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How Eli Manning transformed Ole Miss

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In Oxford, they call it “The Eli Boom.”

In 2000, the year Eli Manning joined the Ole Miss football varsity, the population of Oxford was 13,572. In 2010, the next Census year, Oxford had grown by a remarkable 40% rate to nearly 19,000. What’s more, the real estate market soared. Ole Miss alums bought second homes there. The condo market exploded.

Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill graduated from Ole Miss in 1992 and has remained in Oxford ever since. She witnessed it all.

“Oxford’s population and real estate market took off during the Eli years, no doubt about it,” Tannehill said. “The years Eli was at Ole Miss were some of Oxford’s greatest years for growth an economic prosperity. The numbers are amazing. The trajectory, thankfully, has continued.”

Jackson lawyer Fred Krutz once told the story of shopping for an Oxford condo Eli’s freshman year. He found one he really liked. “I told the realtor it was just what I wanted but I thought the price was too steep for a little place like Oxford. She told me, ‘If that Manning kid is as good as they say he is, real estate prices in Oxford are fixing to go off the charts.’”

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Krutz continued, “Turns out, she was right.”

Back then, it seemed every kid in Oxford or at any Ole Miss sporting event wore a Rebel jersey, number 10. Ole Miss will pay tribute to Manning when that jersey number is retired Saturday evening during ceremonies at the LSU-Ole Miss game. He was inducted into the Ole Miss M Club Alumni Hall of Fame in ceremonies on Thursday night.

Oxford is hardly recognizable from the pre-Eli days. Count Archie Manning, Eli’s father, among those amazed at the transition.

“It’s not the sleepy little college town I remember from my college days, that’s for sure,” the elder Manning said Thursday morning. “I don’t know how much Eli had to do with all the growth, but I do know he loved his time here, just like I did.

“Eli doesn’t get real excited about anything, but he is excited about this weekend.”

Ole Miss has honored Eli Manning for this weekend’s festivities by painting his name in the end zones. (Photo: Ole Miss Athletics)

Eli Manning met his wife, the former Abby McGrew, in Oxford. They returned to Oxford Thursday, bringing their four children in tow. Although they live in the New York area, they retain an Oxford home. Archie and Olivia Manning still have a condo on University Avenue.

Certainly not all the Oxford growth is due to Archie’s and Olivia’s youngest son. Says real estate developer Campbell McCool, “I really believe the fuse was lit when Robert Khayat became chancellor in 1995. The Eli years poured gasoline on the flame. Oxford exploded.”

Ole Miss never won a conference championship during the Eli years. He did lead the Rebels to 24 victories in three seasons as the starter and set 45 school records. He capped off his college career with an almost perfect, MVP performance in a Cotton Bowl victory. He was a first team All American and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.

But those numbers don’t tell why he became such a beloved Ole Miss legend. As was the case with his father, some of Eli’s greatest, most valiant performances came in defeat — such as the time, as a sophomore, he threw for seven touchdowns against Arkansas in a losing cause.

Peyton Manning, left, Eli Manning, and Cooper Manning on the field as their dad Archie’s No. 18 was retired in Oxford. (Photo: Ole Miss Athletics)

Khayat, now retired, once told me why he believed Eli Manning has become such a beloved icon at Ole Miss. It wasn’t just his on field accomplishments or the two Super Bowl MVP  trophies he won with the New York Giants. It wasn’t just the fact that Ole Miss season ticket sales increased 61% — or $5 million per year — during Eli’s college career.

“It’s the image he projects: wholesome, honorable, intelligent, humble,” Khayat said. “And it’s not just an image. That’s Eli. He’s the quintessential student-athlete. Every college wishes it had an Eli Manning. We were so fortunate to have him at Ole Miss.”

Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, where Eli will be honored Saturday evening, underwent a 10,000-seat, $25 million expansion during No. 10’s time there. That’s when Ole Miss began construction on the the indoor performance facility, now known as The Manning Center, for Archie and Olivia Manning.

Eventually, all that might have happened anyway. It wouldn’t have happened nearly so fast had it not been for Eli Manning.

This weekend’s ceremonies coincide with the notable recruiting visit to Ole Miss of a football prospect named Arch Manning, Archie’s grandson, Cooper Manning’s son, Eli’s nephew and the No. 1 recruit nationally in the class of 2023. 

Coincidence? Certainly not.

“I have no idea where Arch is going and I try to stay out of it,” Archie Manning said. “But I am happy it works out that he will be here this weekend for his uncle.”

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