April 26, 2012 12:53:39 PM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
WEST POINT -- Pat and Judy Clark, of Columbus, have been attending football games at the University of Mississippi almost all of their lives.
Season ticket holders for the past 30 years, the couple couldn't imagine spending Saturdays in the fall anywhere other than Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and the adjacent tailgating area in the Grove.
So it wasn't surprising the Clarks were in attendance Wednesday at Old Waverly Golf Club for the Rebel Road Trip's only stop this year in the Golden Triangle area.
"Coach (Hugh) Freeze asked us to be all in and we are definitely that," Judy Clark said. "Through thick and thin, we will be there to support our Rebels. Every year we are excited about the season. We look forward to going to the games and catching up with old friends. I could never imagine not going."
Freeze will make his coaching debut this fall in Oxford. After a two-year stint as a coach at Arkansas State University, Freeze has been charged with rebuilding a program that is 6-18 and has won only one Southeastern Conference game in the past two years. Those numbers led to the end of Houston Nutt's time as coach after four seasons.
"If we are going to row the boat, everyone will have to paddle in the same direction," Freeze said. "When you have everybody steering the boat, there is not enough leftover time to be rocking it. Not every fan is going to agree with every decision I make. However, we have to have them on board and we have to have them all in."
Prior to Nutt's arrival, Ole Miss won 10 games in Ed Orgeron's three seasons, including only three conference games. Declining attendance was a primary reason why Orgeron didn't get a fourth season. Despite the recent struggles, attendance figures remained strong under Nutt, who won nine games in each of his first two seasons and led the team to wins against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.
Freeze hopes the support remains through a rebuilding effort he has termed "a long process." Freeze reminded the 200 or so in attendance Wednesday that success will be a "work in progress" and "not come overnight."
"Ole Miss is my alma mater. I would never think of pulling for another team," West Point's Michael Chandler said. "With Coach Freeze, we have brought in a man of integrity and a man of character. We know he is going to do things the right way. I have supported him from day one. There is a tremendous amount of pressure and tremendous amount of expectations.
"As fans, we realize we play in the toughest conference in the nation. However, there are several teams in the conference who have similar economic situations as ours. We should be able to compete with those teams year in and year out."
Meredith Little was in attendance Wednesday. She was disappointed she didn't get more details about the 2012 football team, which completed spring drills Saturday in Oxford. However, she quickly added she is a big fan of Freeze. The thing that made the biggest impression on her Wednesday morning was something she heard from new athletics director Ross Bjork.
"We have a bright, energetic AD," Little said. "I think it is safe to say the days of doing things the old way are gone. I have heard Bjork has been all over campus meeting athletes, teachers, and students. You can tell he is energetic and quick on his feet.
"With so many things that need to be addressed in the athletic department, I am really happy to see we have a man in place who finally gets it. I don't think we will be last in the league any more in any areas."
Freeze, Bjork, and Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones each had a similar message for the capacity crowd in the dining area at Old Waverly. Each asked for patience, attendance as often as possible, and continued financial support to help bolster one of the SEC's smallest athletic budgets.
"Going to school there opened the door to so many opportunities in life," Pat Clark said. "I have so many lifelong friends I met while attending school there. I support the school every way I can, both academically and athletically. My wife attended Ole Miss. My children attended Ole Miss. In fact, both of my children met their spouses at Ole Miss.
"The university has been such an integral part of my life. The Rebels will get my love and support until the day I die."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter