The next year was better, but the big turn came in 1952. Ole Miss bowled over Auburn, Tulane, Arkansas, Houston, tied Vanderbilt and Kentucky and pulled off the upset of the year by beating powerful Maryland 21-14. It was the first unbeaten team in Ole Miss history. Tackle Kline Gilbert made All-America, and Mississippi met Georgia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, losing 24-7. But the biggest triumph of the season was that Ole Miss was ranked nationally for the first time, a distinction it now accepts naturally, and that is the real success story of Johnny Vaught.
During the years Vaught was climbing to the top, he was learning the lessons and assembling the staff that have kept him there. He may very well have the best coaching staff in the country. Except for Backfield Coach Johnny Cain, who was the original Hurry Cain at Alabama in 1932, they are all Ole Miss grads, big, hulking, level-talking men, who work with as much enthusiasm as any second-team tailback. Frank (Bruiser) Kinard, an alltime All-America tackle at Ole Miss in 1936-37, is a line coach, as is Buster Poole ('37). Junie Hovious ('42) is a backfield coach. There are four assistant coaches: Wobble Davidson ('42), Tom Swayze ('33), Ray Poole ('46) and Roland Dale ('49). Not only is it one of the best coaching staffs in the country, the staff works for one of the poorer-paying schools with national recognition. Salaries are comparative, of course, and in Oxford, where the de luxe Sunday dinner at the best restaurant in town costs only $1.50, Mississippi salaries, ranging from $9,000 to $11,000 a year, certainly allow for a higher standard of living than could be had for twice $10,000 in the North. Vaught himself is poorly paid, compared with a coaching financier like Bear Bryant of Alabama. He earns around $17,500 to Bryant's reputed $80,000 (from all sources) but apparently is satisfied. On at least three occasions he had offers from other schools which would have paid him considerably more than that. He turned them down.
Vaught not only is a good coach, he is a highly unusual one. For one thing, there is his refusal to bother with any football player, no matter how fast or powerful, if he has trouble with his studies. After nursing along a few knuckleheads for a couple of years, he decided they weren't worth the bother and passed the word that no player was to be recruited if he was deficient in the brain department. He admits that this self-imposed rule has caused him to miss several promising players, but he refuses to relax it. "We arrange to get tutors for a boy when he is in temporary trouble," he says, "but if a boy isn't up to making a passing average, we just don't want to bother with him."
Above the average
Vaught also requires that all freshmen attend study hall from Monday through Thursday, no matter how bright they are. The grades of football players at Ole Miss are above the men's average for the rest of the school, and the pleasurable result of this, of course, is that Vaught has excellent relations with the faculty.
He also refuses to recruit married men, and players with automobiles are required to leave them at home during football season. "A married player is just too much trouble and bad for discipline," Vaught declares. "Take out-of-town trips, for instance. Wives usually go to the games, and afterwards the husbands want to join them. I don't let the others out at night, and if the married players are allowed to go, the rest begin to feel penalized. It's better to have the same rules for all."
During his first couple of years at Mississippi, Vaught sometimes wandered far afield after likely football players, but he soon decided to stick to his own backyard. "To be perfectly honest about it, we didn't get many out-of-state prospects, anyway," he says. "Recruiting is always a problem, but we are lucky in many respects, for one of the big factors in football in the state of Mississippi is that every community takes an interest in it. Most little towns don't have a whole hell of a lot of entertainment like they do in some other places. A football game on Saturday is a big event, and people turn out to see it. We have another big advantage in that there is so much first-class coaching in this state. Our high schools develop good players. It's part of the way of life down here."
A personal thing
Vaught prefers Mississippi players. Of his 48-man squad, only five are from out of state; they are from nearby Alabama, Tennessee or Kentucky.
Why does he prefer Mississippi boys? "For one thing, these boys down here have always worked," Vaught says. "They're accustomed to hard work. But it's more than that. It's a feeling. A boy must want to play football and win for Ole Miss. Without these qualifications he's not of the same use. A boy from outside this region might be just as talented, he may seem to play just as hard, but he usually doesn't. To an out-of-state boy, for example, a game with Mississippi State will be just another game. But a Mississippi boy knows all about the fierce rivalry between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. It's a personal thing. What it boils down to is that we want a defeat for Ole Miss to hurt the individual. Hurt him bad. If they are Mississippi boys, it will, too. When these boys go home they hear about the games they lost all summer long. Everybody wants to know why, and they won't let them forget a bad year. It gets right down to local pride and a desire to win. It's all based on the fact that this is home."