That three-week stretch of June 2020 — when Mississippi lawmakers worked to change the 127-year-old state flag, the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem — was insane. There’s really no other way to put it.
For those of us who got to watch those historic days unfold up close, perhaps the most memorable moment was when dozens of coaches from Mississippi’s eight public universities gathered at the Capitol for a joint press conference to drive a final nail in the old flag’s coffin.
Longtime sports writer and Mississippi Today columnist Rick Cleveland wrote it this way at the time:
All my professional life I have wondered what it would take for all the universities in Mississippi to agree on any matter under the sun. Just once.
And now I know: It’s the state flag of Mississippi — specifically, the need to get rid of the current flag.Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today
There was so much that we knew and heard at the time that we couldn’t report. We had to make several judgment calls a day about what information was most newsworthy at the moment.
One story that we had to lose in the fray: The first meeting of Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin and Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach in their new jobs came at the state Capitol, where they would serve as lobbyists together.
As you might expect, things got weird.
Mississippi schools typically don’t get to hire big national names as their head football coaches. Ole Miss and Mississippi State both did it after the 2019 season.
Fans across the state eagerly awaited what Kiffin and Leach would bring to their respective schools — both possessed offensive masterminds, both had a knack for stealing national headlines with their witty banter off the field.
Most figured the first time they’d meet as Mississippi coaches was Thanksgiving 2020 on the field in Oxford for the annual, bitter rivalry. Not so.
The fact that lawmakers were on the verge of changing the state flag in June 2020 was nothing short of miraculous. As protests over racial inequality raged across the state and nation following the murder of George Floyd, Mississippi lawmakers had earnestly worked for a couple weeks in early June to whip the votes to change the flag.
For decades, earnest efforts at the Capitol to change the flag — led by Black lawmakers — had been ignored by powerful white lawmakers, who enjoyed large majorities in both the House and Senate. There was virtually no broad political will among most white lawmakers, even in the summer of 2020, to change the flag.
Further complicating things in June 2020: Leaders needed to secure more votes than normal because deadlines to pass general bills had long passed.
Starting on June 8, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers — including Republican Speaker of the House Philip Gunn — had been unsuccessfully trying to whip enough votes to change the flag. Outside the building, pressure from Black organizers and activists, major corporations and other prominent groups like the Southeastern Conference and Mississippi Baptist Convention had reached its peak.
The clock was ticking as leaders had just a few days before the scheduled end of the legislative session.
Gunn, knowing the window of opportunity was closing, called University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney Bennett on June 23. All eight public universities had long stopped flying the state flag for moral reasons — a point of tension among some Republicans in the House and Senate in recent years.
“I knew those presidents could get to members (in the Legislature) better than anyone,” Gunn told Mississippi Today earlier this year. “If anyone could do it, it was them.”
So Bennett, at Gunn’s request, got all eight presidents to a meeting in the speaker’s office the very next morning on June 24 — an incredible feat considering it can be difficult to get all eight presidents in the same room even for their scheduled monthly college board meetings.
As the presidents sat in Gunn’s office that day, an idea was floated.
“Sports had already played a pretty big role in moving some lawmakers (to change the flag),” Gunn said. “It’s Mississippi. You know how sports are here. What more powerful way to convince people about this than sports?”
The presidents all agreed.
“From a press standpoint, the best thing we could come up with was to get the coaches involved,” said Rep. Trey Lamar, one of the speaker’s top lieutenants who was in the meeting with the university presidents. “So we told (the presidents) that and they all agreed, and they left that meeting with the understanding that we are leaving here, and we are calling our coaches and we are going to put it together. Within hours, you know, word had gotten back to us what was going to happen the next day. They were all coming back.”
The next day, on June 25, dozens of coaches from the state’s eight public universities would come to the Capitol to publicly lobby to change the flag.
Kiffin, the new Ole Miss coach, was in California on June 24 when he got a call from his boss Keith Carter, the university’s athletics director. They were sending a plane, and he’d need to be on it that night.
The new Ole Miss coach, who hadn’t spent much time in Mississippi since COVID-19 cancelled spring practice in 2020, landed in Jackson on June 25 around 3 a.m. and checked into a hotel near the Jackson-Evers International Airport.
A pretty robust morning of lobbying was planned for June 25. Dozens of coaches from the public universities would do two main things: Meet individually with lawmakers who were still privately saying they would not vote to change the flag, and collectively hold a press conference that would be broadcast across the state and nation to lobby to change the flag.
