Yet another Rebel basketball season led by head coach Andy Kennedy ended in the NIT last night, when Ole Miss lost to Illinois State 96-93 in overtime in Oxford.
Most fans probably expected the No. 2-seeded Rebels to make it a bit further in the tournament, but really, would it make any difference? In the NIT, everyone is essentially playing for 69th place in the nation, while the 68 best are playing for a national championship.
But it is what we've come to expect in the early spring from Kennedy's boys — falling two or three wins short of an NCAA tournament invite, getting a high seed in the NIT and eventually losing somewhere along the way in that truly-meaningless "Not-Invited" tournament.
So after back-to-back football seasons that ended in head coach Houston Nutt ousted and athletic director Pete Boone claiming he's going to leave, whenever he's ready, and another same-old-same-old let down from Kennedy's crew on the hardwood, Rebel fans are searching harder than we have in a long time to find a reason in the realm of sport to bring us together in pride for our school.
Some schools can look to a faithful, old mascot like UGA at Georgia, Bully at Mississippi State or the proud horse-back Seminole at Florida State to bring the roar of school spirit screaming back from deep inside. Others have a fight song that has been passed down for generations like "The Victors" at Michigan or the "Notre Dame Victory March."
Rebels look to their mascot and see a new face, the face of a black bear costume, cleverly named "Rebel". I can't speak for everyone, but I've yet to hear a Rebel fan say his school pride bubbles and excitement boils at the site of the mystery person costumed as the ever-passive member of the bear family.
But Rebels fans have baseball season to look forward to. And, as usual, Mike Bianco's team is nationally ranked and looking good headed into SEC play.
They're looking so good, in fact, that true fans of Bianco's boys are feeling disappointment stirring down deep, just waiting to jump up and smack a packed house at Oxford-University Stadium right in the teeth, again.
It seems no matter how good the Rebels are on the diamond, somebody always comes to Oxford in late May or early June that's just a little better, or just a little luckier.
The Rebels have fallen one home win short of the College World Series three times in the last seven years, and two road wins short in 2007.
Whether it was losing to eventual national champions Texas in 2005, the lightening-fast, small-ball Hurricanes of Miami in 2006 or the youthful, big-armed Virginia Cavaliers in 2009, Rebel fans know early June can be as bitter as any March letdown, or winless SEC football season.
So what do Ole Miss fans have to unite us as a strong, proud fan base?
Many still hold on to a mascot that is dead, gone and never coming back (no matter how many stickers are worn in the Grove). While the new black bear mascot has united fans, I don't think the point is to unite the fans against the mascot and university leadership.
Neither the official fight song, "Forward Rebels", nor whatever hybrid defamation of "From Dixie with Love" the band is playing this week, seem to stir the same pride the latter's original version cooked up in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium a few years ago.
But Rebel fans have one thing that can unite us. If only we will all take off the blue and red glasses and see reality in its true colors, we will find our uniter has been with us all along.
And his name is Almost.
He guided Bryce Drew's buzzer beater in the hoop for Valparaiso in 1998. He tripped Eli Manning on 4-and-10 and pushed two of Jonathan Nichols field goals wide against LSU in 2003. He blurred replay official and former Alabama student Doyle Jackson's vision on the final drive against the Crimson Tide in 2007. He heated up the Texas and Miami bats in 2005 and 2006 with the Rebels one win from Omaha. He guided Evan Button's routine throw from second base into the dirt, allowing two unearned Virginia runs in 2009. He always makes sure the perennial powerhouse Rebel tennis team never plays like it come tournament time. And he kept 311 of the Rebels' 784 regular-season free throws out of the basket this season.
Almost has always been their for Ole Miss. He's one of us, a Rebel, through and through. Despite the claims of greatness all around him, Almost demands mediocrity on the playing field. And he never misses a season in Oxford.
And just when we think he's gone on vacation for a year, Almost comes back and reminds us all where he makes his home. Can we blame him? The scenery in Oxford is second to none. The food is world class. There's enough bourbon and warm beer to drown the whole state. Live music bounds through open bar doors six nights a week. And the education is good, at least as government education goes.
I think all of us who have ever called Oxford home, even if only for four years (or seven), can see why Almost has settled in Oxford and become so close to Ole Miss athletics. But it is time we stop pretending he isn't here, or that one day he'll decide to pack and move. It's not like he can head for greener pastures, the Grove is as green as it gets.
In Mark 12:31, Jesus said the command to love your neighbor as yourself is second only to loving God. So I propose Ole Miss students, alumni and fans greet our old neighbor Almost, invite him in and learn to love him as ourselves. And as we do this, I think we'll find he's been part of us all along. Then maybe, just maybe, we'll accept that he's not going anywhere anytime soon.