A Golden Era for Ole Miss football

Players and coaches came before and have arrived since. But there was only one Vaught era of Ole Miss football. Even in his passing, it lives on.

To complete high school senior English in Mrs. Lanois Davidson's class at Baldwyn, we had to write an extensive research paper. We could pick any subject. She had to approve it.

I chose the subject of John Vaught; Rebel Coach. It was the name of his memoirs. The book was written after he retired from coaching the first time following the Jan. 2, 1971, Gator Bowl game. Of course he retired a second time following a sound 38-10 defeat of Mississippi State in 1973, when he replaced Billy Kinard who was let go three games into his third season at one of the country's premier college football schools.

The Rebels had started 1973 with a 1-2 record, including an unforgivable loss to Memphis State, only the second time in history Ole Miss had ever lost in football to the school Rebel fans call "Tiger High."

Vaught was called back into active coaching duty prior to the Southern Mississippi game to be played in Oxford. At first sight of the legendary coach, Ole Miss fans stood and cheered as he entered the playing facility that would later bear his name in addition to Hemingway, which it had been called for years.

Ole Miss beat USM 41-0 and probably could have beaten any team from anywhere in the country that lined up on Hemingway's astroturf that day.

The Rebs went on to win four more games that season, including big SEC wins over Florida and Tennessee, in addition to keeping the Golden Egg in Oxford for the third straight year.

So a few years after that, I decided to see if Mrs. Davidson would let me write that paper on Coach Vaught. She approved. I went to work. I still remember her remarks on the paper after she graded it (I passed and graduated high school, by the way).

"You almost made an Ole Miss fan out of me," said Mrs. Davidson, a Bulldog at heart.

Although perhaps I was in some way preparing myself for the career I have been in for the past decade and a half, her inspiration from the paper wasn't because of me. It was because of Coach Vaught and his story.

Someone told me late Saturday that they heard Stan Torgerson on National Public Radio being interviewed about the life and times - and death - of John Vaught. I appreciate the fact that some had put a link on the Spirit website so we could all hear it.

John Vaught and Stan Torgerson. Two Ole Miss legends.

I was fortunate that during my years as an Ole Miss student, Stan was still the play by play man for Rebel football on radio (he did men's basketball play by play too), along with football color commentator Lyman Hellums, both of whom I have had the pleasure of calling a friend for years. I always look forward to seeing them and their wives when they visit the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium press box for games.

So when I listened to Stan talk about Coach Vaught late on Saturday night, I realized once again just what Ole Miss people had in that era now long ago. It was an era many thought would never end, the winning and the good times, that is. Sugar Bowls and big games were so common back then, nothing could have ever put a stop to the annual success that was Ole Miss football.

But Coach Vaught had some heart problems and retired early, at age 61 the first time. The entire world of the 1940s and 50s began to change in the 60s and 70s. Recruiting was different. Ole Miss failed in many ways to keep up. Mississippi was changing. America was changing. Some things in a number of areas just weren't handled well.

Since then we've searched. Ole Miss has always been looking for another Coach Vaught. It's been a tough find. There is no other Coach Vaught.

Since I've been in Oxford covering Ole Miss sports, I've written about the passing of Tad Smith and Nub Sanders, of Barney Poole and Chunkin' Charlie Conerly, of Norris Weese and Chucky Mullins, of Tom Swayze and Doug Elmore and Buster Poole, and now Coach Vaught. All legendary and important names in the lore of Ole Miss football. All gone - and many more - from this life and into the next.

I've wondered aloud since I heard the news of Coach Vaught's death if many of the great coaches he faced who are still alive will attend his service - like Darrell Royal (Mississippi State, Texas), Frank Broyles (Arkansas), Doug Dickey (Tennessee, Florida), Vince Dooley (Georgia), Bob Tyler (Mississippi State, and as an assistant to Vaught at Ole Miss).

I know hundreds of former players and friends will attend. The bond of the Vaught boys has been like no other we've seen at Ole Miss - ever.

So as the life of John Vaught passes, the legend and lore of John Vaught lives on. In the stadium that bears his name. In the former players who keep his story alive. In the trophy cases, signs, and banners we see on campus honoring the achievements of him and his teams.

It was a life well-lived and notably honored. It was an era that all who lived within its time frame shall never forget.

Worthy of a brief but thorough interview on NPR; of a story here and a tale there of players and games and wins and losses through the years; of a research paper subject that even caught the fancy of a teacher with leanings in the direction of another school, and that also helped an Ole Miss boy graduate from high school so he could go to Ole Miss - and thankfully now write about Ole Miss and her people and their accomplishments.

It was a life, a time, an era, that was like no other any of us has known. It was golden.

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