Editor's note: This is part of the Missourian's "SEC Road Trip" special section.
OXFORD, Miss. — The chubby-cheeked man steps onto the stage on North Lamar Boulevard. He turns to face the crowd that has filled the street and spilled over onto the sidewalks to hear the first-year Ole Miss head football coach speak.
“Well, you know we can’t start this afternoon off without this,” Hugh Freeze says.
Then he asks the question that starts the chant.
“ARE YOU READY?”
The crowd answers …
“HELL YEAH! DAMN RIGHT!”
Coach and crowd join together now …
“HOTTY TODDY GOSH ALMIGHTY WHO THE HELL ARE WE?”
“OLE MISS BY DAMN!”
And then everyone says …
This is the loudest the Double Decker Arts Festival gets. For most of the afternoon, the crowd had spread out as people made their way in and out of the tan and white tents set up in Oxford’s Courthouse Square. Locals and visitors mixed together like cocktail ingredients as they tried to eat (fried catfish and hush puppies) and shop (birdhouses with wild-colored paint jobs, homemade jewelry and handmade scarves that flutter in the wind) while staying out of the way of the festival’s namesake, the big red bus that crawls down the streets.
Mothers and daughters in their short sundresses, distracted fathers and sons in their collared shirts and loafers. A rough-looking singer performed “Back Door Man” and a little bare-bottomed boy, pants down around his ankles, sprinted away from his embarrassed mother.
The “Hotty Toddy” chant is louder than all of that. The Rebel fans clap when it ends. Then they quiet down quickly because Freeze is starting his address.
He doesn’t say “damn” or “hell” again. Instead he delivers a message about how “love” and “faith” will return greatness to program that finished last season 2-10.
Freeze gives IMPORTANT words more EMPHASIS, and even when his voice cracks, he never loses his delivery, a pattern of speech that sounds like …
“He’s preaching!” someone says.
“Here’s where our program is right now,” Freeze says. “We are in the wilderness. That’s where we are. That’s the facts. NOW we can either stay in the wilderness and talk about how scary it is because it’s DARK and there’s BIG BEARS there and MONSTERS there. OR we can unite in LOVE and FAITH with a great attitude and start chopping down some trees to work out of that wilderness. And that’s what our team and our staff is all about!”
Later in the evening, Thomas DeBray, a lawyer who graduated from Ole Miss before going to law school at Alabama, will wonder if this preacher-like coach is tough enough to match up against the other Southeastern Conference coaches, especially hard-as-nails Alabama coach Nick Saban.
“I’m a Christian,” DeBray says. “And I love Jesus. But I’ve got to know my coach can reach down and scare a 19-year-old kid.”
Concerns about Freeze’s grit were not voiced during the afternoon. Instead, signs of support were in the Square long before the coach appeared. Those who walked past Square Books — the mecca of Southern literature that has a whole section dedicated to Oxford’s most famous writer, William Faulkner — and stopped at the tent outside of Emileigh’s Bakery, saw a display from painter Thomas Grosskopf.
The 2012 Ole Miss graduate had named his most recent painting in honor of the coach. The piece showed Colonel Reb — the white-haired, plantation owner that was the Ole Miss mascot until 2003 — standing atop a pile of dead animals with a rifle in his hands. Two tigers, an elephant and a gator immediately caught the eye. Every other SEC mascot was also included somewhere in the bloody massacre.
Grosskopf named the painting “Freeze Warning” because he hopes his new coach will get Ole Miss to the top of the pile again. And the way Freeze is talking now, powerful words booming from his chest, it seems like the man is going to deliver or die trying.
He is making men nod their heads and say things like, “Yeah!”
He makes one woman shout, “I love you, Hugh!”
The coach hits his crescendo …
“The result of this journey is gonna be YOU and I and OUR PLAYERS leaving Vault-Hemingway stadium, Doc Hollingsworth Field absolutely giddy over what you just saw our football team do there,” Freeze says. “And we’re going to go to the Grove and have one heck of a party!”
• • •
Andrew Gordon isn’t partying. He’s sitting in the shaded Grove at a picnic table that has a heart carved in it.
“I love coming here,” he says of the 10-acre lawn that holds more than 50 oak, elm and magnolia trees.
It was 1995 when Gordon moved to Oxford from upstate New York to study piano. He stayed because the town is a good place for musicians. Between playing at churches and working on his own music, he remains so busy that a relaxing, quiet lunch in the Grove sounded better than the mayhem of Double Decker.
On Saturdays in the fall, this place becomes unrecognizable. Tents occupy every inch of every acre. High heels (people dress up here) and spilled booze kill most of the grass. Groundskeepers pull stripped chicken bones from the tufts that remain.
“It’s kind of like the Gold Rush,” Gordon says.
But today the Grove is calm. A soft wind rattles green leaves. The sunlight hits big, thick tree trunks with its golden beams.
It’s hard to accept the fact that such an ugly incident happened just a short walk away.
• • •
The Lyceum has been around as long as Ole Miss itself, one of the first few buildings constructed after the Mississippi State Legislature approved the plan to start a university in 1844. Four years later, 80 students entered Mississippi’s first public institution of higher learning. Today, the building is a welcoming place, the home to the chancellor and provost’s office. But a thin coat of paint on the columns out front hides the bullet holes from 50 years ago.
