Matt Wyatt and Romaro Miller reminisce about their days fighting for Mississippi’s most coveted trophy
Romaro Miller never saw the initial kick. He caught sight of the Pick, and the rest was Egg Bowl history.
“I was like ‘It can’t be.’ When I let it go I knew what I was trying to do, and the next thing I know I saw the ball up in the air, then the interception, and I knew at that point that we pretty much had lost the game,” Miller said from his current job as a pharmaceutical sales rep in Olive Branch. “The next thing I know I’m looking at a thousand students running across the field trying to get to the goal posts.”
Miller, one of the most decorated passers in Rebel history, talks light heartedly about the infamous ending looking back. But it struck the most painful chords of the Egg Bowl rivalry at the time.
His late interception spurred Mississippi State to a dramatic 1999 comeback win, known simply in rivalry lore as “The Pick and the Kick.” After the Bulldogs tied the game with twenty seconds to go, Ole Miss surprised the state by throwing the ball from deep in its own territory instead of kneeling and going to overtime. Miller’s pass bounced off the foot of Mississippi State CB Robert Bean, into the hands of teammate Eugene Clinton, who returned it deep into Ole Miss territory. On the next play, Scott Westerfield booted home a 44 yard field goal to set off a wild celebration at Scott Field.
The Ole Miss collapse gave Mississippi State its ninth win of the season. It also ensured a tortuous offseason to come for Miller. Born in Shannon, MS, bred to play quarterback for the in-state SEC school, he was the consummate small-town football hero. There would be no offseason from this.
“It was tough, especially being a quarterback, just because most of the people in Mississippi, they’re either Ole Miss or Mississippi State. So any time you lose a game like that, if you go to a convenience store, if you go to the mall, even to church, you can feel people talking about it,” Miller said. “There’s nothing about it you can try to get away from; you try if you want to but there’s nowhere to go. That’s what makes the game so special. It’s not only show up for sixty minutes, but the other three hundred and sixty four days out of the year, so it just hurt.”
A QUARTERBACK UNDERSTANDS
Matt Wyatt grew up with the other rivalry. A tall, talented signal caller from central Alabama, any talk of rivalry in late November echoed only with “War Eagle!” and “Roll Tide!”
“I honestly didn’t even know that the Egg Bowl existed until I went on a recruiting trip to the Egg Bowl in Oxford in 1994 when I was a senior in high school,” said Wyatt, now a radio analyst for Mississippi State football and co-host of the popular “Head to Head” radio show. “I think that’s the first time I realized that there was such a thing as the Egg Bowl. I knew the schools played each other, but that’s kind of the way it is in the state of Alabama: everybody’s Iron Bowl crazy and you don’t hear too much about the Egg Bowl.”
Wyatt quickly learned the intensity of the rivalry for Mississippians when he got to Starkville, though he still admits he didn’t look at the game any differently as a player.
“I know that’s almost sacrilege, but I knew that it was different for the kids on our team from Mississippi. You could see it, you could hear it, you could feel it and sense it with them. The kids from Mississippi, it was different,” he said.
He eventually came to understand the rivalry for himself. But it may have taken that wild, fateful night in 1999 – and an understanding of the suffering that lay ahead for Miller – to fully grasp it. Because in the immediate aftermath of the Bulldogs’ incredible comeback, with his team on top and cowbells clanging in the streets, the Mississippi State quarterback thought of his losing counterpart.
“After the celebrating was over for us – that was our ninth win, and how we won – I remember thinking that night and the next day what Romaro must be going through. He was such a heckuva player, and he didn’t make the play call to throw ball. He’s just trying to make it work,” Wyatt said.
“But I thought about what he must be going through being a kid from Shannon, MS and knowing hundreds and hundreds of people on both sides of both fan bases, and what he must be feeling. I was glad that for him in that situation that he was not a senior that year and that he got another opportunity to erase that, because for a guy from Mississippi to have something like that happen would almost be unfair.”
In that moment, the kid from Alabama who grew up “knowing nothing” of the Egg Bowl understood fully, perhaps better than anybody, what the game was all about.
