From Memphis, Tenn., the Mississippi state border is just a 10-minute drive south on I-55. But to Carlos Thomas, a University of Vanderbilt football player from Memphis, that short drive takes you to another world.A world, according to Thomas, that is insensitive to race relations.
Thomas, an all-state running back as a high school player in Memphis, was recruited by Ole Miss two years ago. His mother, he said, would hang up the phone as soon as she discovered the call was from a Mississippi coach.
Thomas, who is black, takes exception to the Confederate flags that wave at Ole Miss games and to the team's "Colonel Rebel" mascot. Ole Miss travels to Nashville this weekend for Vanderbilt's homecoming game.
"I hate Ole Miss. I hate them," Thomas told a reporter from the Nashville Tennessean on Tuesday. "You go down there and see 10,000 rebel flags flying. I know the connotations of those flags.
"Nobody has ever done anything to me personally. Everybody I have ever met from Ole Miss has been nice. I just don't like the state of Mississippi. It's like the movie Mississippi Burning. I've always had that stigma about the state."
Mississippi coach Billy Brewer downplayed the situation during a conference call with the Southeastern Conference media Wednesday.
Later in the day, Brewer expressed regret that Thomas would make such sweeping remarks about the university. The coach said Ole Miss has enjoyed excellent race relations in recent years and has worked hard to dispel its negative image from the 1960s.
The University of Mississippi in Oxford was the site of one of the landmark civil rights episodes in the 1960s. While attempting to become the first black to attend the university, James Meredith was denied admission four times in 1962. When Meredith finally was permitted to attend classes, he needed protection from U.S. marshals. Two marshals were wounded by gunfire.
Meredith was wounded by a sniper in Mississippi four years later during a civil rights rally.
Seven is enough: Although nothing is official, the talk in the SEC is that football teams will be required to play eight conference games instead of seven when Arkansas and South Carolina join and the league is split into two divisions.
LSU coach Mike Archer said that was the impression he got from athletic director Joe Dean.
Coaches say an eight-game conference schedule might be too difficult. Auburn coach Pat Dye said it would be a particular hardship for Florida to play eight SEC games along with playing Florida State and Miami.
"I personally would like to see us go with seven," said UF athletic director Bill Arnsparger. "The problem with that is some people would lose traditional rivals if they have to play the new teams in their division and only have the seven games."
The athletic directors will continue to discuss possible scenarios during the next two to three weeks.
Strong as ever: The Southeastern Conference was looking shaky in the first two weeks of the season with member schools losing to the likes of Southern Methodist, Central Michigan and Southern Mississippi.
At the time, SEC coaches said it wasn't fair to judge the conference's strength on the basis of a handful of games. They were right.
A little more than halfway through the season, the SEC has a 21-7-1 (.741) record against outside competition. To prove the record was not fattened up too much against inferior teams, the conference has nearly the same winning percentage (3-1-1, .700) in games against top 20 opponents. Five SEC teams have been ranked in the top 20 at some point this season.
Notes and quotes: Coming off a two-game losing streak, Georgia used its youngest lineup in 27 years in its 39-28 win against Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs started six freshmen and seven sophomores. Alabama coach Gene Stallings was asked if his team's 9-6 upset win against Tennessee eased the pain of an 0-3 start. "One win does not override three losses," Stallings said. "It did help to regain a little credibility, and that's what the players want. They want respect."