Young men brought up on such a tradition do not automatically become good football material, of course, but it does seem to be a pretty good guarantee that they will not be effete. Under the right circumstances, they might be inclined to throw their weight around and prefer rough sports. Besides, most Mississippians are farm people or not more than one or two generations removed from the soil, and hard work not only builds muscle and accustoms one to sweat, it breeds an obstinacy of spirit and independence.
Generalizing about women is a dangerous and unprofitable business at best, but it does seem to be true that part of the charm of Mississippi women is their dewy-eyed acceptance of their men as reckless and dashing creatures. If the women raise their voices at all, it is to squeal with delight or to feign terror at the accomplishments of the men. The men, for their part, seem to want to keep them that way. And they want their women lovely and pampered and dressed to kill. These may be the qualities that make a young lady from Natchez a Miss America and her beautiful, strong-minded counterpart from Racine a Miss Wisconsin.
The one man responsible for Ole Miss's present national prominence is, of course, Football Coach John Howard Vaught. He has been at Oxford for 13 seasons, and his record of 101 victories, 29 defeats and six ties means that, statistically, he is the second best coach in the nation. First place is held by Bud Wilkinson of Oklahoma, whose record since 1947 is 115 victories, 12 defeats and three ties for an average of .906. Both records are astoundingly good; just how good is shown when comparison is made with the next three teams: Michigan State, 88-28-3, Notre Dame 92-30-5 and Georgia Tech, 96-32-6.
Johnny Vaught is a burly, level-eyed and hard-working man of 52. He has the weather-beaten look of a telephone lineman and the calm, authoritative eye of an oldtime police captain. To use a Mississippi expression, Vaught knows he can hit the center of a spittoon every time. When he wishes, Johnny Vaught can be marvelously accurate with words, too, but this is not very often. Sometimes he is glumly laconic, particularly when he is asked to expound on his team's prospects. A native of Texas, Vaught was an all-star fullback as well as class valedictorian at Fort Worth's Polytechnic High School. He went on to Texas Christian University, where he played left guard, captained TCU's Southwest championship team in 1932 and won All-America honors the same year.
A split-T convert
After graduation, Vaught coached at North Side High School in Fort Worth for a couple of years, spent another year peddling electrical appliances and then joined Ray (Bear) Wolf's staff at North Carolina. He spent six years at North Carolina and when World War II came was commissioned an officer in the Navy's preflight program. He was a line coach under Jim Crowley at Chapel Hill, then was assigned to the same job under Larry (Moon) Mullins at Corpus Christi, where he became a split-T convert. Vaught was a lieutenant commander when he got out of the service and stepped directly into a job as line coach at Ole Miss under Harold (Red) Drew. Although 1946 was a miserable season, with the Rebels winning only two games and losing seven, Vaught and Mississippi developed such a rapid and rapturous infatuation for each other that when Drew returned to Alabama at the end of the year there never was any question but that Vaught would succeed him. It turned out to be an astonishingly wise decision.
Thirteen years later it is somewhat easy to minimize the near miracle Vaught pulled off during his first year as head coach. For, after all, he did have Charley Conerly, the present New York Giant quarterback, as well as big Barney Poole and his suction-tipped fingers. But the big difference was Vaught's patience, shrewdness and gift for improvising. Although he was a firm believer in the split-T, Vaught realized he could not use the formation if he wanted to use Conerly and Poole to the best advantage. So he retained Drew's old Alabama version of the Notre Dame shift and box, altering and redesigning it here and there so Conerly could stay at tailback on both left-and right-side shifts. The net result of the Conerly shift was that Conerly set a new national record by completing 133 passes (for 18 touchdowns), Poole set another by catching 52 (44 from Conerly), and Mississippi rolled over Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Tulane, LSU, Tennessee, Chattanooga and Mississippi State, losing only to Vanderbilt (6-10) and Arkansas (14-19). Ole Miss won the Southeastern Conference title, its first championship in 53 seasons; Conerly and Poole made All-America; Vaught became the first (and only) freshman coach to win an SEC title, and the only coach in Ole Miss history to win the SEC Coach of the Year honors.
Quite naturally, there was dancing on the levee and jubilation in the piney hills. Just to cap off the season, Ole Miss and practically everybody in northern Mississippi journeyed to the Delta Bowl in Memphis, and the team licked the hominy grits out of highly touted Texas Christian 13-9.
In 1948, with Conerly lost through graduation, Vaught finally was able to introduce the split-T in the Deep South, rebuilding his team around slippery Quarterback Farley Salmon. The results were even better than he or anybody else had anticipated. Ole Miss knocked off Tennessee and Vanderbilt, steam-rolled LSU 49-19—the most points counted against the Tigers in SEC history—and out of nine games dropped only one, to Tulane (7-20). It was the best year ever, and the ripple of interest that had been building up on southern sports desks swept as far north as New York and caused Yankee sportswriters to send for clips on Johnny Vaught, which of course didn't exist.
For the next two years, however, Vaught simply didn't live up to expectations. The introduction of the twin-platoon system was headache enough, particularly since he had only 19 lettermen in 1949 and only 17 a year later. In both years his teams were prone to fumbles and penalties and were hit hard by injuries. In 1949 there were 53 fumbles and 96 penalties. In 1950 there were 29 players on the hospital list from September onward, 18 of them first-stringers.