In every region of this country people have fond, often charming and usually faintly ridiculous notions about the characteristics they possess. New Englanders, for instance, like to imagine that they are shrewd and thrifty, honest but sharp, as durable and dependable as the flinty earth that harbors them. Westerners see themselves standing tall and formidable in their high-heeled boots, tolerant but not susceptible, straightforward rather than clever, as noncommittal and rugged as their own broad plains. Southerners, of course, are gracious but touchy, hotheaded but also warmly hospitable, dashing suitors but always chivalrous defenders of their womenfolk, who are as gentle and soft-voiced as mourning doves.
Sometimes it does happen that reality lives up to the legend. There probably is no better proof of this than the 5,300 students who are attending the University of Mississippi.
The young men at Ole Miss are astonishingly broad-shouldered and happily carefree. They are friendly and courteous, but there is a slight swagger about them, and they walk the land as if they own it.
The young women at Ole Miss are softly pretty, and they smile often and cut their eyes when they say hello, and it is no wonder at all that in rapid succession two of them have been chosen Miss America. The wonder is that girls from other regions even have a chance, and although not all of them really seem as gentle as doves, all Ole Miss coeds do walk with an identical little seductive waddle, like so many happy goslings.
There may be a touch of deception in all of this, of course. But the gently rolling, well-tended square mile of campus at Oxford, Miss. could not be anywhere except in the Deep South. There are magnolias scattered among the elms, oaks, redbud and dogwood trees, and on flat and sultry days their fragrance is everywhere, just as sentimental novelists claim. Mockingbirds sing in the trees, and on quiet nights when the moon is riding high katydids fill the air with a soft keening, and lightning bugs blink everywhere.
There are, naturally, no flat, geometrical and glass-faced buildings at Mississippi. Even the newest of them are Georgian or modified Georgian, and two of the surviving four antebellum buildings are Greek Revival, with tall white columns which gleam in the moonlight or look cool and gracious when struck by the dazzling sun.
Every institution of higher learning has, of course, an esprit, a driving force or a coordinating force. At any of the Ivy League colleges this probably is love of learning, or if not actually love, at least respect for knowledge laboriously gathered through the ages. The earnest and preoccupied young men encountered at these schools look as if they could discuss Kant or order a meal in French. There are students at Ole Miss who look as if they could do these things, too, but they are not numerous, and nobody is alarmed that they are so few.
This is not to say that scholarship is considered unimportant at Mississippi. The books are there, the professors are conscientious and the university has compiled some impressive statistics to prove that it provides—in the words of its able and highly respected chancellor, Dr. John Davis Williams—"a climate of learning." Forty-eight percent of the faculty at Ole Miss hold doctoral or other terminal degrees, for example, and this is far above the average for colleges and universities in the U.S. Furthermore, freshmen entering Ole Miss in 1955 scored above the norm for the South on the college qualification test, and each year since then freshmen have made higher scores than the year before. In 13 of 17 major fields of study Mississippi graduates scored above the national mean. Ole Miss has produced 18 Rhodes scholars—which ranks it high among schools that have received scholarships.
So it is not demeaning Ole Miss, really, to report that its esprit is football. A great many people will find this shocking, of course, and while, perhaps, it is not the ideally perfect esprit for a university, it is not altogether bad either, and in the case of Ole Miss football undoubtedly has, up to this time at least, done more good than harm.
Ole Miss is not a football foundry. In almost round figures it costs $10.5 million for the university to keep its doors open each year. Football brings in $400,000 a year, and while this is not a sum to be dismissed lightly, it just about carries the school's athletic program—that is, it pays all expenses of its football team, such as travel and equipment, plus grant-in-aid scholarships to a team of 48-odd (room, board, tuition, books, fees, laundry), as well as paying for all unprofitable sports such as baseball, tennis, track, golf and basketball. If there is a surplus, and last year there was one of $30,000, it is used to set up nonathletic scholarships.
Not so long ago, Chancellor Williams was asked if he had any qualms because football and two Miss Americas had brought the school such widespread publicity when, after all, a university was a place of learning and should win its fame for that. "Not at all," he said. "I don't feel that such honors have any affect on the kind of education we offer. Everyone here is pleased at receiving this kind of attention, and when they are pleased I am too. It makes them proud of the university, and I think that's a good thing."
