Cutcliffe tour stops in Natchez

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 23, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Ole Miss head football coach David Cutcliffe sees this town as sort of a gas station.

Any time he has needed to fill up on high-octane Rebel spirit, Natchez has provided a tank.

Whether it was on his first trip after he became the program’s 34th head coach back in 1998 to recruit then-Cathedral standout Von Hutchins or as the keynote speaker at the 1999 Miss-Lou chapter of the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Banquet just days after being discharged from the hospital with a bout of pancreatitis, the Natchez community has always refueled Cutcliffe, he said.

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&uot;I had lost 35 pounds on a diet nobody wants to go on,&uot; said Cutcliffe, who is Ole Miss’ only coach to take a team to three bowl games in his first four years. &uot;I remember the plane ride and being real weak, but once I got down here I was able to draw energy from the enthusiasm and excitement of the crowd.&uot;

Cutcliffe along with Ole Miss business school dean Mike Harvey and alumni association

president Briggs Hopson entertained a crowd of more than 75 Rebel Alumni and Friends at District 10’s annual banquet at the Natchez Community Center Tuesday.

Harvey, a Southern Methodist University graduate who transformed its business school before leaving Dallas and serving at the University of Oklahoma until he took the job in Oxford, said he was proud to be at a school whose athletic program put such a strong emphasis on graduating its student athletes.

&uot;These young men are motivated academically. motivated socially and motivated athletically,&uot; said Cutcliffe, who met with 35 players for post-spring practice Tuesday in Oxford before coming down to the Miss-Lou. &uot;I had one fourth-year junior who told me, ‘Coach I know I’m a better person for being with the program.’&uot;

The Rebels finished the 2002-03 season with a 7-6 record with big victories over then-No. 6 Florida and Nebraska in the MainStay Independence Bowl.

Fifty-one lettermen return to the 2003 fall rendition and it’s that experience, not Red Owens’ tasty barbecue, that had Cutcliffe popping buttons off his plaid oxford about the season’s opening kickoff at Vanderbilt Aug. 30.

&uot;These guys care about each other, and I think that’s very obvious,&uot; Cutcliffe said. &uot;Every team has a personality &045; and who knows what theirs will be &045;

but I really like this team and the way they treat each other.&uot;

Ole Miss was 5-1 halfway through the season last year before a five-game losing streak culminated in Baton Rouge with a 14-13 loss to LSU.

Through it all Cutcliffe maintains his team never got discouraged and always stepped onto the field feeling assured they were to be the victors.

&uot;I don’t want any dirt kickers or head hangers in this program,&uot; said Cutcliffe, who has won at least seven games in each of his four seasons. &uot;I want people who are proud to be Ole Miss Rebels. And I feel strong that these young men that we have now invest a lot in Ole Miss, each other, us coaches and what we’re trying to do for them.&uot;

Out of the successful programs in the Southeastern Conference Western Division, Ole Miss remains the only one in the past six seasons to have a winning record year-to-year.

However, the flip side of that is the Rebels continue to be the lone team to have not represented the West against the East in the SEC Championship game since the conference began one back in 1992.

&uot;We’re etching out the start of a tradition right now,&uot; Cutcliffe said. &uot;We’ve scratched and knocked on the door, but now it’s time to open it. We’re tired of being just close. Let’s find a championship by any means necessary.

&uot;It takes consistency, though, and doing the little things right to eek out a victory. Those are all things we as a coaching staff are challenging them as players to do.&uot;