A Season to RememberThe 1977 Ole Miss baseball season was one for the history books as the Rebels were the first team to win the first-ever SEC baseball tournament.
BY DAVID MAGEE
Forty years is a long time, but some things you never forget. Like seeing an Ole Miss team win a rare SEC championship in the most dramatic, heroic fashion.
The players had names that sounded like guaranteed victories on the diamond, including Pomeranz, Templeton, Ziblich and Barnthouse. Their coach, already a name in legend and stature, carried a big chew of tobacco in one cheek while big league words like “our club” and “these men don’t know quit” rolled from his tongue.
Winning wasn’t anything unusual for Ole Miss baseball coach Jake Gibbs. He had led the Rebels to a College World Series appearance in 1972, but this team he had in 1977 was different, mostly because the stakes were different.
Baseball was just maturing as a collegiate sport by the late 1970s and was scheduled to play its first-ever conference tournament, sending the winner to a guaranteed spot in the NCAA tournament.
The winner of the SEC West division would host this first-ever SEC baseball tournament, and this Ole Miss team had every intention of claiming that right.
But baseball’s SEC West was rugged in 1977, much like football is today. Mississippi State, led by coach Ron Polk, was first-class, and so was Auburn, which entered the final weekend of the regular season tied with Ole Miss in the standings.
Good news for the Rebels is that they hosted Auburn at tiny Swayze Field, with no bathrooms and so close to the road that foul balls chased cars driving by. It came down to the last game of the series, but Ole Miss and its lineup of destiny-bound sluggers knocked out the Tigers and sent a statement to the SEC in its first season of real baseball: This Rebel program is one to be reckoned with.
Ole Miss hustled to add extra bleachers to Swayze Field that week, shuttling in portable bathrooms and building a new roof over the wood and metal grandstands so that more journalists and radio crews could find a sheltered spot to sit during the SEC Tournament.
Since I had spent my afternoons watching Ole Miss play at home that season, watching Gibbs’ Rebels amass a then-school record in wins, my parents let me cut school those first days of the tournament. I joined some 2,500 fans packed into the small stands, watching Ole Miss fight to win a title that seemed so elusive in every sport.
SEC Champion didn’t exactly roll off the tongue with Ole Miss fans and alums, but this victory smelled as close as the popcorn popping in Swayze Field’s green wooden concession stand.
Florida didn’t let that happen easily, though, pushing Ole Miss into the losers bracket. Gibbs’ Rebels had to stage one furious comeback for a dramatic 7-6 win to set up a title game, with the winner claiming the NCAA bid to a regional in Miami.
In the final, played in mid-May, Ole Miss’ Mike Templeton slugged two home runs, and Mike Pomeranz slugged another. The Rebels beat Florida on a Monday to win the first-ever SEC baseball tournament and overall league championship.
Some 1,200 fans that day saw a freshman pitcher by the name of Jeff Calhoun claim a title win on the mound, along with sluggers like Templeton and Pomeranz swatting the ball with total control while a chiseled-faced coach—one of the greatest athletes in Ole Miss history —called the shots. You just knew you had witnessed something worth remembering.
I high-fived players afterward like I had been there with them since February. They gave me drenched sweatbands for souvenirs and even a hat that unfortunately got lost in some shuffle.
Remember, this was May 1977, and Ole Miss had not yet played Notre Dame in football, so winning a championship in baseball, on a home turf no less, made an impact on this 12-year-old and other Rebel fans who saw we could play in the rugged league with anybody.
“We’re in the Southeastern Conference western division, and that division wasn’t decided until the last game of the season,” Gibbs told a reporter in 1977. “We were down a game in the double-elimination SEC championships and fought back to win.
“For the past three weeks they’ve all been pressure games, so I guess you could say pressure doesn’t bother us at all.”
Exactly, and the club didn’t quit, either.
It was these reasons and more that made the 1977 Rebel baseball squad a team of destiny. They got knocked out in the NCAA Tournament in Miami, unable to reach the College World Series, but it didn’t matter. The big statement that year was winning the division, then winning the tournament, and doing it in dramatic fashion on our own field.
It was the first season of modern-day baseball in the SEC, one with a tournament and fierce competition across divisions, and Ole Miss emerged as the hard-fought champion.
Forty years later, it still sounds and smells like yesterday.