RIVALRY GLORY DAYS
Wyatt and Miller have vivid memories of each of their Egg Bowl games. But what stands out for both in retrospect is the high level of competition and national attention that surrounded the rivalry. Winning records, ranked teams, star players, big stakes, and close finishes – all a part of the late 90’s Egg Bowl atmosphere.
In 1997, Wyatt’s freshman year, Ole Miss beat State 15 – 14 on coach Tommy Tuberville’s successful two-point conversion call at the end of regulation that cemented his moniker as the “Riverboat Gambler.” It sent Ole Miss to its first bowl game in five years – and Mississippi State home at 7-4.
“You’re talking about a year when there were, I think, sixteen bowl games that you could go to. We played an eleven game season and won seven games that year and sat at home because there’s only sixteen games. So the landscaped has really changed,” Wyatt said.
In 1998, the Bulldogs won 28 – 6 in Oxford to clinch the school’s first and only SEC West title, which was followed by State’s incredible comeback in 1999. And in 2000, Miller, Deuce McAllister and Ole Miss ran all over Fred Smoot and Mississippi State to cap the remarkable run.
“Me and (former DB & Seattle Seahawk) Ken Lucas were talking about it the other day, people just don’t realize how many players from both of those teams actually made it in the NFL. Man, there was some talent on those teams,” Miller said.
“Just huge,” Wyatt said of the Egg Bowl stakes during his career. “People say now you can throw out the record books because it’s a rivalry, back then you could throw them out because both teams were good enough that you had to play your best game to win and if you didn’t you were going to be extremely disappointed. And everyone knew that. So in terms of the magnitude of the game and the way it feels in that locker room, it can’t be understated what a difference it makes when both teams records are good, the attention is there, and everybody in the country is paying attention to the game.”
In that Egg Bowl environment, an interception becomes infamy, a loss, a lifetime. But in the 2000 game, Romaro Miller would have his revenge. He had iced it too long not to.
It was a year later, this time under the shimmering lights of Vaught-Hemingway. In his final home game as a Rebel, Miller orchestrated one of the greatest offensive outputs in Egg Bowl history. He and the bruising McAllister hung 45 points on Joe Lee Dunn’s famed Bulldog defense and walked off as sky-high as they were crushed a year before.
“That bad taste stayed in my mouth for a whole year,” Miller said. “I just remember that year they tore the goal post down, and I let that fuel me the whole offseason. So that night we played them in Oxford, it was just a magical night because of the things that had happened the year before. My last game inside of Vaught-Hemingway, and you want to talk about going out the right kind of way: I didn’t want to leave the University losing to Mississippi State at home.”
Miller left a winner, and as Ole Miss’s second all-time leading passer. State and Ole Miss both left 7-4, with the Dogs headed to Shreveport, the Rebels, to Nashville. It was the last year the Egg Bowl featured two teams with winning records and ensuing bowl births.
“Hopefully for the state of Mississippi we can get both of the teams going at the same time again,” Miller said. “I get tired of the big game being Alabama – Auburn; we can do this and have a Top 10 showdown inside of the state of Mississippi.”
“State fans couldn’t care less whether Ole Miss is any good or not,” Wyatt countered. “When it comes down to time to play that game, the worse they are, who cares? The worse we can beat ‘em let’s do it, just light ‘em up. But in the long run it’s better for the rivalry, better for the state of Mississippi, if both teams are really good and are drawing attention.”
Attention will be there this year when the boastful Bulldogs invade Vaught-Hemingway to face the new-look Rebels under first-year coach Hugh Freeze. Wyatt wouldn’t give a prediction, but did offer this:
“It’s been three straight blowouts; even if you go back to ’09, I mean it really got away from Ole Miss. And I would bet my farm, if I had one, that that’s not going to happen this year.”
Miller didn’t hesitate.
“I feel like my Rebels are going to come out and get the win. It’s so early in the season, I have no idea how to predict the score,” he said.
Then he thought of that infamous night in 1999.
“I would love for it to go down to the end and we could kick a field goal so our students can go run down and tear down the goalposts,” he said with a laugh.
For veterans of Egg Bowl glory days, the memories, no matter how painful, are never far. - MSM