Monday, February 06, 2006

John Howard Vaught, RIP

John Vaught, the legendary football coach of the University of Mississippi, died Friday night at a nursing home in Oxford, MS. He was 96.

Outside the south, reports on Vaught's death were limited to a few wire service paragraphs. reprinted an Associated Press story that was probably written months before Coach Vaught succumed to the complications from Alzheimer's.

Sadly, such stories don't do justice to the man, nor his remarkable career. In 23 seasons at Ole Miss, he won six Southeastern Conference (SEC) championships and a share of three national crowns. His 1959 squad--generally recognized as one of the greatest in college football history--outscored opponents by a margin of 350-21. In short, he put the University of Mississippi football program on the map and kept it there, in the intensely competitive atmosphere of the SEC.

And, along the way, he became a legend, part of remarkable coaching fraternity that populated the south in the 1950s and 60s, including Bear Bryant at Alabama, Shug Jordan at Auburn, Paul Dietzel at LSU, Frank Broyles at Arkansas and a relative latecomer, Vince Dooley at Georgia. Remarkably, only one of those coaches--Bryant--had a winning record against Vaught, and "The Bear" won only one more game than he lost against Vaught's Rebels. At the time of his retirement in 1970, Vaught's won-loss record was second-best among active collegiate football coaches.

Officially, medical problems sidelined the Rebel coach, but there was also a political element in his first departure from Ole Miss. After being diagnosed with a heart condition during the 1970 season, Vaught's doctor encouraged him to retire. Another Ole Miss legend, Frank "Bruiser" Kinard, became the school's athletic director and named his younger brother, Billy, as the new head coach. Elements within the university administration and the Ole Miss fan base supported the move, believing that the school needed a younger head coach that could recruit black athletes. By that time, the color barrier had finally been shattered in the SEC, and Ole Miss was attempting to recruit black football players.

Such speculation gave rise to rumor that Vaught had racist leanings, and refused to follow the example of other SEC coaches--including Bear Bryant--in recruiting black athletes. The late Lewis Grizzard, then a sports writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, participated in yearly, pre-season press junkets to the various SEC schools. He later recalled that, in the late 60s, the standard opening question for Coach Vaught in Oxford was "when will you start recruiting black players?" knowing that his stock answer was "never."

Coach Vaught's response was not an example of personal bigotry, but a reflection of Mississippi's turbulent, often violent history in race relations. He had been on campus in 1962, when James Meredith became the first African-American to enroll at the University of Mississippi, sparking a bloody riot that left two persons dead. Attorney General Robert Kennedy called Vaught and asked him to help end the violence. The coach responded by opening his practices to the public and security personnel, sent to Ole Miss to protect Meredith. The practices became a welcome diversion, and helped divert attention away from the integration crisis. But he remained keenly aware of continuing racial strife within his state, and the barriers that remained to integration, even on the athletic field. In the early 60s, Ole Miss cancelled a basketball game against an Iona team that had black players--bowing to intense political pressure from the governor and state legislature. In 1963, a Mississippi State team had to literally sneak out of state to play an opponent with black athletes in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Less than a decade after the 1962 riots, Vaught understood that there was lingering opposition to the idea of African-American athletes in an Ole Miss uniform, as antiquated as that notion now seems. However, as the school's athletic director, Vaught supported the efforts of other coaches to integrate Ole Miss's sports teams. When Vaught returned as interim coach in 1973 (after Billy Kinard was fired), he played the black athletes recruited by his successor. Ole Miss's first black football player (All-American defensive tackle Ben Williams) established a strong relationship with Coach Vaught, paving the way for full integration of the university's football team by the mid-1970s. By the time Vaught retired a second time in 1978 (from the AD post), the athletic program was completely integrated.

After retiring from Ole Miss, Vaught remained active well into his 90s, playing golf two or three times a week, and hitting 200-300 practice balls a day at his farm west of Oxford. He remained fiercely competitive; when a former player asked him what kind of a handicap Vaught would give him during a round of golf, the coach snorted, "hell, I'm giving you 20 years--isn't that enough?. He was a familiar presence at virtually every Ole Miss home football game until he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at the age of 94.

Coach Vaught's passing marks the end of an era. He was among the handful of men who transformed southern college football into a religion, and helped lay the foundation for the more important social and cultural change that inevitably followed. Later in their lives, Vaught, Bryant and other coaches admitted that they should have done more to press for earlier integration of their teams. But they also understood their environment, and recognized that change was often slow, even painful. Eventually, both as coaches and athletic administrators, they did the right thing and that may be their greatest legacy.

When Vaught arrived at OM, the football team was mired in mediocrity. Vaught quickly established himself as a master recruiter and motivator, infusing the program with top-level talent needed to win conference and national championships. Three days before John Vaught passed away, the Rebels signed one of the nation's best recruiting classes, their best haul of football talent since the Vaught era. Somewhere along the sidelines in heaven, Coach Vaught must be smiling.

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