Football is a civil religion in Mississippi. Evidence of the Magnolia State’s fascination with the sport is abundant, from the popularity of Friday night high school games through the number of professional players born and reared in Mississippi. Jackson Clarion-Ledger columnist Rick Cleveland argues that “Mississippi’s signature sports event is small-town high school football” because “nothing, nowhere, matches it for passion and competition.” Indeed, the high school accomplishments of Philadelphia native Marcus Dupree, for one, made him a statewide celebrity before he attended his senior prom. Mississippi high schools have also produced numerous players who achieved fame in the professional ranks, including Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Archie Manning, Brett Favre, Lance Alworth, Deuce McAllister, Steve McNair, Jake Gibbs, Eric Moulds, and Charlie Conerly. A 1986 study published in American Demographics concluded that Mississippi produced more professional football players per capita than any other state in the nation despite the fact that the state possesses few urban areas and has no professional teams to enhance the sport’s popularity. Not surprisingly, a June 2004 Sports Illustrated poll revealed that eight of Mississippi’s ten greatest sports figures played high school football in their home state. Although the high school game unites communities and produces heroes, it pales in comparison to the devotion and fanatical followings that Mississippi colleges claim.
The college game is the largest denomination in Mississippi’s secular gridiron worship. The two largest schools in the state, Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi, possess one of the most intense rivalries in college sports. The contempt of the institutions’ fans for each other peaks during the Egg Bowl, the annual football contest between the teams. The victor receives yearlong possession of the Golden Egg trophy as a symbol of victory over its most hated foe. In 1926 a brawl broke out between the players and fans of each school after the University of Mississippi won a 7–6 contest that ended a string of thirteen straight losses to their adversaries. The next year, in hopes of deterring violence, student representatives from the two schools agreed to award the Golden Egg, a gold-plated football mounted on a wooden base, to the winner in a dignified postgame presentation. Ironically, however, the physical evidence of superiority over their archrivals only increased the yearly clash’s importance to players, students, and supporters of both colleges.
The intensity of the rivalry has its origins in class differences. Mississippi State, previously known as Mississippi A&M, “the people’s college,” was established as an agricultural school in 1878. The college is located in Starkville, in the middle of Mississippi’s eastern hill country, and initially attracted primarily economically and politically powerless citizens from throughout the state. In contrast, the University of Mississippi fashioned itself the school of the aristocrats and political leaders. Its curriculum centered on the liberal arts and teaching professional trades to its elite student body. The class-based antagonism students developed for each other carried over into and found a natural outlet in the violent game of football. The two schools played their first contest in the sport in 1901, making it the second-longest rivalry in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). After the 2015 season, the University of Mississippi held a commanding 63–43–6 edge.
Although the Egg Bowl is the Magnolia State’s most intense contest, other aspects of college football make its prominent role in Mississippi culture undisputable. The state’s historically black colleges also possess a proud pigskin heritage. Columbia native Walter Payton played at Jackson State from 1971 to 1974, was named to two all-American teams, and set a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) scoring record with 464 points before going on to play thirteen seasons with the Chicago Bears of the National Football League (NFL), retiring as the league’s all-time leading rusher. Crawford wide receiver Jerry Rice set eighteen NCAA Division I receiving records while attending Mississippi Valley State University from 1981 to 1984 and holds nearly every major NFL receiving record. Mount Olive native Steve McNair, who played quarterback at Alcorn State University from 1990 to 1994, became the only player in college football history to record 16,000 yards of total offense. Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State possess a heated rivalry of their own. On 4 November 1984 63,808 fans—the largest crowd to attend a game in the state at the time—watched the two undefeated teams face off in Jackson. Even Division III schools with ties to religious groups are not immune to the state’s obsession. Student violence at a 1960 basketball game led to the termination of football contests between Baptist-supported Mississippi College and Methodist-affiliated Millsaps College for forty years. The football rivalry meant so much to players and fans at each school that they referred to it as the “Holy War.”
Gridiron success has only fueled the state’s passion for college football. The University of Mississippi has won six SEC championships and three national championships and was named the Team of the 1960s by several sports publications. The University of Southern Mississippi owns eight conference titles and claims two national championships. Jackson State (fourteen conference titles) and Alcorn State (nine) have dominated the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Mississippi Valley State University made headlines in the 1980s with Coach Archie Colley, quarterback Reggie Totten, and receiver Jerry Rice. Southern Miss alum Brett Favre had a long and impressive career as an NFL quarterback. Cleveland’s Delta State University won a Division II national championship in 2000, and Mississippi College won national titles at the same level in 1989 and 1990. Although Mississippi State has not won an SEC championship since its lone 1941 title, the program made news in 2004 by hiring the conference’s first black head football coach, Sylvester Croom.
The variety of levels, intensity of intrastate contests, number of stars who represent the state professionally, and support that state football squads receive make the sport an indispensable part of Mississippi’s culture.
- William G. Barner, The Egg Bowl (2007)
- William G. Barner, Mississippi Mayhem (1982); Mike Butler, Journal of Mississippi History (Summer 1997)
- John W. Cox and Gregg Bennett, Rock Solid: Southern Miss Football (2004)
- Jim Fraiser, For Love of the Game: The Holy Wars of Millsaps College and Mississippi College Football (2000)