cost the university $4.5 million and is certain to cost more now due to the appeal.

• • •

Can’t tell you how many times over the years somebody has asked me why I prefer small-town high school football to Super Bowls, SEC Championship games, Sugar Bowls and all the rest. Never has it been more crystal clear than today when leaving this palace of a stadium — which has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, with its expansions, renovations, luxury suites and jumbotron — to head for the press conference, held in an luxurious indoor practice facility that has cost millions more.

At the press conference, Ole Miss Chancellor Jeff Vitter and Athletic Director Ross Bjork stated their case for an upcoming appeal of the NCAA sanctions handed down earlier in the day. That means this process will last a few more months.

Now, it’s likely that how you feel about Ole Miss’ appeal depends on for whom you cheer. If you are a Mississippi State fan, you probably feel the Rebels got off easy. You can’t understand why Hugh Freeze’s penalty wasn’t more harsh. You wonder why the NCAA didn’t take more scholarships away from Ole Miss.

If you are an Ole Miss fan, you are incensed by what you believe to be the NCAA’s heavy-handed misapplication of justice. You can’t understand why the NCAA based much of its decision on the testimony of an arch-rival’s player, who reportedly says he also took money from two other schools, including your arch-rival.

All this comes on the heels of a week during which Ole Miss hired a football coach for $3 million a year and State hired a new coach for nearly as much, to replace a coach who left for Florida at a salary of $6 million a year. Yes, the millions upon millions of dollars involved are dizzying.

I am not about to choose sides. I do think Bjork and Vitter made some valid points Friday. And I can’t believe that the NCAA referenced cases in the 1980s and ’90s to charge Ole Miss with lack of institutional control.

Do I think everybody cheats? Well, yeah.

Hugh Freeze is ready to coach again; NCAA does little to stand in his way

• • •

No, I won’t take sides. What I will do is condemn a system in which coaches make millions while the players, risking life and limb, legally get nothing other than tuition, room and board.

The system is corrupt. You pay coaches millions, fire them if they lose too much and expect them not to bend and break the rules in order to win and keep those salaries. You pay players virtually nothing — when they see all the money being made and spent — and expect them not to take payments under the table from boosters and alums.

It’s just not going to work in anything close to a perfect manner. Never has, never will.

I prefer 1A football. The players are not as big or as fast. It’s not perfect. It is a lot more pure.

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 12 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.