One thing the university has no reason to be proud about is the fact that it is all white. However, segregation is simply a fact of life at Ole Miss, as indeed it is everywhere else in the state. While a handful of students and professors may privately deplore this, the majority do not. The bitter arguments over integration are the same in Mississippi as they are elsewhere, and all that Mississippi has contributed to the issue is a fearsome inflexibility. Perhaps because of this, one is not aware of racial tensions on Ole Miss's campus. On the only occasion when a Negro applied for admission to the school, his application was forwarded to the state attorney general for a ruling. That official promptly decided the candidate was not qualified, and the matter was dropped then and there.
If one can really rely on history, it seems a safe assumption that even if Ole Miss did not have a football team it still wouldn't be able to bend the unique talents and unbounded enthusiasm of its students toward scholarship alone. In fact, that hope went aglimmering immediately after the university was chartered, back in 1844. Although the four learned gentlemen who made up the first faculty hopefully set up stern entrance requirements, the first 80 students to enroll were the sons of rich planters and were not very well educated in anything except hell raising. They created such an uproar that the first president of the university, an eccentric and moody young man named George Frederick Holmes, fled after only four months and never returned. One faculty member called the students "idle, uncultivated, viciously disposed, and ungovernable." By the end of the session five had been expelled, eight had been suspended, 12 had withdrawn by request and eight were absent on leave, leaving only 47 who actually finished the school term.
There was some improvement when Dr. Frederick A. P. Barnard took over as head of the university in 1856, but before things simmered down to a completely satisfactory disciplinary level the Civil War came and the students marched off in a body to fight. Dr. Barnard, an ardent Unionist, hied himself off North, where he later became president of Columbia University and founded Barnard College.
The war apparently subdued the proclivity for hell raising among Ole Miss students, because it was never again a major problem, though some fairly boisterous undergraduate high jinks continued up to a decade or so ago, and as late as the '20s it was frequently attacked as a "rich man's school." The university grew steadily, attracting little attention, until 1930, when Theodore G. (The Man) Bilbo shocked Mississippi by stacking Mississippi schools with political appointees. As a result of this political skulduggery, Ole Miss and most schools in the state lost their accreditations, and they were not restored until Bilbo left office.
Football, of course, has had a long history at Ole Miss. The first team was organized in 1893, with Dr. A. L. Bondurant, a Latin professor, as coach, and except for 1897, when an epidemic of yellow fever struck the campus, and 1943, when the state board of trustees outlawed the game for the year, Mississippi has always had a team. Until the '20s, the game was played with more enthusiasm than skill.
Mississippi, however, has always had eager football players. The people of Mississippi seem peculiarly suited to the game, and to understand this one need only examine their history. For although Mississippians revere the noble Robert E. Lee and like to boast that Natchez was an oasis of culture and gracious living when most northern cities were still wilderness, Natchez also had the bawdiest, toughest section of any town before or since.
A good example of some early Mississippians who gained renown are the nine brothers Sullivan, sons of a fierce Irishman who settled in a long narrow valley near Mize, Miss. around 1810. Every Mississippian knows about Sullivan's Hollow and uses its name as a synonym for lawlessness. Each Sullivan brother home-steaded a 160-acre plot, and each dug a ditch around his land to keep it separate from his brothers'. At the mouth of the valley stream the brothers erected a gristmill, a lumber mill and a cotton gin. They named this cluster of buildings Bunker Hill, but everybody called it Merry Hell because of the fights that took place there. The toughest members of the clan were Wild Bill and his brother Neace, a tall, straight and muscular giant, who had a beard that fell below his waist. Once a sheriff was foolhardy enough to try to arrest Neace and Bill. They placed his head between the rails of a heavy split-rail fence and left him there to starve.
