Robert Hitt Neill Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Robert Hitt Neill

Rebels are No. 1 again

This is being written the day after the National Championship Game between Florida and Oklahoma.  Florida won, rather handily, I thought. The “Heisman Curse” caught up with the Sooners, and the Gators had their way, though not as convincingly as two years ago when they whipped Ohio State. So, the University of Florida came away with the National Championship trophy.

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And who was the one team to beat Florida this season? The Ole Miss Rebels, 31 to 30, on a blocked extra point at the end of the game. Stands to reason that if Florida won the National Championship Game, and Ole Miss beat Florida, then the Rebels are once again atop the college football world.

It’s been a long time between championships. I played for the Rebels during the years when we were Number One in the country, and I’m getting pretty long in the tooth myownself.

I wasn’t very good, was a little too small even back then to keep from getting injured regularly – broken thumb, wrist and rib; ruptured artery in an elbow; separated shoulder; knee; then finally got clipped going down on a punt and ruptured the left hip joint, which never got fixed and wouldn’t rehab. 

But I was there on the field with the All-Americans: Jake, Squirrel, Possum, Billy Ray, Snake, Catfish, Big Jim, Stan the Man, Johnny, Whaley, Kenny, and all the rest. 

Many of the most memorable Rebels weren’t All-Americans, or didn’t even start, but I’ll never forget Frankie Halbert, Reggie Robertson, Robert Bourne, Semmes Ross, Jim Farmer, Flash Gordon or Pre-med Fred.  Or the Coaches: Wobble, Doc, Junie, Bruiser, Buster, Ray, Hurry Cain and of course, Coach Johnny Vaught.

Just a note here, without it being a criticism: if a player had felt led to dive across the goal line, or to do a chest-thumping demo after making a good open-field tackle, or to do a little dance in the end zone after a touchdown, he would have been “running the stadium” for the next week late into the evenings after the rest of us had secured from practice. Times were different then, and anything that smacked of self-glorification over team was severely frowned upon.

But it’s sure been fun to watch the last week’s worth of Bowl games: Ole Miss beating Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl, the Longhorns taking the Buckeyes in the last 16 seconds of the Fiesta Bowl, then Thursday night’s aforementioned Florida victory over Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game.

Of course, there will be others to claim the Throne: Southern California and Utah had already staked their claims after bowl victories, and Texas will probably want to chime in. Yet Ole Miss beat Florida, so we Rebels have the only legitimate claim to the crown, and we will wear it proudly, while the whiners whine and posture.

It’s also interesting to note that they announced during the game last night that, although the last two Heisman Trophy winners (the award given usually to the top quarterback in the college ranks) were playing against each other in the National Championship Game, the record-setting Texas Tech quarterback had been picked for an award as the nation’s best offensive player, or some recognition to that effect.

Yet that player was bested by the Ole Miss quarterback when the Rebels whipped the Red Raiders in the Cotton Bowl last week. So, Ole Miss can also boast of the top quarterback as well, looks like to me. 

My specialty was defense when I played, and there ain’t no doubt that the best defense in those three Bowl games was the Rebels! Although Florida’s two goal-line stands were magnificent, I have to admit.  And it was nice to see the Bowl organizers awarding a “Best Defensive Player” trophy. 

One thing that hasn’t changed in a generation: the glory-hog backs (as we used to kid them) still get most of the hype. As Jim Pat used to complain: “everybody picks on the linemen.”

Yet what was best was Florida’s quarterback on national TV declaring, “I give all the glory to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!” He’s the Real Number One.