Icons don't live forever

Former Rebel broadcaster Stan Torgerson had a soft spot for former Rebel Coach John Vaught, who passed away last week at the age of 96.

Somehow you don't ever expect an icon to die.

The John Vaughts of this world are supposed to live forever. They don't of course. No one does. But it is still a shock when someone you've known for 50 years passes.

It was a shock and more when National Public Radio called me last week and told me John Vaught had passed at the age of 96. They wanted memories of the old man and I was happy to talk about him.

I'd first met him in 1955 when I was broadcasting the Memphis State games for WHBQ in Memphis. The Mutual Radio Network wanted an interview of Coach Vaught and since our station was a member of that network they sent me down to do it.

I was in awe, of course. He treated me kindly and well and when the sponsor switched me to the Ole Miss broadcasts on WMC in 1956 I had no trouble renewing what up to then had been only an acquaintance.

Then they made me manager of the station and two years later I didn't think I could be both management and labor and gave up broadcasting. From there it was jobs in Miami and San Diego. But in 1967 I found a station in Meridian to buy and I got off the airplanes I'd been living on for 12 years.

When the university learned I was coming back to Mississippi, John Reed Holley, business manager for athletics, contacted me about starting a football coach's show. Bear Bryant had one at Alabama and Frank Broyles was doing a show for Arkansas. We went to Coach Vaught and suggested he might want to do one too. We argued that it would be good for the program and that it paid well. Broyles was reportedly getting $2,000 per week for his. Vaught turned us down flat.

He just wanted to coach his team, he said, and after the games return to his farm outside of Oxford and work with his cattle. Football and his cattle. The two great loves of his life. He had no interest in television.

That's why the Ole Miss TV shows from 1967 through 1970 were done newsreel style. I'd pick out the plays I wanted to show, we'd fly to Clarksdale where our photographer had a small film developing lab, cut the game film from about 150 plays to 105, write a script and do voice over. Vaught never appeared on a single one until he took over for Billy Kinard in 1973.

I remember the occasion of our worst loss, the one to Southern Mississippi in 1970. Before the game Vaught had invited my wife and I to come to his house afterward. But when we lost I saw John Jr and suggested we should cancel in view of what had happened. He, however, insisted, saying if his father had invited us we should come. So we did.

We hardly saw him. The phone just rang off the hook with the country's leading coaches calling him one after the other asking him what happened. He must have stayed on the phone in his den talking to Bear Bryant for 20 minutes. I peeked in. There on the floor was a big bear trap, a gift from the alumni following a win over Alabama and inscribed something like "To John Vaught for finally killing the Bear." We finally left and Vaught was still on the telephone answering questions.

Don't misunderstand. Vaught and Bryant were good friends. At the end of the season the SEC officials led by Butch Lambert would hold a golf tournament and steak fry near Tupelo. Bear and Coach Vaught always came, always played together and usually beat whomever they were matched against—and usually on the first tee after begging for strokes.

When Vaught announced his retirement in 1971 after his heart attack the previous year, Bryant came over and was the featured speaker at the banquet honoring the legendary Ole Miss coach. I was master of ceremonies and still have the program, inscribed on the face of it "To Stan Torgerson, your friend forever, John Vaught." I also have a tape of the entire proceeding. Things like that make it doubly hard to lose the man.

Everyone who has called today asking for an interview has asked the same question - what kind of man was John Vaught? I always found him to be paternal. I remember having lunch with him in downtown Oxford one time when he discussed a player who had gotten himself into trouble with a girl. Vaught talked at great length how relieved he was that the problem had been solved. The player went on to be an Ole Miss great.

I'm sure he had a temper, everyone does, but I can truthfully say I never saw it. He's faulted by some for not producing head coaches, assistants who went on to bigger and better things. That doesn't trouble me. His assistants in the main were home grown, Mississippi men who had played at the school, loved Ole Miss and Oxford and upon whom he placed few demands except to do their jobs. They were happy with what they were doing and had little desire to change. It is true that he and coach Wobble Davidson did not get along but the difference was one of coaching philosophy as I saw it.

He should best be remembered as one of that small group of coaches who in the 1940s, 50's and until the mid 60's revolutionized college football, made the forward pass a weapon of choice rather than a play of desperation and was far enough ahead of his time to win games with his mind rather than just using some youngster's muscle.

Somewhere, he and Bear Bryant are playing golf together again. Someone better warn whomever their opponent is. Give that pair two or three a side and they'll beat you every time. And if there are football teams where they are, they'll do it again on Saturday.

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