The Falkner legend
Stories of the Sullivans have become part of Mississippi folklore, and so has the legend of Colonel William C. Falkner. Colonel Falkner, unlike the Sullivans, was not a rude frontiersman. He was a hero of the War Between the States, a railroad builder, author of a best-selling novel, The White Rose of Memphis, and the grandfather of Nobel Prize Author William Faulkner (who for reasons of his own spells his name with a "u"). Colonel Falkner fought many duels, and he was such a cool man that he once stood still and allowed an assailant to snap a revolver at him twice before he finally took a knife from his pocket and stabbed him to death. When Colonel Falkner made a bitter enemy of an old friend, Col. R. J. Thurmond, by defeating him in a race for the state legislature in 1899, he refused to carry a pistol, saying that he had killed too many men already. As a result of this, Thurmond was able to walk up to Falkner on the street one day and shoot him down. Falkner died after asking, "Dick, what did you do it for?"
Young men brought up on such a tradition do not automatically become good football material, of course, but it does seem to be a pretty good guarantee that they will not be effete. Under the right circumstances, they might be inclined to throw their weight around and prefer rough sports. Besides, most Mississippians are farm people or not more than one or two generations removed from the soil, and hard work not only builds muscle and accustoms one to sweat, it breeds an obstinacy of spirit and independence.
Generalizing about women is a dangerous and unprofitable business at best, but it does seem to be true that part of the charm of Mississippi women is their dewy-eyed acceptance of their men as reckless and dashing creatures. If the women raise their voices at all, it is to squeal with delight or to feign terror at the accomplishments of the men. The men, for their part, seem to want to keep them that way. And they want their women lovely and pampered and dressed to kill. These may be the qualities that make a young lady from Natchez a Miss America and her beautiful, strong-minded counterpart from Racine a Miss Wisconsin.
The one man responsible for Ole Miss's present national prominence is, of course, Football Coach John Howard Vaught. He has been at Oxford for 13 seasons, and his record of 101 victories, 29 defeats and six ties means that, statistically, he is the second best coach in the nation. First place is held by Bud Wilkinson of Oklahoma, whose record since 1947 is 115 victories, 12 defeats and three ties for an average of .906. Both records are astoundingly good; just how good is shown when comparison is made with the next three teams: Michigan State, 88-28-3, Notre Dame 92-30-5 and Georgia Tech, 96-32-6.
Johnny Vaught is a burly, level-eyed and hard-working man of 52. He has the weather-beaten look of a telephone lineman and the calm, authoritative eye of an oldtime police captain. To use a Mississippi expression, Vaught knows he can hit the center of a spittoon every time. When he wishes, Johnny Vaught can be marvelously accurate with words, too, but this is not very often. Sometimes he is glumly laconic, particularly when he is asked to expound on his team's prospects. A native of Texas, Vaught was an all-star fullback as well as class valedictorian at Fort Worth's Polytechnic High School. He went on to Texas Christian University, where he played left guard, captained TCU's Southwest championship team in 1932 and won All-America honors the same year.
A split-T convert
After graduation, Vaught coached at North Side High School in Fort Worth for a couple of years, spent another year peddling electrical appliances and then joined Ray (Bear) Wolf's staff at North Carolina. He spent six years at North Carolina and when World War II came was commissioned an officer in the Navy's preflight program. He was a line coach under Jim Crowley at Chapel Hill, then was assigned to the same job under Larry (Moon) Mullins at Corpus Christi, where he became a split-T convert. Vaught was a lieutenant commander when he got out of the service and stepped directly into a job as line coach at Ole Miss under Harold (Red) Drew. Although 1946 was a miserable season, with the Rebels winning only two games and losing seven, Vaught and Mississippi developed such a rapid and rapturous infatuation for each other that when Drew returned to Alabama at the end of the year there never was any question but that Vaught would succeed him. It turned out to be an astonishingly wise decision.
Thirteen years later it is somewhat easy to minimize the near miracle Vaught pulled off during his first year as head coach. For, after all, he did have Charley Conerly, the present New York Giant quarterback, as well as big Barney Poole and his suction-tipped fingers. But the big difference was Vaught's patience, shrewdness and gift for improvising. Although he was a firm believer in the split-T, Vaught realized he could not use the formation if he wanted to use Conerly and Poole to the best advantage. So he retained Drew's old Alabama version of the Notre Dame shift and box, altering and redesigning it here and there so Conerly could stay at tailback on both left-and right-side shifts. The net result of the Conerly shift was that Conerly set a new national record by completing 133 passes (for 18 touchdowns), Poole set another by catching 52 (44 from Conerly), and Mississippi rolled over Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Tulane, LSU, Tennessee, Chattanooga and Mississippi State, losing only to Vanderbilt (6-10) and Arkansas (14-19). Ole Miss won the Southeastern Conference title, its first championship in 53 seasons; Conerly and Poole made All-America; Vaught became the first (and only) freshman coach to win an SEC title, and the only coach in Ole Miss history to win the SEC Coach of the Year honors.
