History of Rebel Football
The University of Mississippi boasts a long and colorful football history, which includes the formation of the first football team in the state, as well as one of the winningest programs in the history of collegiate football.
In its 122-year history, the Ole Miss football program has claimed three national championships (1959, 1960 and 1962), six Southeastern Conference titles (1947, 1954, 1955, 1960, 1962, and 1963), and one SEC Western Division title (2003), produced 56 first-team All-Americans and more than 165 first-team All-SEC selections, appeared in 36 bowl games with 23 wins, and sent more than 300 players into the professional ranks.
Rebel Football Beginnings
The beginnings of the program can be traced all the way back to 1890, when Dr. A.L. Bondurant, who would later serve as dean of the Graduate School, urged Ole Miss students to help in the formation of an Athletic Association in the interests of football, baseball and tennis. Such a group became a reality a short while later, and in 1893, a football team was organized, with Bondurant serving as the manager-coach.
That first squad set a precedent that was to become an Ole Miss tradition, winning four of five games during that maiden season, including a 56-0 victory over Southwest Baptist University of Jackson, Tenn., in the inaugural game on Nov. 11, 1893.
Early financial matters were the responsibility of the manager and support came largely from the Athletic Association, which was made up of a combination of students and faculty members willing to back the athletes by payment of a small fee.
Although it has never been documented, it is thought that C.D. Clark of Tufts was the first paid football coach at Ole Miss. His name appears as manager of the team as shown in the Ole Miss Magazine dated November 1894.
The Pre-WWII Years
Prior to 1925, a total of 22 coaches took their turn as head coach at Ole Miss, with only seven heading up the program for more than one season. Those early years were characterized by periods of both prosperity and difficult times: 1883-95, 12-3; 1896-1908, 24-36-1; 1909-14, 33-17-4; and 1915-24, 30-48.
Since the formation of the Athletic Committee in 1925, the Rebels have had just 12 head coaches, with three of those also handling the dual responsibility of athletic director. The establishment of the committee on a faculty-alumni basis (a student representative has since been added) seemed to re-establish alumni support for the football program and a bright future lay ahead.
Homer Hazel of Rutgers served as the head coach from 1925-29, winning 21 games, losing 22 and tying three before being succeeded by Ed Walker, a Stanford graduate, in 1930. While Walker's record was a modest 38-38-8 over his eight-year stay, he firmly established the direction of the football program. He took Ole Miss to its first bowl game in 1935, with the Rebels falling to Catholic University, 20-19 in the Orange Bowl, and also coached the Rebels' first All-America first teamer in Bruiser Kinard in 1936. Kinard, who also earned All-America first team honors in 1937, would be the first of 41 Rebels to earn the prestigious national accolade.
Under Walker's tenure, Ole Miss took another step to help cement a solid future for Rebel football and other athletic teams when it became a charter member of the SEC in 1933. The Rebels have competed in the league ever since. Prior to joining the SEC, Ole Miss had competed in the Southern Conference from 1922-32.
Harry Mehre, from Notre Dame, became the head coach in 1938 and put together a pre-war record of 39-26-1, which included several notable victories. Mehre led Ole Miss to its first-ever victory over Vanderbilt in 1939, its first win in 11 years over LSU in 1938, and the first win over Tulane in 25 seasons in 1941.
The post-war period would prove to be the Rebels' most glorious era as C.M. "Tad" Smith, a member of the Ole Miss athletic family since 1929, succeeded Mehre as director of athletics. Smith would serve as athletic director for 25 years before retiring on Feb. 1, 1971.
Harold (Red) Drew of Bates was brought in as head coach in 1946 and Ole Miss football stood on the verge of becoming one of the most powerful and respected programs in the country. A long-time assistant coach at Alabama, Drew remained at Ole Miss just one season before returning to Tuscaloosa as head coach, but his brief stay would prove to change the course of Rebel football.
Vaught Places Ole Miss On National Football Map
John Vaught, a line coach under Drew and a former All-American at TCU, remained in Oxford as head coach in 1947 and led the Ole Miss program to national prominence over the next 24 years.
