This is the first of a two-part series relating to the recent death of LSU’s fabled back, Billy Cannon, and how Georgia’s football team became the surprise winner of the Southeastern Conference championship in 1959.
ATHENS — When Billy Cannon died in late May, I thought of his indirect Georgia connection. It is not likely remembered by many who wear Red and Black, but for all Cannon’s stuff of legend, there was one unsuccessful rushing attempt that opened the door for Georgia to win the Southeastern Conference championship in 1959.
The preseason SEC hype that year focused on LSU, the defending national champion; Ole Miss; and Auburn. They were the favorites. Georgia was picked to finish at the bottom of the league.
Even if you are getting long in the tooth, you may recall Cannon’s 89-yard punt return on Halloween night against Ole Miss in Baton Rouge. The game was played in misty, foggy weather. Ole Miss held a 3-0 lead with propitious field position, which, in those years, was considered a positive of such import that coach Johnny Vaught’s Rebels were thought to have a decided advantage.
When an Ole Miss punt took a high bounce deep at the LSU end of the field, Cannon instinctively caught the ball at his own 11-yard line. His coach, Paul Dietzel, had a rule that punts were not to be fielded inside the 15-yard line, so that caught Ole Miss by surprise. Cannon broke seven tackles, the last defender being Jake Gibbs, Ole Miss’ star player to counter the LSU hero. Cannon then broke into the clear and sprinted 60 yards for a touchdown and a 7-3 victory.
A quarter century later, Georgia would line up Herschel Walker and Auburn would counter with Bo Jackson, both different style of runners, especially Jackson. Both had size, speed and power. However, for sheer strength and speed afoot, it is easy for many, especially LSU partisans, to rank Cannon as the most powerful player in SEC history. Unlike Walker and Jackson, Cannon was required to play defense, where he excelled to a degree that was comparable to his fabled reputation as a running back. He was the LSU punter and kicked extra points in high school as well.
When Cannon was at LSU, there was speculation that if he trained to be a world-class sprinter, he was good enough to win Olympic gold. If his choice was to become a weight lifter, he would be able to claim gold in that event, too. His 100-yard dash time was 9.7 seconds, making him the biggest, fastest back in football. He led LSU to the national championship in 1958 and would later win the Heisman Trophy, the second SEC player after Georgia’s Frank Sinkwich to be honored by the Downtown Athletic Club.
LSU was favored to win the national title in 1959, but upstart Georgia would get in the way. However, Bulldogs serendipity would not surface until late in the season. The Tigers, after a week of celebrating the Ole Miss victory in the Bayou, played Tennessee in Knoxville. Tennessee was good but not expected to be much of a threat versus Cannon and LSU. It was the late Tennessee coach, Gen. Robert Neyland, who espoused the view that you can’t get a team up for a peak performance more than once or twice a year and that you never schedule two tough teams back to back.
Based on “the General’s philosophy,” one might have predicted that Tennessee, playing at home, might catch LSU having an off day, and LSU did. It all came down to a late LSU touchdown, which brought about a go-for-broke circumstance for the Tigers. Dietzel didn’t hesitate. He called for a 2-point conversion with the ball going to the biggest, strongest football player in America. If you don’t know the rest of the story, Tennessee swarmed Cannon, getting to him early and tackling him for a loss.
All of a sudden, Georgia, undefeated in the SEC, would play Auburn a week later for the SEC title. It would be an epic showdown with Fran Tarkenton throwing a fourth-down pass to enable the Bulldogs to win the conference championship, the fourth-and-final title for legendary coach Wallace Butts.
Three sensational plays figured in determining the league championship that season: Cannon’s run versus Ole Miss in Baton Rouge, his failed 2-point conversion attempt in Knoxville and Tarkenton’s pass.
Loran Smith is a freelance writer in Athens who works for the University of the Georgia in development and as an administrative specialist, is editor of the football game program and co-host of The Tailgate Show. You can read his columns about UGA sports weekly at DawgNation.