Quite naturally, there was dancing on the levee and jubilation in the piney hills. Just to cap off the season, Ole Miss and practically everybody in northern Mississippi journeyed to the Delta Bowl in Memphis, and the team licked the hominy grits out of highly touted Texas Christian 13-9.
In 1948, with Conerly lost through graduation, Vaught finally was able to introduce the split-T in the Deep South, rebuilding his team around slippery Quarterback Farley Salmon. The results were even better than he or anybody else had anticipated. Ole Miss knocked off Tennessee and Vanderbilt, steam-rolled LSU 49-19—the most points counted against the Tigers in SEC history—and out of nine games dropped only one, to Tulane (7-20). It was the best year ever, and the ripple of interest that had been building up on southern sports desks swept as far north as New York and caused Yankee sportswriters to send for clips on Johnny Vaught, which of course didn't exist.
For the next two years, however, Vaught simply didn't live up to expectations. The introduction of the twin-platoon system was headache enough, particularly since he had only 19 lettermen in 1949 and only 17 a year later. In both years his teams were prone to fumbles and penalties and were hit hard by injuries. In 1949 there were 53 fumbles and 96 penalties. In 1950 there were 29 players on the hospital list from September onward, 18 of them first-stringers.
The next year was better, but the big turn came in 1952. Ole Miss bowled over Auburn, Tulane, Arkansas, Houston, tied Vanderbilt and Kentucky and pulled off the upset of the year by beating powerful Maryland 21-14. It was the first unbeaten team in Ole Miss history. Tackle Kline Gilbert made All-America, and Mississippi met Georgia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, losing 24-7. But the biggest triumph of the season was that Ole Miss was ranked nationally for the first time, a distinction it now accepts naturally, and that is the real success story of Johnny Vaught.
During the years Vaught was climbing to the top, he was learning the lessons and assembling the staff that have kept him there. He may very well have the best coaching staff in the country. Except for Backfield Coach Johnny Cain, who was the original Hurry Cain at Alabama in 1932, they are all Ole Miss grads, big, hulking, level-talking men, who work with as much enthusiasm as any second-team tailback. Frank (Bruiser) Kinard, an alltime All-America tackle at Ole Miss in 1936-37, is a line coach, as is Buster Poole ('37). Junie Hovious ('42) is a backfield coach. There are four assistant coaches: Wobble Davidson ('42), Tom Swayze ('33), Ray Poole ('46) and Roland Dale ('49). Not only is it one of the best coaching staffs in the country, the staff works for one of the poorer-paying schools with national recognition. Salaries are comparative, of course, and in Oxford, where the de luxe Sunday dinner at the best restaurant in town costs only $1.50, Mississippi salaries, ranging from $9,000 to $11,000 a year, certainly allow for a higher standard of living than could be had for twice $10,000 in the North. Vaught himself is poorly paid, compared with a coaching financier like Bear Bryant of Alabama. He earns around $17,500 to Bryant's reputed $80,000 (from all sources) but apparently is satisfied. On at least three occasions he had offers from other schools which would have paid him considerably more than that. He turned them down.
Vaught not only is a good coach, he is a highly unusual one. For one thing, there is his refusal to bother with any football player, no matter how fast or powerful, if he has trouble with his studies. After nursing along a few knuckleheads for a couple of years, he decided they weren't worth the bother and passed the word that no player was to be recruited if he was deficient in the brain department. He admits that this self-imposed rule has caused him to miss several promising players, but he refuses to relax it. "We arrange to get tutors for a boy when he is in temporary trouble," he says, "but if a boy isn't up to making a passing average, we just don't want to bother with him."
