September 21, 2020

How two Mississippi families keep the peace amid increasingly toxic Egg Bowl rivalry

Most of it is comical to Kreg Overstreet and Sean Courtney.

The friends on opposite sides of Mississippi’s most contentious rivalry read and listen. Whether it’s podcasts, message boards or social media accounts, it’s never hard to find Ole Miss and Mississippi State fans picking at each other.

“You can’t help but see some of the gist and some of the jokes,” Overstreet says. “I’m not going to lie. I laugh, but Sean laughs at it, too.”

But the rivalry’s heightened animosity given the recent off-field drama has resulted in many exchanges that go far beyond the usual digs. The NCAA’s investigation into Ole Miss has embroiled the fan bases in a back and forth that includes a level of harassment on Twitter and Facebook that’s more than some can handle.

“I try not to look at them because I just get my feelings hurt when I see people say ugly stuff about Ole Miss,” says Sean’s wife, Rebecca. “I don’t really look at that kind of stuff.”

Sean, Rebecca, Kreg and his wife, Emily, are on the other end of the spectrum. Sean and Rebecca root for Ole Miss while Kreg and Emily pull for Mississippi State, but the couples have been friends longer than they’ve had a rooting interest.

Now in their early 40s, Emily and Rebecca grew up next door to each other in Wiggins and went to high school with Kreg, who  married Emily after the two graduated from Mississippi State in 1997. Kreg introduced Rebecca to Sean while they were students at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, which started a relationship that resulted in the two tying the knot once Sean finished law school at Ole Miss in 2000.

They’re back in Wiggins living within a quarter-mile of each other on Potter Lane and Clubhouse Drive and take advantage of that proximity, particularly during football season. Both season ticket holders, Sean and Rebecca attend each Ole Miss home game while Kreg and Emily do the same at Mississippi State, but on weekends when both teams are on the road, the families get together to watch games.

They also have a tradition of eating dinner with each other on Sunday nights and may do the same on any given weeknight, spending so much time together that those around town more commonly refer to them as the Courtney-Streets.

“It’s pretty ridiculous,” Kreg says.

That time together includes Egg Bowls.

When Sean and Rebecca first got season tickets before the 2012 season, the couples decided to start taking turns hosting one another for the rivalry game. When the game’s played in Starkville, Sean and Rebecca leave their two daughters, Grace Ann and Nora, with their grandparents and join Kreg and Emily at Davis Wade Stadium. Kreg and Emily make the same arrangements for their daughters, Anna Katherine and Ellen, to attend the game with Sean and Rebecca when it’s played at Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

This year’s game shifts back to Davis Wade Stadium on Thursday (6:30 p.m., ESPN), but a previous family obligation will keep Sean and Rebecca from attending the Egg Bowl for the first time in seven years. They’re not exactly fretting over it given the circumstances surrounding the game — one in which Mississippi State enters as a 17-point favorite.

“When you throw in (Mississippi State linebacker) Leo Lewis and Lindsey Miller and everything, I’m not sad not to be in Starkville this week because I didn’t want to hear it from those guys,” Sean says. “And we’re not even talking about what’s going to happen on the field, which I don’t have a real good feeling about that either.”

Sitting with each other as they root for opposite teams isn’t as strange as it is getting to their seats. Sean and Rebecca admit it’s odd walking into Davis Wade Stadium clad in Ole Miss gear while strolling through the Grove isn’t the most comfortable thing for Kreg and Emily. Once inside the stadium, they know the playful jabs are coming from fans sitting nearby.

“They crack a few jokes, but it’s all in good fun usually,” says Rebecca, who attended dental school at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “I’m pretty laid-back, so I know I’m going to hear a few jokes about me wearing my Hotty Toddy gear. It’s no big deal.”

Kreg, Emily, Sean and Rebecca attended their first Egg Bowl together at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford on Nov. 24, 2012. Ole Miss won 41-24.

But both couples have gotten an up-close look the rivalry’s ugly side.

As Sean and Rebecca cheered on the Rebels late in Ole Miss’ 38-27 win in its last trip to Starkville in 2015, a Mississippi State fan turned around from a few rows in front of where they were sitting and told them to “sit down and shut up,” Kreg recalls. Kreg wasn’t having it.

“I definitely made the guy understand that if you were going to yell at Sean that you were going to yell at me, and we weren’t going to put up with that,” Kreg says.

Emily had a similar experience last season when an Ole Miss fan directed obscenities at her as she stood to cheer on the Bulldogs during their 55-20 win at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Sean came to his friend’s defense, at one point asking security to remove the fan from the stadium before the situation was diffused.