The thinking was that any legislative holdouts would cave to the pressure of sports figures who were privately and publicly asking them to make the change.
But early that morning, there was a problem. The Ole Miss athletics department group flying down that morning from Oxford was delayed, and Kiffin, who had gotten about three hours of sleep after arriving to town, had nothing to wear except the hoodie, T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops he arrived in.
That attire doesn’t quite meet the Capitol dress code, particularly when Kiffin would draw perhaps the most camera time of any coach there.
So Sidney Allen Jr., a Butler Snow lobbyist and Ole Miss alumnus, scrambled to solve Kiffin’s clothing dilemma. Allen called his friend Luke Abney, who owns The Rogue, a fine men’s clothing store in Jackson’s Highland Village. Abney told Allen he would open the store early on June 25 to get a suit quickly tailored as best they could.
Abney’s staff opened his store early, and Kiffin got there around 8:30 a.m. and stripped down to be fitted for a suit.
That light blue suit and tan shoes Kiffin wore in front of all those cameras? He bought them minutes before getting to the Capitol that day.
“After we got him all dressed up, he left his other clothes here — the T-shirt, shorts, hoodie, visor, everything,” Abney said. “He told us he’d be back to pick it all up. He came back after he did his thing at the Capitol, he took pictures with everybody here, talked with us for about 30 minutes. He couldn’t have been nicer. It was fun as an Ole Miss guy to get to meet him, but it was really cool that he was in town to be a leader in changing the flag. It was a proud moment.”
Inside the Capitol on June 25, the coaches were not only doing the press conference, which the world saw; they were meeting with lawmakers behind closed doors.
Staffers for Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann ordered a nice breakfast spread for their expected visitors. The coaches in Hosemann’s office that morning would be treated with a true Southern delicacy: chicken biscuits from Chick-Fil-A.
Mike Leach, the Mississippi State coach, is apparently a fan.
When Leach, who flew to Jackson for the day from his home in Florida, made his way into Hosemann’s office, he didn’t immediately shake hands or greet anyone. Instead, he walked around to everyone who had a biscuit, grabbed them off their plates and stuffed them into his pockets.
Everyone in the office looked at each other in amazement, and Leach greeted Hosemann after a few seconds and began telling the staff some funny stories.
The coaches’ day at the Capitol was an incredible success.
Ole Miss men’s basketball coach Kermit Davis, Jr,, and Mississippi State women’s basketball coach Nikki McCray-Penson delivered eloquent speeches in the Capitol rotunda that centered on one single message: “Change the Mississippi flag. Now. Let’s move ahead.”
Just behind the podium stood Kiffin, in his brand new suit, and Leach, with pockets filled with biscuit crumbs. Jackson television station WAPT captured the hilarious moment when Leach, seeing Kiffin for the first time, pulled Kiffin’s mask off his face and popped it.
That mask that Kiffin wore? It was a Mississippi National Guard Association mask. Allen, the lobbyist, had to go get it from Senate Pro Tem Dean Kirby’s office because — you guessed it — Kiffin didn’t have one when he landed from California.
The suit, the biscuits and the mask fun aside, Kiffin and Leach scrambling to get to Jackson that day proved to be a critical moment in Mississippi history.
Two non-native Mississippi head coaches, men who would recruit and compete against each other, who are expected to hate each other, came together to make a difference for the state.
“This is very important to (the student-athletes),” Kiffin said at the Capitol that day. “Anything we can do to help support them, and I think it has a lot to do with the future of the state programs. You’re going to deal with kids leaving the state or not wanting to come because of this… It’s important for the rivalry for people to see us (Kiffin and Leach) coming together for one united cause. That’s very important.”
“The purpose of a state flag is to unify the state. Right now, this flag doesn’t do that,” Leach said that day. “To me, it’s really quite simple. Why do you have a state flag? To unify all the people in the state. If your flag doesn’t do that, change it. Does your flag bring business to the state or keep business out? If it doesn’t bring it in, change it. Does it draw athletes and people to the state, or not? If it doesn’t, change it. It’s as simple as that. On that very practical level, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened a long time ago.”
Three days later, lawmakers cast the final vote to change the state flag. Many people deserve credit for that final outcome, but the coaches coming to the Capitol that day certainly moved the needle with several lawmakers who had previously resisted making that vote.
Kiffin and Leach, two Mississippi outsiders, played an unexpectedly large role in that.
If only Jackson State had hired Deion Sanders just a couple months earlier so he could’ve gotten in on the fun.