By Angie Ledbetter
OXFORD – Head football Coach David Cutcliffe at the University of Mississippi was dismissed on Wednesday morning, Dec. 1, exactly one day shy of being at Ole Miss six years and leaves behind a lot of saddened and shocked students, fans and media.
Cutcliffe came to Ole Miss on Dec. 2, 1998 after Tommy Tuberville left the university and took a head coaching job at Auburn University in Alabama. That same year, Cutcliffe took the Ole Miss team to the Independence Bowl which they won.
Cutcliffe was 44-29 in his six seasons at Ole Miss, 25-23, in the Southeastern Conference, had a 10-3 season last year and finished tied for first in the SEC with Eli Manning at quarterback. He was the only coach in school history to win at least seven games in his first five years.
He was named SEC Coach of the year in 2003. This year was his only losing year. The team slipped to 4-7 and were 3-5 in the SEC and lost four games by only a total of 19 points.
Is that enough to fire a coach as Cutcliffe? Not exactly in many people’s eyes! Cutcliffe was in his 23rd year of coaching.
Many people questioned Cutcliffe’s upcoming status, but not after the Ole Miss team defeated the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the 2004 Egg Bowl last Saturday before an estimated crowd of 55, 000 in the rain.
That says there are still thousands of Ole Miss fans who believe in Cutcliffe as a coach. Cutcliffe still had three years left in his contract and his dollar buy out is over $2,000,000.
Many people wonder will that hurt the school and what will this do for the future of Ole Miss football?
In the press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Cutcliffe came in with his wife, Karen, who has been very supportive of him and the Ole Miss football team. When he and Karen entered the press room at the indoor practice facility, he got a standing ovation and several tears were shed.
He started the press conference by saying that the news of him being released was old news by then. He continued by thanking his wife and family for their support through all of this while choking up and tears flowing.
"We have had a wonderful experience and met so many wonderful people," said Cutcliffe.
Cutcliffe is a very devoted family man. He has three children and he is very active in their lives. His son is a senior in Oxford, one daughter is 15 and the other one is a toddler. Many times, Cutcliffe could be seen at his son’s football games cheering him on and supporting him from the stands as other fathers.
Other times, he could be seen cheering his daughter on at her cheerleader competitions or whatever she was involved in. Seeing him with his toddler, he was always smiling with her. He always put his family first, no matter what.
He thanked his staff and players for their loyalty and their efforts and their great attitude. He thanked Langston Rogers for taking in a rookie coach and helping him.
He also thanked the media that he had worked with on a regular basis.
"You have been more than good to me and this program," said Cutcliffe. "Not everywhere does that. You have always honored that with me and I do appreciate you guys and how you have handled things."
Cutcliffe thanked the fans also.
"I thank the fans for their roll in the football program," said Cutcliffe. "Season ticket records sales were 60, 000+ in the stadium each week. So many positive things occurred. That is the kind of support that a coach needs to be successful. Show up and be there on Saturday and be consistent. I want to thank the Ole Miss fans.
"I appreciate the opportunity that Dr. Khayat gave me six years ago," he continued. "I have a lot of great memories to relive through that time and I am very thankful to a lot of people. This has been a tough day. Tough times don’t last, but tough people do and we will continue to move forward."
Cutcliffe said that he told the players to bear down academically and as a team. "I told them what my expectations of them were. I told them that I would miss them and wished them the best. They have got to respond like winners."
Responding to being fired, Cutcliffe said, "They say that there are two types of coaches, those who have been fired and those who will be fired. This is my first. I fit in the first category suddenly today. It was not a total shock though.
"I don’t know what the future holds, but I am saying a lot of prayers about it. I can tell you that," said Cutcliffe. "I will just see what the future holds."
According to Cutcliffe, in the meeting with athletic director Pete Boone and Chancellor Robert Khayat, they did not argue on records or wins and losses.
"There were just a lot of issues that we couldn’t work through. We just couldn’t get on the same page in a variety of areas. That is just the way that it went. The meetings have been a little more intense than your standard discussions. I guess that occurs after bad years. I don’t have any bitterness about anybody or anything.
Cutcliffe was thought to be at odds with Boone over staffing and other issues during what Boone had referred to as a standard post season evaluation of the football program.
Khayat cut short an administrative retreat and flew back to campus to intervene on Tuesday. Boone and Khayat did not talk to the media on Tuesday evening following their meeting with Cutcliffe at his office. When asked if Cutcliffe would be retained as the coach, Boone said he was not ready to talk about that.
At the press conference, Khayat said times are tough right now.
"We are very grateful to David Cutcliffe for what he has brought to this program. David is a fine coach as you all know. He has had some wonderful years here. He has a wonderful family. The University of Mississippi is profoundly grateful to David for his leadership as our head coach.
"For all those reasons, we say thank you to him and we treat this as the kind of day that it is when something like this occurs and we are saddened that David isn’t going to be our coach anymore," Khayat continued. "The three of us have tried to reach an understanding about the future of football at Ole Miss. I believe that Ole Miss should be in the top of the SEC conference and I think that we ought to be in the championship every year. We had a different view on how to move the football program up than David. It’s not to say that we are right."
Boone said the Ole Miss football program was the one that gets the most nationwide attention with their run last year and with Eli Manning’s fame, people from all over the country knew about Ole Miss, and that was because of the football program.
Boone said, "David preferred a status quo, keeping things as they were, at a greater challenge to coaches and players and I felt like that approach wasn’t a long term solution that we needed to have. Coach made a comment saying that he needed to be true to his heart. He needed to make decisions on how he really felt and I respect that and that tells you about the man.
"I have got to make decisions based on my heart also," Boone continued. "Every decision I make for Ole Miss is to be better tomorrow than it was today. I feel like I have failed David and I told him that. I haven’t done a good enough job over the last three years of communicating with David to where we got to this point. So, I take on that responsibility. At the end of the day, he felt true to his heart and I felt true to mine. We shook hands and we parted."
Boone and company have begun the process of looking for a new coach for the University of Mississippi.
"We prefer to have someone with head coaching ability," said Boone. "We want a progressive defense, a creative offense and a disciplined team. We want an energetic person that is a proven recruiter, a coach’s coach, and a player’s coach and I don’t think that is asking too much. I do believe that they are out there and we are going to find them."
What more would an athletic director want in a coach, except for being perfect, according to Boone’s expectations.
Boone said he has four or five candidates in mind. He had made two telephone calls before the press conference, but refrained from revealing names.
Later it was revealed those names were Tommy West form the University of Memphis and Bobby Petrino from Louiville. When asked about a minority being on the list, Boone hesitated about answering.
"I am not going to get into that, but obviously it is important to recognize quality coaches, black or white, that can succeed here at Ole Miss," said Boone.
Boone did say he hopes to name someone to the position by the end of the week.