“I knew that Sean was going to say something,” Emily says. “I knew he’d say something and stick up for me.”

Sean and Emily both say they understood the frustration from the opposition in the midst of lopsided losses, referring to those experiences as isolated incidents rather than the norm when traveling to the other team’s stadium. They only further defined the families’ friendship amid the rivalry.

“We don’t take kindly to other folks talking bad about each other,” Kreg says.

That doesn’t mean they don’t push each other’s buttons sometimes.

Sean isn’t shy about letting Kreg and Emily know he’s not particularly fond of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” that’s played at the beginning of the fourth quarter at all of Mississippi State’s home games. And neither Sean nor Rebecca can stand those cowbells.

“As much as I’m not a Journey fan, I’d rather listen to Journey than a cowbell,” Sean says. “Gosh dang, those things are awful.”

Sean says he also misspells Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen’s name on purpose every time he sends it to Kreg in a text message and purposefully mispronounces Starkville just because. And there’s everything in between.

“Every time Kreg brings up something about Ole Miss, every now and then, I’ll call him little brother and say, ‘That’s what little brothers do. They get worried about what big brother’s doing,’” Sean says. “That pisses him off.”

Kreg returns the favor, wondering out loud why some of Ole Miss’ students wear ties to games and why women wear high heels to the Grove. It’s stereotypical ribbing, which, considering Sean is practicing law in Wiggins and Kreg is a civil engineer, is part of the joke.

“What would you expect from a lawyer from Ole Miss and an engineer from State?” Kreg says. “We’re stereotypes ourselves.”

But both sides know when to back off.

Kreg and Emily keep jokes to a minimum about former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who resigned in July amid a female escort scandal. Sean and Rebecca rarely bring up Miller, Lewis and fellow Mississippi State player Kobe Jones, who are named in multiple Level-I allegations and are also co-defendants in a defamation lawsuit filed by Rebel Rags, an Oxford-based retail clothing store, related to Ole Miss’ probe that’s already cost the Rebels scholarship restrictions and a bowl game this season.

“Sean and I both are superstitious, so I’m not really going to run my mouth too much because I’ve been around this rivalry too long to know nobody stays on top forever,” Kreg says. “You’re smart to don’t dish out more than can you handle. We do a little bit, but it’s nothing that’s ever mean. It’s done in good intentions.”

CBS Sports labeled the Egg Bowl college football’s most hate-filled rivalry earlier this year. Tensions on both sides of the rivalry have escalated so much that Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork and Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen released a joint statement earlier this week pleading with fans to show “civility and respect for each other” Thursday night.

Sean believes the heightened level of vitriol has been created in part by those who are just now starting to pay close attention to a rivalry that’s been heated for years.

“I think the people that are taking it to a more toxic degree are newer to the rivalry than others, and they’re doing it because they want it to be toxic for some reason,” Sean says. “It’s like most things. It kind of exaggerates itself. Everybody is amped up.”

But perspective has never been a problem for the four of them. The most awkward they can remember things getting was after the 2013 Egg Bowl when Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace fumbled into the end zone in overtime to seal a 17-10 upset win for the Bulldogs that made them bowl-eligible, and that was only because the four of them went a little longer than usual without talking after the game.

“It hurt. Oh, it hurt,” Sean recalls. “I think we were quiet and I finally just said, ‘Look, nobody died. We can talk.’ So we did.”

Says Kreg, “At the end of the day, it doesn’t define us and it doesn’t define our relationship. We’ve had people in town walk up to us and say, ‘Oh my gosh, how can y’all be friends?’ It’s just completely asinine to us. Why would somebody ask us that? That’s ridiculous.”

No rivalry is going to come between their decades-long friendship, which is why the couples also go to games with each other that aren’t Egg Bowls.

Sean and Rebecca went to Houston with Kreg and Emily in 2013 to take in Mississippi State’s season-opening loss to Oklahoma State. Kreg and Emily made the trip to Atlanta with Sean and Rebecca a year later to watch Ole Miss open the season with a win over Boise State. Kreg tags along with Sean whenever Ole Miss makes the trip to Auburn, and there are bowl games mixed in there, too.

“We enjoy traveling together and each other’s company,” Emily says. “Everywhere we go, there’s new things to eat, new things to see, new things to do, and we enjoy doing those things together.”

It’s a relationship that’s helping these families keep the peace amid a rivalry that’s boiling over.

“It’s three hours of a football game,” Sean says. “If your life depends on it, you should probably re-evaluate some of the choices you’ve made.”