In his first season at the helm in 1947, the Rebels posted a 9-2 record and won the first of six SEC crowns (1947, 1954, 1955, 1960, 1962, 1963). That 1947 season also saw Ole Miss great Charlie Conerly become the first Rebel player 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 good things to come for Ole Miss. During his 24-year tenure, the Rebels would have only one losing campaign.
Vaught's squads, however, didn't stop at just winning league titles, as the Rebels claimed three national championships in 1959, 1960 and 1962. Ole Miss won the 1959 Dunkel System national crown, the 1960 Football Writers Association of America, Dunkel System, and Williamson System national championships and the 1962 Litkenhous Ratings national title. Vaught's 1959 squad, which was honored as the "SEC Team of the Decade," was ranked the third best collegiate football team from 1956 to 1995, according to the Jeff Sagarin Ratings released in January of 1996.
The Rebels were also among the winningest programs in the country under Vaught during the 1950s and 1960s. From 1950-59, Ole Miss posted an 80-21-5 record (.778 winning percentage). The 80 wins and 77.8 winning percentage were second to only Oklahoma during that decade. In the 1960s, Vaught guided the Rebels to a 72-20-6 record and a 76.5 winning percentage, which was the fourth best during that decade.
Under Vaught's guidance, Ole Miss made Hemingway Stadium (later named Vaught-Hemingway Stadium) one of the toughest places in the nation for opposing teams to play. In his 24 seasons at the helm, Vaught's teams compiled an impressive 57-6-2 record in Oxford for an astounding 89.2 winning percentage. From 1952-1964, the Rebels put together an incredible 34-game homefield unbeaten streak (33-0-1), including 21-straight victories from 1952-59.
In the 1950s and 1960s under Vaught, Ole Miss was a fixture in the national polls. The Rebels were ranked atop the Associated Press poll for three weeks during the 1960 season and one week during the 1961 campaign. In 1964, Ole Miss was ranked preseason No. 1 in the Associated Press poll.
Vaught also made going to postseason play the norm rather than the exception for the Rebel football program. Ole Miss played in 15 consecutive bowl games from 1957-71 which, at that time, was a national record. In all, Vaught led Ole Miss to 18 bowl game appearances, posting a 10-8 record in those contests. For his efforts, Vaught was named SEC Coach of the Year six times (1947, 1948, 1954, 1955, 1960, 1962).
During his time at the helm, Vaught coached some of the best players ever to wear the Red & Blue. In 24 seasons, Vaught produced 26 All-America first teamers. He also coached four players who finished in the top five in the Heisman Trophy voting. Along with Conerly in 1947, Charlie Flowers (5th in 1959), Jake Gibbs (3rd in 1960) and Archie Manning (4th in 1969, 3rd in 1970) were in the running for college football's top honor.
Failing health forced Vaught to resign his position in 1970 and the reins of the Ole Miss football program were turned over to Billy Kinard.
The Post-Vaught Years
Kinard became the first Ole Miss alumnus to head up the football program, while Frank "Bruiser" Kinard, an offensive line coach under Vaught since 1948, was named to replace Smith as athletic director that same year.
The Rebels went 16-9 under Billy Kinard, including a 10-2 record and a 41-18 Peach Bowl victory over Georgia Tech in his first year in 1971. Kinard's 10 victories are tied for fourth most by a first-year head coach in NCAA Division I history.
Kinard coached the Rebels through the 1972 campaign and the third contest of the 1973 season, before startling developments following the Sept. 22, 1973, game with Memphis State saw both Kinards replaced by Vaught. Vaught returned to the field to guide the Rebels through the remainder of the 1973 season while also taking on the responsibility of athletic director.
Following the 1973 football campaign, Vaught resigned once again as head coach, but remained on as athletic director. His final record with the Rebels was an amazing 190-61-12. The 190 victories still rank Vaught among the top 25 winningest coaches in NCAA Division I history, and he is the fourth-winningest coach in SEC history behind Bear Bryant's (Alabama) 323 wins, Lou Holtz's (South Carolina) 238 wins and Vince Dooley's (Georgia) 201 victories. In 1979, Vaught was inducted in the National College Football Hall of Fame.
