Monday, Nov. 28, 1960
Coach Johnny Reb
By bigtime football standards, the whole operation seems as pleasantly relaxed as a backyard barbecue. The players are almost all home-state boys.
They perform in a modest stadium before informal crowds that are packed with friends and relatives. The games draw less national publicity than the price of cotton raised on nearby farms. But year in and year out, the University of Mississippi plays some of the finest football in the nation. The reason: Coach Johnny Vaught, 52, a bluff, leather-faced perfectionist who has so identified the success of his team with the prestige of the state that Mississippians long ago forgot his Texas origins and now regard him as a native son.
Since signing on at Ole Miss in 1947, Coach Vaught has compiled a won-lost record of 109-29, second only to the 123-19 of Oklahoma's Bud Wilkinson among major college coaches. In 1959 Ole Miss was a strong second to Syracuse in the national rankings. Last week, on the strength of its 24-3 defeat of tough Tennessee, Vaught's undefeated, once-tied wing-T squad stood third in the standings for the finest two-year record of any college team.
Night Light. Inspired by Ole Miss, the whole state vibrates in a constant football flap. No high school would think of scheduling a game for the time that Vaught's team is playing; anyone who cannot get over to Oxford for the Ole Miss game listens to it over his radio. But every Friday night the state is set aglow from the Gulf to the Tennessee border by the lights of high school games. Towns too poor to have a Confederate memorial are too proud not to have a football field. Says Ole Miss Line Coach Frank ("Bruiser") Kinard: "Most every place manages to throw up a stick and put a light on it."
When he sets out to harvest the best of this bumper crop of high school stars, Coach Vaught is a shrewd and patient recruiter. He quietly notes that a degree from Ole Miss carries more weight than one from archrival Mississippi State. To hear him talk, Ole Miss football is a family affair. Eight of Vaught's assistants are graduates of the school, and most have been coaching there for a dozen years or more. Above all, Vaught extols state pride with the fervor of a militia colonel. "Boys we get from out of state can go home and never hear about Ole Miss football," he says. "But in Mississippi the game is talked about all year round. We like to get Mississippi boys, boys who love Ole Miss and want to win for her."
Vaught flatly refuses to give a scholarship to a married man ("They're too much trouble, and they're bad for discipline"). He has equally firm notions about regulating the lives of his players. None may have a car during the season. The entire football team is housed in Miller Hall, a segregation made easier by the fact that the lobby is plush enough for a Las Vegas motel.
Block & Tackle. Around the gracious, red brick campus, the football area is known tersely as "Vaught's Valley." Into the valley each afternoon strides Coach Vaught, his square shoulders bulging a red sweatshirt out of shape, to teach a brand of football that is as tough as he looks—and as tough as he himself once played. Back at Texas Christian they still remember one tackle made in 1932 by All-America Guard Vaught that left both the ball carrier and himself lying senseless on the field. "I'm a fundamentalist," Vaught says. "I believe in perfection of execution, in the blocking and tackling angles of the game." Signs spotted around his office spell out his football philosophy: "Put 'em on the ground!"
Under Mississippi law, the state-supported university cannot give Coach Vaught a contract for longer than four years. But Ole Miss does its best to show its deep appreciation to Vaught by giving him a new four-year contract every year, honoring him like the state institution he is. When Vaught makes his annual speech before the alumni in Jackson, says one official, "you'd think the President was coming." Colleges from other states have invited Coach Johnny Reb to become an adopted son, but to no avail. "Home is where the heart is, and that's Oxford," says Coach Johnny Vaught. "I never expect to leave."
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