MULE' - Vaught brought out best in LSU

It's a curious twist of Southern football history, but LSU fans owe a big debt of gratitude to the man they buried in the red, clay hills of Mississippi last week.

Johnny Vaught not only built an Ole Miss program that was the measuring stick of SEC teams from the late 1940s through the 1960s, but in many ways was the spur of modern – meaning winning and exciting – Tigers football.

 

This is how much Vaught, who died last week at age 96, meant to Ole Miss. Before he was hired in 1947, the Rebels had never won an SEC championship. Since he retired in 1970, Ole Miss hasn't won an SEC title. In between the Rebels won six.

 

Ole Miss fans love their team's pregame "Walk of Champions,'' but no championship Rebel team has made that stroll since 1963 – 42 years ago – when Vaught coached his last title team.

 

LSU was generally floundering in football mediocrity for a decade after Vaught took over at Oxford. When Paul Dietzel became the Tiger coach in 1955 he quickly recognized a role model when he saw one.

 

Ole Miss came to represent a clear measure of how far LSU had to go, and eventually, how far it had come.

 

"We learned a lot from John Vaught,'' Dietzel reflected. "He was a fine fellow and a great coach.''

 

Dietzel had coached a couple of Vaught's players in an All-Star game after the 1956 season. Chatting after a practice, Dietzel asked them about their superb conditioning. That came, the players said, as a result of twenty 50-yard dashes after each practice, sometimes more.

 

"No, you don't understand,'' Dietzel replied. "I meant every day, what kind of conditioning do you do?''

 

"That was the daily regimen,'' the Rebels replied.

 

Dietzel returned to Baton Rouge and promptly informed his team that from then on, each practice would end with a series of sprints – twenty-one 50-yard dashes,

 

Ole Miss also taught Dietzel the value of quality depth. The Tigers led the Rebels 17-14 at the half of their game in '56 game. "We played as well as we could play,'' Dietzel said, "but by the time we got to the dressing room we were worn out.'' The Rebels routed LSU in the second half, chalking up a 46-17 victory.

 

After that game Dietzel started tinkering with substitution plans that, two years later, were his acclaimed three-team system – which played a major role in LSU's 1958 national championship team.

 

That was more than ironic because, although a couple of minor football organizations over the years voted the Rebels No. 1 in their rankings, Vaught's teams never finished at the top of the preeminent polls, in no small measure because of Dietzel and the LSU Tigers.

 

The epic 1959 battle between the rivals ruined any shot of a title for Ole Miss when No. 1 LSU prevailed on Billy Cannon's storied punt return, 7-3, over the No. 3 Rebels. Vaught got a measure of revenge by beating the Tigers 21-0 in a rematch in the Sugar Bowl, but that was a hollow victory since in those days the postseason had no bearing on final rankings. In 1960, the unbeaten Rebels needed a long field goal at game's end to salvage a 6-6 against LSU, a blot that cost Ole Miss a perfect season. And ultimately a No. 1 finish. A 10-7 LSU victory in 1961, one in which the Tigers completed just one pass – which led to LSU's touchdown – again deprived a worthy Rebel squad.

 

Dietzel learned well from Vaught, too well for the Rebels. In his first three games against Ole Miss, Dietzel went 0-3. In his last four games against the Rebels, Dietzel went 3-1-1.

On hearing of his passing, Dietzel reiterated, "He was a great coach.''

 

And coaching role model.

 

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Marty Mule' can be reached at MJM981@Bellsouth.net


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