Ken Cooper, an assistant under Kinard since 1971, was named head coach on Jan. 17, 1974, and took Ole Miss through the 1977 season. Cooper compiled a 21-23 record during his four years at the helm, and his tenure is probably best remembered for one hot and humid day in September 1977. In one of the most memorable games in Rebel football history, Ole Miss upset Notre Dame, 20-13 in Mississippi Memorial Stadium on Sept. 17, 1977, in Jackson. That loss was the Irish's lone setback of the 1977 campaign, as Notre Dame finished the season with an 11-1 record and claimed the national title.
Following the 1977 season, Steve Sloan was hired as the new Rebel boss and began his five-year stint in 1978. Sloan posted a 20-34 record from 1978-82.
After stepping outside the Ole Miss family football tree the previous nine seasons, Ole Miss looked for a familiar face to lead the football program, and the Rebels found that person when Billy Brewer returned to Oxford to take over as head coach in December of 1982.
In only his first season in 1983, Brewer put the Ole Miss program on the road back to national prominence. Brewer guided the Rebels to their first winning regular season since 1977 with a 7-4 mark. The Rebels also received their first bowl game invitation since 1971 and met Air Force in the Independence Bowl. Ole Miss dropped a 9-3 decision to the Falcons and finished with a 7-5 record.
Brewer followed his first season with 10 more at the helm of the Rebel program. During his tenure, he led the Rebels to five more winning seasons and four additional bowls, including Ole Miss' 1990 New Year's Day Gator Bowl appearance. The Jan. 1 bowl game was the program's first since 1969. He was named SEC Coach of the Year in 1986 (8-3-1 record) and 1990 (9-3 record), and the 1986 season saw the Rebels return to the national rankings for the first time in over a decade. In his 11 seasons, Brewer also led Ole Miss to eight Egg Bowl victories over rival Mississippi State.
Brewer coached 11 years (1983-93) and compiled a 67-56-3 record, making him the second winningest Ole Miss football coach behind Vaught. Brewer was dismissed just prior to the 1994 season, and Joe Lee Dunn took over as interim coach, directing the Rebels to a 4-7 record under difficult circumstances.
Rebels On The Rise
In the mid-1990s, Ole Miss football was somewhat down, but not out, and it needed a boost of energy to revitalize the program. On Dec. 2, 1994, Tommy Tuberville was selected as the coach in charge of getting the Rebels on the right track.
After serving as an assistant coach on the collegiate level for nine seasons (eight at Miami and one at Texas A&M), Tuberville began creating excitement in his first season in 1995, finishing the campaign with a 6-5 record and a Egg Bowl victory over Mississippi State.
That excitement grew to a fever pitch in 1997, when Ole Miss recorded its best season since 1992 with an 8-4 record, a thrilling 15-14 Egg Bowl victory over Mississippi State and a Motor City Bowl win over Marshall. The bowl appearance was the program's first since 1992, and the Rebels earned a final national ranking of No. 22 in both polls.
The revitalized Ole Miss program continued its winning ways in 1998, despite a coaching change following the regular season. David Cutcliffe took over as head coach on Dec. 2, 1998. Cutcliffe, who came to Ole Miss from his offensive coordinator post at Tennessee, took over the reins just 29 days before the Rebels' Sanford Independence Bowl date versus Texas Tech. Despite the short preparation time for the game, Cutcliffe led the Rebels to a 35-18 victory over the Red Raiders, quite arguably the biggest upset of the 1998 bowl season.
Offensive Fireworks Over Oxford
Cutcliffe, who is recognized as one of the top offensive minds in collegiate football, brought with him to Oxford a high-powered offensive style that had Rebel fans waiting with anticipation for each season to start.
In his six seasons, the Rebels averaged more than 350 points per year, including shattering the record for points scored in a season during the 2003 campaign with 442. The previous mark was 391 points by the 2001 squad. During Cutcliffe's tenure, the Rebels set numerous game, season and career records.
Cutcliffe's football philosophy also translated into wins for the Rebel program. Under Cutcliffe, Ole Miss posted 44 overall victories, including four wins in the postseason.
In the time from 1997-2003, the Rebels played in six bowl games, tied with Arkansas for the most bowl appearances among SEC Western Division schools during that span. The only SEC teams that made bowl appearances all seven years were Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, all Eastern Division squads.