In 1962, Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett refused the federal government’s demands to allow an African-American student named James Meredith to enroll at Ole Miss. President John F. Kennedy, on television, told the nation that desegregation would occur by “whatever means necessary.”
Whatever means necessary meant 300 federal marshals were sent to Oxford to stop the rioting of thousands who had gathered outside the Lyceum to protest Meredith’s enrollment.
On the evening of Sept. 30, the mob turned chaotic.
Bricks flew through the air. Tear gas exploded. Guns fired.
Hundreds were arrested. Hundreds were wounded. Two men died.
The next day, Meredith, flanked by marshals, entered the Lyceum, enrolled and started school. He would graduate with a degree in political science.
Walking away from the Lyceum, down the straight path that points back toward the Square, it’s impossible to miss a second landmark. The stone tower that has been here since 1906 has a Confederate flag carved halfway up and a Confederate soldier at the top. The monument is in honor of the scores of Ole Miss students who lost their lives after withdrawing from their classes to fight at Gettysburg.
So goes the great balancing act of the South. How do you preserve history without making accommodations for race-based hate?
The university is still trying to figure it out.
In an ongoing attempt to distance itself from traditions that have direct ties to racial insensitivity, Ole Miss administration has made the school band stop playing “From Dixie With Love” at football games due the tradition of shouting “The South will rise again!” at the song’s end. The school has also banned the waving of Confederate flag, another game-day tradition of the past.
In 2003, Ole Miss unendorsed Colonel Reb as its official mascot. It ceased the printing of his image in 2010 and tried to introduce a new mascot, The Rebel Black Bear. The move has been largely unpopular in Oxford.
Many Ole Miss fans have refused to let Colonel Reb be washed away. He is still plastered across any type of memorabilia that has room for his head. Grosskopf places the old man in his artwork. Last year, his painting of Colonel Reb standing over a dead black bear summed up his and many others’ feelings about the mascot swap.
“Colonel Reb represents Ole Miss as people around it think it should,” Grosskopf says. “It’s not a race thing. It’s tradition.”
The concept is hard to grasp for an outsider. Understanding it in one day is as difficult, like trying to climb the tallest tree in the Grove.
• • •
Rowan Oak is so quiet you feel guilty walking on the gravel.
Faulkner, who moved to Oxford as a boy, purchased the Greek revival home in 1930 and lived here with his wife and children until he died in 1962.
Now operated by Ole Miss, the white, two-story house with symmetrical windows and green shutters seems frozen in time.
A typewriter sits on a shaky desk in his writing room. One can imagine the mustachioed man who won the 1947 Nobel Prize for literature sitting there, clicking away on the keys as he, with the help of the whiskey that he loved, turned experiences he had in Oxford into fictional accounts based in his often-used setting, Yoknapatawpha County.
“Beginning with ‘Satoris’ I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it …” reads a Faulkner quote framed on the wall.
Living in Oxford helped Faulkner craft his words.
It’s worked for countless others since.
“The way it manifests itself isn’t a tourist thing,” ESPN senior writer and Oxford resident Wright Thompson says. “It isn’t a following-in-the-footsteps thing. But there is a line you can draw.”
Willie Morris, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Tom Franklin and many more have found success writing from or living in Oxford.
As the waves of writers have come in, the town Faulkner knew has changed.
Writers now find a university town that offers a strong sense of place with few distractions. They find a place where the dialogue is sharper, the food tastes better and the music speaks in ways it hasn’t before.
Thompson was born and raised in Clarksdale, Miss. After graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism in 2001, he knew where he would end up making his permanent home.
“There are all sorts of places in Missouri where, if you were creative, you could come settle,” Thompson says. “If you’re from Mississippi, and you want to return to Mississippi, or if you’re of a certain mindset and want a certain group of friends, this is it.”
• • •
The Square is different come dark. Streets empty. Bars fill.
The white and tan tents have been loaded into vans and box trucks. Children who ran free early in the day now must hold their parents’ hands. Two cops ride horses. Another, standing near the entrance to Rooster’s Blues House, opens a can of Red Bull.
It’s not long before a young man with eyes as glossy as a magnolia leaf stumbles in the Square. His cell phone falls from his hand and skips along the ground like a rock. He struggles to bend down and pick it before disappearing into another bar for another drink.
He has company.
At City Grocery, men and women sip whiskey beneath hanging ferns.
At The Library, Ole Miss students pay $20 to watch sports highlights on TV instead of seeing the free band just a block away. A bouncer wears a shirt that says “Ole Miss — The best five or six years of your life.”
At Frank & Marlee’s, a piano plays in the basement and pool tables are racked and re-racked upstairs. On a patio attached to the back, a lawyer who met his wife in an Ole Miss art appreciation class talks to a stranger about Hugh Freeze.
The Mississippi night wears on and the inebriated collegians start their late-night pilgrimage to the nearby Chevron gas station. The small store under the blue and red awning sells Natural Light 30 packs for $16.99.
But it’s too late to buy beer.
Instead they line up in front of a glass case and order Chicken-on-a-Stick. The skewers of golden fried goodness are placed in white paper sacks and handed over at the register. Grease soaks through the bags as the Rebels walk the University Avenue sidewalk toward a Sunday morning that seems to come earlier than it should.