Some time before his ascent to hero status in the football crazy South as Mississippi’s head football coach in the mid-20th century, Johnny Vaught was merely a Fort Worth boy, although one who could play a little football.
And though he died at age 96 in 2006 in Oxford, Miss., it’s safe to say the coach will be watching the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl with interest somewhere when No. 6 TCU plays No. 9 Ole Miss on Wednesday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
It’s not a stretch to say that the Southeastern Conference’s legacy as a football powerhouse has roots in Fort Worth.
It’s because of Vaught, who took what he learned as an All-America guard at TCU and spread his good word all across the South while making Ole Miss the vanguard of football across the south.
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“There are, perhaps, quite a number of young men engaged in playing football who are endowed with as much courage and physical toughness as Johnny Vaught and J.W. Townsend,” Star-Telegram sports reporter Flem Hall wrote in November 1932, “but nowhere will you find anyone who has more of the stern stuff than these two Texas Christian players.”
Both were, TCU coach Francis Schmidt said, “60-minute men” and “iron men,” key pieces to the Southwest Conference-champion Horned Frogs’ 10-0-1 season in 1932.
The Olney-born Vaught, who moved to Fort Worth as a teen and earned distinction as both a good football player and valedictorian at Polytechnic High School, left TCU and eventually took an assistant’s job at Ole Miss primarily because “it was close to Texas.”
He became the coach the next season, in 1947, and in 25 seasons compiled a 190-61-12 record while leading Ole Miss to six SEC championships, 18 bowl games and a top-five ranking in every season from 1959-63.
Before Paul “Bear” Bryant, Vaught introduced the fedora to the sideline. He was perhaps the leader of that Southern coaching fraternity that included Bryant, Shug Jordan at Auburn, LSU’s Paul Dietzel and Frank Broyles of Arkansas.
In head-to-head matchups, Bryant had the edge by one victory.
The 1959 team at Mississippi, which shut out eight teams and gave up only 21 points all season, was selected SEC team of the decade and one of three Ole Miss teams that staked a claimed to a national championship.
His graduates included star quarterbacks Charlie Conerly, a national record holder while there, and Archie Manning.
“He was a great coach at Ole Miss,” said TCU alum Dan Jenkins, who covered Vaught as a national football writer for Sports Illustrated, at the time of Vaught’s death in 2006. “He was not exactly a stand-up comedian. He was a tough guy. He was a good ol’ boy from Fort Worth.”
Civil rights era
Football in Mississippi transcended the sports realm into politics and culture in the 1960s.
Football games on Saturday during the Vaught era in many respects became social events, especially at Ole Miss, which promoted itself as “the friendly university,” the educational institution “where everybody speaks.”
Odd mantras considering the experience of James Meredith, who in 1962 enrolled as the first black student at Ole Miss.
Mayhem ensued with rioting, and some students were expelled for possessing bomb-making materials and flammables. It was one of the ugliest scenes of the 20th century on U.S. soil.
President John Kennedy and U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy both called the most influential man on campus in an attempt to calm the campus, where two people had been killed.
“I went over to the Student Union and got on the high steps and looked at the crowd that was there, and I didn’t know anybody,” said Vaught in an interview with the Oxford Eagle. “They weren’t dressed like they were students. They weren’t our people. They were outsiders. They weren’t going to listen to me, so I just moved on.”
What did ultimately distract was football. Vaught ordered his players not to get involved with the Meredith situation. “Whatever is going to happen will happen.”
Even with federal troops called in to enforce integration using the football practice field as a command post, the football team went about its business and flourished, finishing undefeated and staking claim to the No. 1 national ranking.
In an attempt to divert attention, Vaught opened his practices to students and the public.
A victory over LSU early in November left no doubt in the coach’s mind that his team was No. 1.
The voters didn’t agree, though the Rebels did claim a share of the national title with a victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.
Vaught’s own record on civil rights is a mixed bag. He was accused of not playing teams with black players and never recruited a black player before his first retirement in 1970. On the other hand, Vaught was also Mississippi’s athletic director in the 1960s and is credited with supporting attempts by coaches in other sports to integrate.
“It was pretty bad then,” Vaught said of 1962 in an interview with the Oxford Eagle. “If it hadn’t been for football, they would have probably closed Ole Miss.”
Hogs and Frogs, too
In his first season as coach at Ole Miss in 1947, Vaught met up with his alma mater in the Delta Bowl.
Led by Conerly, the star quarterback, the Rebels defeated coach Dutch Meyer and the Horned Frogs 13-9 in his only matchup with TCU.
There’s a hint of the past in his game and not just because of Vaught’s association with both.
In Vaught’s senior season of 1932, TCU won the Southwest Conference title, going 10-0-1, claiming the title with a victory over archrival SMU in the season finale.
The Frogs were ranked as high as No. 5 in one poll that season, behind No. 1 Colgate, Southern California, Michigan and Auburn.
Vaught was the only player from the SWC on The Associated Press’ All-America first team, beating out Colgate’s Bob Smith at guard because of that drive Schmidt raved about, the AP said.
Unlike 2014, the season ended with the regular-season finale in Dallas.
The bowl system was still a few years away from evolving into what we came to know, but there was talk of a postseason game to crown a champion of the South between the SWC champion and the Southern Conference champion (essentially today’s SEC).
Tennessee declined to play in the game, as did Auburn, according to newspaper reports from that day.
On Wednesday, no South champion will be crowned, though this is the best Mississippi team since the days of Vaught. The Rebels’ credentials include victories over No. 1 Alabama and No. 9 Mississippi State.
Both TCU and Mississippi have voices to be heard.
And Johnny Vaught will be listening.