Remembering Coach Vaught: The Legend ... The Coach ... The Man
By Chris Purser
During his tenure at Ole Miss, the Rebels experienced heights never before seen in the history of the program. With a record of 190-61-12, he became the all-time leader in wins for a football head coach in Ole Miss history, and he still holds that position today. But he also became more than that.
He became a mentor to future athletes who would go on to be respected leaders of their communities. Former New York Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly, former New York Yankees player Jake Gibbs and former News Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning all played for Vaught at Ole Miss. But those aren’t the only ones who went on to do great things. Many of Vaught’s “boys,” including Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat, went on to achieve great success in their chosen fields.
“When you walked out on the field, the respect was there,” said Gibbs. “Listening to him speak, you knew what he was talking about.”
Born May 6, 1909 in Olney, Texas, and a graduate of Polytechnic High School in Fort Worth, Vaught earned his reputation as a hardnosed football guy at an early age. He was an offensive guard for TCU in 1930-32 and earned All-America honors in 1932 when he was captain of a Southwest Conference championship team that season. He also rated All-SWC honors for two seasons.
Vaught entered the coaching ranks shortly thereafter, serving as a line coach at North Carolina with Ray "Bear" Wolf from 1936-41. As a Lt. Commander in the Naval Preflight program during World War II, he was stationed at North Carolina in 1942 and Corpus NAS in 1945, serving at those stations as line coach in football.
Vaught arrived at Ole Miss in 1946, serving as offensive line coach for the Rebels under then head coach Harold “Red” Drew. A long-time assistant coach at Alabama, Drew returned to Tuscaloosa to replace the ailing Frank Thomas as head coach following the 1946 season. His brief stay at Ole Miss changed the course of Rebel football.
Vaught remained in Oxford as head coach in 1947 and began what would become a legendary career.
During his first tenure as head coach at Ole Miss, Vaught won six Southeastern Conference Championships from 1947-70, and only one other coach in the league had claimed that many titles at that time. He was selected SEC Coach of the Year six times by the Associated Press, twice by United Press International, twice by the Nashville Banner and twice by the SEC Coaches. In 1993, he was chosen by Ole Miss fans as the “Coach of the Century” (1893-1993) when the University of Mississippi celebrated the school’s first 100 years of football.
He elevated Ole Miss football from ninth in the Southeastern Conference in 1947 to third in all-time SEC standing at the time of his second retirement in 1973. Three of his teams (1959, 1960, and 1962) were recognized by at least one rating system as National Champions. Also in 1962, he recorded a perfect season, going 10-0. That feat has not been accomplished by the Rebels since, and Vaught is the only coach in Ole Miss history to record four 10-win seasons while at the helm. Not bad for a guy that didn't even want the job at first.
“I wasn’t even going to take the job and they asked why,” Vaught said in an interview with the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. “I said you can’t recruit here. We only had one player that was the caliber we needed. That was Kayo Dottley, and I went after him myself.”
In his first season at the helm in 1947, the Rebels posted a 9-2 record, including a 13-9 victory over TCU in the Delta Bowl, and won the first of six SEC crowns. That 1947 season also saw Ole Miss great Charlie Conerly become the first Rebel to be a contender for the Heisman Trophy, placing fourth in the voting for the prestigious honor. Vaught’s first year proved to be a sign of things to come. His winning percentage (.722) during his 25 years as the Rebel coach produced a record that ranks among the most productive at any institution across the nation in any era.
Vaught’s 1959 machine emerged with SEC Team of the Decade (1950-59) accolades. That squad was also selected by the Sagarin Ratings as the third-highest rated college football team from 1956 to 1995. He developed 18 first team All-American players and countless players who gained All-Southeastern and All-South recognition.
Vaught left a legacy of 14 consecutive bowl games, a national record at that time, and 18 of his teams participated in post-season classics in New Orleans, Dallas, Jacksonville, Houston, Memphis and El Paso.
At one point, his Rebels held two Sugar Bowl records -- most appearances with eight and most victories with five. Including the 1971 Gator Bowl loss (28-35) to Auburn, with Vaught watching on TV from his home and quarterback Archie Manning handicapped by the brace protecting his broken arm, the Ole Miss bowl record under Vaught was 10-8.
Manning was the last of a number of spectacular quarterbacks developed by Vaught. The first Rebel hero under Vaught was Charlie Conerly, who played in the last year of the Notre Dame system on the Ole Miss campus. That was 1947, Vaught’s first season as the Rebel head coach, and Conerly set a national record with 133 completions and 18 touchdown passes. Also on that team was end Barney Poole, who set a new national record with 52 catches, 44 from Conerly.
Quarterbacks Farley Salmon, Rocky Byrd, Jimmy Lear, Eagle Day, Ray Brown, Bobby Franklin, Jake Gibbs, Doug Elmore, Glynn Griffing, Perry Lee Dunn and Jim Weatherly were other great Rebel signal-callers developed by Vaught.
Manning, who led Ole Miss to some of the most exciting times in school history, became the fourth player under Vaught to earn Heisman Trophy recognition at Ole Miss. “He was my coach,” said Manning. “He was also my friend. I am deeply indebted to him.”
Health problems forced Vaught to retire after the 1970 season as head football coach. However, he would return to the sidelines, replacing Billy Kinard three games into the 1973 season. The Rebels finished 5-3 under Vaught (6-5 overall) that season before he retired from the sidelines for good. He remained on as Athletics Director until 1978.
“Coach Vaught took Ole Miss football, and to a certain extent the University of Mississippi, into the national spotlight,” said current Athletics Director Pete Boone, also one of Vaught's pupils. “He possessed everything that should define a great coaching legacy: success, confident but yet humble, and loyalty to the university; characteristics not as common in today's environment.”
Vaught was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1976, and the National College Football Hall of Fame in 1979. When asked how he wanted to be inducted, as a player or coach, Vaught chose coach.
Vaught was one of the great innovators in American college football. He altered shift patterns in the old Notre Dame box style to station Conerly at tailback for all action, with the right halfback utilized as a flanker or in motion.
A year later, he introduced Split-T football to the Deep South. Thereafter, he pioneered in roll-out and sprint-out pressure out of the Wing-T and was among the first college coaches to utilize the “I” and Power-I formations. Vaught football at Ole Miss became the model for many college and high school mentors.
Coach Vaught would remain as a father figure for all of Oxford and Ole Miss, having his name added to the stadium in 1982. He spent almost every day playing golf with friends and family in the Oxford area. He would often attend Ole Miss practices, and even lend a helping hand to Rebel head coaches, addressing the team or talking strategy. In fact, many of the Ole Miss coaches since Vaught made it a point to include him as part of their programs.
“In the short time I was able to get to know Coach Vaught, it was evident how much he loved Ole Miss football and his former players,” said current head coach Ed Orgeron. “You simply can't measure the important contributions he made to our great game.”
"With the death of John Vaught, we lose an epic figure of Twentieth Century college football,” said Chancellor Khayat last February. “Universally recognized as one of the great coaches in American football history, he brought dignity, intellect, creativity and vision to the game.
“The University of Mississippi has been shaped and influenced by Coach Vaught and we are a better place as a result of his leadership. His players admired and respected him, University administrators and faculty appreciated his commitment to academic excellence and football fans loved him. His was a life well-lived. He will be missed. We thank God for the life of coach John Vaught and celebrate his extraordinary life. He was a public figure but a private man. He was tough but kind.”
To all of college football, John Howard Vaught was a legend, to Ole Miss he was and always will be the people’s coach.
Langston Rogers, Senior Associate Athletics Director for Media Relations, contributed to this story.
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