Above the average
Vaught also requires that all freshmen attend study hall from Monday through Thursday, no matter how bright they are. The grades of football players at Ole Miss are above the men's average for the rest of the school, and the pleasurable result of this, of course, is that Vaught has excellent relations with the faculty.
He also refuses to recruit married men, and players with automobiles are required to leave them at home during football season. "A married player is just too much trouble and bad for discipline," Vaught declares. "Take out-of-town trips, for instance. Wives usually go to the games, and afterwards the husbands want to join them. I don't let the others out at night, and if the married players are allowed to go, the rest begin to feel penalized. It's better to have the same rules for all."
During his first couple of years at Mississippi, Vaught sometimes wandered far afield after likely football players, but he soon decided to stick to his own backyard. "To be perfectly honest about it, we didn't get many out-of-state prospects, anyway," he says. "Recruiting is always a problem, but we are lucky in many respects, for one of the big factors in football in the state of Mississippi is that every community takes an interest in it. Most little towns don't have a whole hell of a lot of entertainment like they do in some other places. A football game on Saturday is a big event, and people turn out to see it. We have another big advantage in that there is so much first-class coaching in this state. Our high schools develop good players. It's part of the way of life down here."
A personal thing
Vaught prefers Mississippi players. Of his 48-man squad, only five are from out of state; they are from nearby Alabama, Tennessee or Kentucky.
Why does he prefer Mississippi boys? "For one thing, these boys down here have always worked," Vaught says. "They're accustomed to hard work. But it's more than that. It's a feeling. A boy must want to play football and win for Ole Miss. Without these qualifications he's not of the same use. A boy from outside this region might be just as talented, he may seem to play just as hard, but he usually doesn't. To an out-of-state boy, for example, a game with Mississippi State will be just another game. But a Mississippi boy knows all about the fierce rivalry between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. It's a personal thing. What it boils down to is that we want a defeat for Ole Miss to hurt the individual. Hurt him bad. If they are Mississippi boys, it will, too. When these boys go home they hear about the games they lost all summer long. Everybody wants to know why, and they won't let them forget a bad year. It gets right down to local pride and a desire to win. It's all based on the fact that this is home."
The annual scramble to recruit talent is probably more frantic in the SEC area than anywhere else in the country, and since Mississippi's small towns and piney woods are filled with good players, the state rapidly is becoming the happy hunting ground of scouts from every school in the conference. So far, Ole Miss seems to be holding an edge, probably because it always has a winning team. But sometimes it's touch and go, even though Vaught's staff keeps close tabs on some prospects from the time they are 10 or 12 years old. Mississippi has run afoul of conference rules only twice during Vaught's tenure, and his staff says that on both occasions it was the fault of overzealous alumni and Ole Miss fans. The record seems to prove it was. In 1949 Ole Miss was fined $2,500—or $500 apiece—when a businessman "friend" of the university gave Christmas jobs and Sugar Bowl trips to five high school players who had signed grant-in-aid agreements with Mississippi. Only last year Ole Miss was fined $1,000 when it came to light that an alumnus had given gifts to a grant-in-aid player and allowed him the use of an automobile in 1957. The ironic thing about this case is that the player never attended Ole Miss. He got married before he reported for training, and Vaught dropped him.
As far back as mid-July, almost a full month before a cotton boll was sighted, the one infallible harbinger of fall in Mississippi, Johnny Vaught sat down and sent off a letter to each of the players on his team: "Have a daily work schedule planned and start training by the 1st of August. The first thing you should do is reach your playing weight. You can lose weight by exercising and by pushing away from the table. Run distances up to a mile for your wind, short sprints of 25 yards (and gut them) for toughness, and calisthenics and grass drills for quickness, agility and control of your body. A well-conditioned squad will not be bothered by injuries. Remember, running is the secret. Above all else, there is no substitute for desire, for spirit and morale. To be a winning team, we must be a hungry team. We must want to win more than the teams we encounter this fall, and I can assure you they'll be hungry. Be ready to start practice here September 1 at top speed. And remember—every football Saturday is the most important date on our schedule, with no exceptions and no reservations.
"Until proved otherwise, we're No. 1. We want no one moving up at our expense."