Commentary

MLB Tony Fein

Football Signing Day, a huge win over Alabama in men's hoops to put the Rebs atop the SEC West and baseball season is finally here. It was a wild week that buoyed hope and higher expectations for the future.

On an annual basis, not many weeks pack as much into a seven-day period as does the week of football signing day.

The excitement of who will choose the Rebels to play for on the gridiron gives way quickly to the remaining few weeks of basketball season and the start of the spring sports, most notably baseball and the nationally-ranked men's tennis team.

For a Rebel sports fan, it's like having Christmas, your birthday and anniversary all in the span of a week.

So, let's reflect on the week, starting with Signing Day last Wednesday.

After a year of turning over every prospect rock and looking under every bush where a football player may be hiding, the Rebel coaches inked 24 student-athletes who should make a positive impact on the program, both immediately and in the long haul.

Their efforts were not rewarded as much as even they - the coaches - thought they would be due to an ending that shocked even them, and they are in the unpredictable recruiting business, but signing day was still an overall good occasion.

There were two late defections of commitments and the usual uproar by fans that follows players going from committed to decommitted.

Okolona RB Robert Elliott and Bastrup DT Lamarcus Williams opted for the Siberia of SEC football, Mississippi State.

Upon reflection, the Williams deal is not that unusual. Although the Rebs did get a commitment from him, it was late, the kid had committed to Alabama previously and Ole Miss had not really built a year-long relationship with him. I'm not trying to minimize or justify or make excuses, but I have seen that scenario play out before.

What I don't recall happening too often - Miami RB Frank Gore's late defection comes closest and he was an out-of-stater and hadn't been committed for a full year - was for an in-state player, Elliott, who was committed for over a year, changing his mind three days before signing day and then disappearing into thin air.

A lot of people want that pot stirred, but the only thing I have real proof of was what the kid said to me just 10 days before he inked with MSU as he was coming off his official visit there. I had never, in 25 years of covering recruiting extensively, heard a more powerful and resolute "testimonial" and affirmation of a commitment than the one Robert gave me.

I had no reason not to believe his story, despite different, and contrary, quotes being attributed to him by different media sources. It is my philosophy when dealing with young men who are trying to make a difficult choice to trust what they say until they are proven untrustworthy.

I will admit, I was sucker punched by Elliott. I'll get over it. I hope he learns a lesson in life that the truth will do.

Moving on, because crying over spilled milk is child's play, the Rebs got oh-so-close on several others, including New Orleans RB Joe McKnight, and all of them seemingly went to the wire, or so we were led to believe, and do believe.

Late recruiting losses historically hurt the psyche worst, but that hurt is compounded when it happens with virtually every one of the recruits we were down to the last minute with.

It seemed as if signing day was one piece of bad news after another until Memphis WR Rod Davis inked with Ole Miss early that morning.

After the initial reaction of gloom, I was privy to go to Coach Ed Orgeron's signing day press conference.

Frankly, I halfway expected him to be a bit down and to bemoan - a little - the ones who got away. Instead, he took a more mature approach - celebrating the ones who did choose Ole Miss, commending his staff's efforts in the ones who got away and showing us that while the class was not what it could have been and almost was, it had its special qualities as well.

He rattled off names like Jevan Snead, Chris Strong, Tony Fein, Davis, Atterberry, Rishaw Johnson, Palmer, Laurent, Breaux and Rue, to name a few. Salve on the day's wounds.

Coach O was genuinely pleased with his class and trust me when I say this - Ed Orgeron is not someone who masks disappointment well. You know it when he is not pleased. There's no faking with him. Putting on a happy face ain't his MO.

I'm not foolish enough to believe he wasn't stung by the late decisions of McKnight, Bryant, Franklin, Mason, Harris, Frink, Elliott and Williams - who wouldn't be? - but, as he said, he wants players who want to be at Ole Miss and, in the long run, it's a blessing when the ones whose hearts are not in it go elsewhere. I beleive with all my heart he believes that with all of his.

With signing day in the books, it was time to look to the surging hoops team and the start of a promising baseball season.

I really don't know how to heap enough praise on Basketball Coach Andy Kennedy, his staff and his players.

In less than one season, the mentality of the team has changed drastically for the good, AK and company have won back an apathetic fan base that was in a show-me-and-then-I-will-come-back mode, and put his team in position for way more than anyone dreamed when the season began.

With six conference games to go, the Rebels are tied for first in the SEC West and sport an overall 16-8 record. Sure, the conference mark is only .500 at 5-5, but think about that standing for a second. Would you have predicted it? I certainly wouldn't have and didn't. A Tad Smith Coliseum record crowd against Bama of nearly 9,500 fans? You have to be joking.

As far as I am concerned, you can declare the winner of SEC Coach of the Year right now and I'd just about say that if they didn't win another game. What Kennedy and all involved have done thus far is nothing short of remarkable based on the standards that were set the past three or four years in the program.

In my mind, I doubted them a lot this year, I painfully have to admit. I doubt no longer.

No, we're not talking about a Top 10 team or a threat to win the national title, but we are talking about a pleasant turnaround from a where-we-were-to-where-we-are-now perspective.

And, maybe just as importantly, is that you can now see a gleam in the eyes of fans, the same ones who either quit coming to the games the last three years or showed up with a hollow look. The excitement is back in Rebel hoops and it's fun again.

As this is being written, I have seen all of two baseball games, but those were enough to show me the potential to be special that has been talked about for months is real.

The Rebels have mound strength, hitting, more outfield speed, lots of quality depth throughout, are strong up the middle, a good mix of veterans and newcomers, explosivness in their bats up and down the lineup, and a fan base that is aching to see them take the march to Omaha after coming within a couple of hits or strikeouts the past two seasons.

Mike Bianco and his staff have developed something special here and there will be a lot of people who are going to enjoy this spring ride.

Spring football is coming up, the tennis team has already shown they are a contender for a national title and the Lady Rebels are in a position for postseason play.

The next three to four months should be a high time for Rebel fans.

The last week was rewarding. The ones coming up promise to be more rewarding.

Enjoy.

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