Lane Kiffin of Ole Miss, left, and Mike Leach of Mississippi State confer with each other during a special "Football at the Fair" program at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Thursday, July 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

When Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach signed on to coach football in Mississippi, we knew things would be different. We knew they were two of the highest profile coaches ever to come to the Magnolia State. We knew that, if they coached in Mississippi according to their histories elsewhere, the scoreboards at Scott Field and Vaught-Hemingway would have to work overtime.

We knew the national media probably would pay more attention to the SEC’s two Mississippi schools. Heck, we thought, perhaps the national media will learn which one is which.

Above all else, we knew it would be interesting.

Rick Cleveland

But I gotta tell you: Nothing prepared me for last Saturday when ESPN’s GameDay came to Oxford and there was Kiffin on the set with Corso, Herbstreit and the rest, and it came time to pick games. And then they got to the Mississippi State-Auburn game and it came time for Kiffin to give his pick.

And these words came out of his mouth: “I would like to say this: Mike Leach is the best offensive coach in America. I’m taking Mississippi State.”

Next commercial, I played it back. He really said that. Ole Miss fans in The Grove reacted just as you might expect. They booed lustily. Kiffin just grinned.

A few minutes later, the State-Auburn game began. Auburn took a 28-3 lead. But then State fired back with what really did look like the best offensive plan in America. Six Will Rogers touchdown passes later, Mississippi State had defeated Auburn 43-34. 

At least it looked like the best offense in America until that evening when Kiffin’s oh-so-balanced offense shredded Texas A&M’s proud defense for 504 yards in a 29-19 victory. The numbers were amazing: 257 yards running, 247 passing, 93 offensive plays in all.

The guess here is that Kiffin knows little about the long history of hatred and hostility in the Ole Miss-Mississippi State football history. He probably doesn’t know that coaches at the two schools have a long and sometimes sordid history of despising one another.

“Jackie Sherrill is a habitual liar,” the late Billy Brewer of Ole Miss once said of his Mississippi State counterpart.

“Billy doesn’t know the meaning of the word habitual,” Sherrill shot back.

Fans of both schools ate it up. (So did sports writers.)

Leach likely hasn’t read much of that history either and probably could care less. He probably doesn’t know that Mississippi State legend Dudy Noble coached at Ole Miss early in his career before returning to State. He probably doesn’t know that Noble once told a sports writer: “I know what hell is like; I spent two years at Ole Miss.”

Even the gentlemanly David Cutcliffe once got into the spirit of the Egg Bowl rivalry. Ole Miss and State coaches have always been on high alert during Egg Bowl week, always believing the hated rival would spy on their practices. One year, Cutcliffe planted a “spy” dressed in maroon peering over the top of the stadium at practice. He dispatched an assistant coach up the stadium steps to check him out. The assistant hollered down to the practice field: “He’s a State fan. What do you want me to do?”

“Throw him over the side,” Cutcliffe retorted.

And that’s what happened — only stunned Ole Miss players didn’t know the “spy” was actually a mannequin. Legend has it the Rebels’ practice intensity was raised a couple notches that day.

And then there was ex-State coach Dan Mullen, who before leaving for what he believed would be greener pastures at Florida, perfected the art of disdain for Ole Miss. He would not even call Ole Miss by name. “TSUN” became the acronym for The School Up North. Something worked. Mullen won five of nine Egg Bowls.

Leach, quite obviously, has not taken the same tact.

Asked this week about Kiffin’s Gameday comments, Leach responded, “He’s setting the stage for a really good Egg Bowl. I’d be lying if I told you he didn’t think he’s the best offensive coordinator. It was modest of him to say … We’ll just let the love keep coming both directions.”

But will we? 

You should know that Kiffin and Leach are not the first two coaches to try and change the culture of hatred between the two schools. Matt Luke and Joe Moorhead were intent on doing that. And we saw how long that lasted.

It surely seems Leach and Kiffin have more staying power, should they both decide to stay.

And they have probably realized what I have long contended. That is, it’s hard enough to coach one of the Mississippi teams in the SEC West without spending so much time and energy tearing down the other school. The jobs are difficult enough without all the back-biting.

The larger question perhaps is whether or not Kiffin and Leach can ever get their two fan bases to buy into their lovey-dovey back and forth.

The guess here: A century and 20 of constant vitriol seems a habit that will be hard to break.

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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 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.