In 2003 Cutcliffe guided the Rebels, who many picked to finish fifth in the SEC's Western Division, to a 10-3 overall mark and a share of the SEC West title with eventual BCS National Champion LSU. The title was the Rebels' first league football title of any sort since winning the conference crown in 1963. Following their 31-28 victory over Oklahoma State in the SBC Cotton Bowl Classic, the Rebels ended the 2003 campaign with a No. 13 national ranking. It was Ole Miss' first New Year's bowl since the 1991 Gator Bowl against Michigan.
Cutcliffe preceded his 2003 campaign with four winning seasons in 1999 (8-4), 2000 (7-5), 2001 (7-4) and 2002 (7-6) becoming the first Rebel mentor since Harry Mehre (1938-41) to post winning marks in his first five years. Cutcliffe also directed Ole Miss to four bowl appearances in his first five seasons, and is the only head coach in Ole Miss history to do so.
Rebel Recruiting Ramps Up
On December 16, 2004, Ole Miss turned to one of college football's premier recruiters and defensive line coaches in Ed Orgeron. He took control of the Rebel program after serving the previous seven seasons as defensive line coach at the University of Southern California, where he played a key role in Pete Carroll's Trojans winning back-to-back national championships in 2003 and 2004. Orgeron also served as USC's recruiting coordinator from 2001-2004 and was named the 2004 National Recruiter of the Year by The Sporting News and Rivals.com.
Orgeron's talent as a recruiter created a buzz among Rebel fans and drew national attention when Ole Miss' 2006 signing class finished as high as ninth in the rankings. All three of his recruiting classes were listed among the best in college football.
Success In Big D
After guiding Arkansas to three SEC Western Division titles and eight bowl berths in his decade in Fayetteville, Houston Nutt immediately reversed the Rebels’ fortunes and guided Ole Miss to consecutive nine-win seasons for the first time since 1961-62 and back-to-back January bowl victories for the first time since 1960-61.
In his first season in Oxford, Nutt led one of the greatest turnarounds in school history, reviving a Rebel squad that was coming off four straight losing seasons and a 3-8 campaign with no conference wins in 2007. With a 9-4 record (5-3 in the SEC), it marked the team’s best improvement from one season to the next since legendary Ole Miss Coach John Vaught’s debut in 1947.
Projected to place fifth in the SEC Western Division in the preseason, Nutt’s first Rebel unit finished second in the West, ended the season on a six-game win streak and earned a No. 14 final national ranking.
Rising as high as No. 4 in the national rankings in 2009, Nutt’s Rebels knocked off No. 8 LSU, Tennessee and Arkansas en route to a second straight berth in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic, in which Ole Miss prevailed over No. 18 Oklahoma State 21-7. The Rebels finished 20th in the AP poll.
Mississippi Native Tabbed To Return Titles
A Mississippi native, inspirational leader and one of the nation’s top rising coaches, Hugh Freeze was the first choice to return championships to Ole Miss Football and was introduced as the Rebels’ 37th head coach on Dec. 5, 2011.He is the first coach in school history to guide the Rebels to a bowl game in each of his first three seasons.
Among the accomplishments in Freeze’s three-year tenure:
October 4, 2014 will forever be remembered by Rebel Nation as the day ESPN’s College GameDay and pop singer Katy Perry put Oxford in the national spotlight, and the Rebels knocked off the No. 1 Crimson Tide 23-17 for the program’s first ever victory over the nation’s top-ranked team.
Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is in the midst of a facelift that will provide Rebel fans with an even greater gameday atmosphere and more seating. As part of the $150 million Forward Together capital campaign, the south end zone is being renovated to add 30 luxury suites and 770 club level seats, and the west suites are all being refinished.
While those updates will be in place for 2015, the facility’s biggest changes are in store for 2016, when the north side of the stadium will be transformed into an exciting new “front door,” complete with a plaza and bell tower.
A green space will also extend the Walk of Champions from The Grove all the way to the new plaza. Closing in the north end zone seating will bring stadium capacity to 64,038 and put the polishing touches on one of the nation’s elite college football facilities.
The tradition continues for a program with a proud and storied history.
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