ATHENS, Ga. — At halftime Saturday, Missouri looked the way I thought in pregame that Georgia would look. The Tigers dominated the line of scrimmage, and they moved the ball with adroit alacrity. However, it was like Vince Lombardi when his Packers were stumbling about in an important game. “What the hell is going on out there,” he famously shouted from the sideline.
The Dogs seemed cautious. I thought, “Where the hell is the abandon?” I kept coaching from the press box, yelling to the defensive linemen to get their hands up. Interrupt the quarterback’s trajectory. Sacks were as unlikely as the final score.
In the end, it was Dominick Sanders who punched the ball out of the grasp of the Missouri’s explosive receiver, J’Mon Moore. Sanders was one of the two greatest punchers in Memorial Stadium on Saturday night, the other being Evander Holyfield, who came to support his son, Elijah, and the Dogs.
The coach continues to pay tribute to his team’s heart, acknowledging that good fortune must be followed by correcting mistakes. The young quarterback with the game on the line, made the big play. Then the defense came to the party at the more propitious time. One other observation: Opposing defensive coordinators seem to be saying: “You may beat me, but not by running Chubb inside.” Don’t fret. Nick will dance for big yards again.
Now it is on to Oxford, which offers a trip down memory lane, making one reflect on the days when Johnny Vaught and Ole Miss were perennially dominant on the “other” side of the conference. Few teams have ever had it any better than Ole Miss had it yesteryear.
The Rebels could pretty much name which players they wanted from the state. The staff seldom attended coaching clinics, and you couldn’t have insulted them more than to ask if you could come watch their spring practices.
Vaught and his staff would shoot doves in the morning in season before coming to the office. When quail season came about, they would often bag a few quail before heading to work. In the offseason, they played golf every day.
Big games were played in Jackson. The biggest challenge on the schedule was LSU. Sometimes Tennessee. The Rebels pretty much dominated Mississippi State annually and had little interest in nonconference games, except for playing Chattanooga on a regular basis.
Vaught, as athletic director, could count on bowl revenue every year. His assistants got nice bonuses and raises. He seldom had openings on his staff. If you joined his staff, you didn’t look for greener pastures. Not many college athletic programs had the stability, lifestyle and success of the Vaught Rebels.
It was a Georgia football letterman who initiated significant change in Oxford. Ken Cooper, who played for Wallace Butts (and was a coach on Vince Dooley’s early staff) went out to join Billy Kinard, who was named head coach in 1971 when Vaught, after suffering a heart attack, resigned. Bruiser Kinard, an Ole Miss legend, became athletic director and hired his younger brother, but things didn’t go well for Billy. Three games into the 1973 season, in the middle of the night, both Kinards were let go. Vaught made a comeback, but was not interested in a long-term commitment. He hired Cooper as the Rebels’ head coach in 1974.
Cooper made two costly decisions: playing more home games in Oxford and making a dedicated effort to sign black players. State politicians, influenced by the business leaders in Jackson, wanted Ole Miss to play all big games in the capital city. Integrating the football team was the last thing on the minds of the majority of Ole Miss alumni.
Cooper, whose best record was 6-5, won’t be remembered for a significant impact at Ole Miss, but he was the coach who underscored playing home games in Oxford and signing black athletes. Ole Miss was behind everybody in the SEC on that latter issue, including rival Mississippi State.
Today, when you visit Oxford you will find plenty of things “old” to go with the new trends. The Grove has gotten only better; the speed limit is still 18 miles per hour on campus (in honor of Archie Manning’s jersey number), Square Books is still touting the works of local authors and a tour of William Faulkner’s homestead, Rowan Oaks, continues to top all of Oxford’s must lists.
The “new,” to begin with, has something to do with the “old.” You no longer see the Confederate flag waving, the band doesn’t play “Dixie” and the long-time mascot, Col. Reb, doesn’t make an appearance on gameday anymore. In his place, you will see a black bear, the current mascot, who owes his existence to something Faulkner penned about a bear years ago, considered by critics as one of the author’s best works.
New on campus is the expansion of the Ole Miss’ athletic facilities, bringing the Rebels up to date with the competition in the SEC. Beating Alabama two of the past three years has reminded Ole Miss partisans of the Vaught years.
Loran Smith is a writer, UGA track letterman, a former executive secretary of the Georgia Bulldog Club and a longtime employee of the UGA Athletic Association who currently serves in the development office. His columns will appear weekly on DawgNation.