A reserve halfback walked up to Johnny Vaught on the Ole Miss practice field as he was watching his Rebels go through drills in preparation for the 1961 Sugar Bowl.
“Coach,” he said to Vaught, “my folks want to be in New Orleans when the team arrives. What time are we going to get there?”
The traveling squad had not yet been posted and, looking the player right in the eye with a straight face, Vaught responded to Frank Halbert, “What do you mean, ‘we?’ ”
Halbert looked right back, with eyes as big as saucers.
“Well, Coach,” he sputtered, “you’re going, too, aren’t you?”
Yes, he was. Johnny Vaught was a regular visitor to New Orleans.
Vaught had Ole Miss in the midst of its golden age of football, with six Southeastern Conference championships — the only titles the Rebels have ever won. They had just passed the halfway point of an amazing five-year span from 1959-63 in which the Rebels won 91 percent of their regular-season games, going 43-2-3. They had eight Sugar Bowl appearances in a 18-game span — and seven in 12 years.
To put that in perspective, consider that right now Alabama has been in more Sugar Bowls than any school with 15, followed by LSU at 13. But in 1970, when Ole Miss received its previous invite, the Rebels were tied with LSU for the most, and Bama had played in just five.
In days when there were far fewer bowls, only Bear Bryant of Kentucky and Alabama coached more Sugar Bowl teams (nine) than Vaught. In the 45 years since Ole Miss last played in the Sugar Bowl, the Rebels have gone through 10 coaches, and Hugh Freeze is just the second to bring a team to New Orleans.
Originally, this was a marriage made in college football heaven.
But even with Ole Miss’ standing at or near the top of the college football universe and the Sugar Bowl’s reputation as a top-tier postseason destination, it also was a marriage of convenience.
Ole Miss was a godsend at a time when the annual holiday game desperately needed one. The Sugar Bowl was a port when Ole Miss needed a place to berth.
“At a very bad time,” former Sugar Bowl president Sam Corenswet Jr. said, “Ole Miss saved us.”
Through no fault of either party, the winds of social change buffeted both. The Sugar Bowl was hamstrung by segregation laws enacted after the game’s color line had been broken in 1956 and further interracial sports competition forbidden. From 1956-64, the pool of teams available to the Sugar Bowl was limited to those from the SEC, Southwest Conference and ACC — made up of all-white athletic programs.
Ole Miss was hampered, too, barred against playing integrated opposition by state law — and the social rules of the day — meaning some bowls were not open to the Rebels. It was no accident that three of Ole Miss’ Sugar Bowl games were against SEC opponents.
“But those Ole Miss teams at that particular time were a blessing for the Sugar Bowl,” Corenswet said. “At a very difficult time, they made things easier for us.”
Given all that, the Sugar Bowl didn’t make things easy for Ole Miss. Vaught was pitted against a lineup of Hall of Fame coaches — Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd, Texas’ Darrell Royal, LSU’s Paul Dietzel, Rice’s Jess Neely, Arkansas’ Frank Broyles and Bama’s Bryant — and some of their best teams. But those matchups produced some of the Sugar Bowl’s most memorable games.
Things generally worked out for the Rebels, too. There was the 1961 game with Rice, then a Southwest Conference contender, in which Jake Gibbs quarterbacked the undefeated Rebels to an otherwise lackadaisical 14-6 victory.
Gibbs’ two-touchdown MVP performance turned out to be of major consequence because that was the era in which the major polls voted at the end of the regular season, and Ole Miss, which has never won a consensus national championship, finished No. 2 behind Minnesota in AP and UPI balloting.
But a few hours after the Rebels disposed of Rice, the Gophers were upset at the Rose Bowl, so Ole Miss unexpectedly found itself atop the one poll that voted after the postseason: Football Writers of America.
It was a high point of Rebels football history, though the fan favorite might be the 21-0 rematch with LSU in 1960 after the Tigers beat Ole Miss in the regular season 7-3 on Billy Cannon’s famed punt return. There also was a spectacular 27-22 win, fueled by Archie Manning, over Arkansas in 1970 — the last appearance Ole Miss had made in New Orleans until this week.
Even in defeat, Ole Miss is remembered in Sugar Bowl moments such as the 21-0 loss to Navy’s “Team Named Desire” in 1955, and to Bama in 1964 when Tim Davis kicked four field goals in a 12-7 upset at a Tulane Stadium ringed in snow banks — truly resembling a sugar bowl — after heavy storms on New Year’s Eve.
There is an enduring image of Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl that seems ingrained in public perception.
It may have begun in 1952 with a 21-14 upset of Maryland, winner of 22 straight, that put Ole Miss squarely in the Sugar Bowl’s line of sight.
Vaught said the phone was ringing in the Rebels’ fieldhouse when he came off the field. It was the Sugar Bowl calling with an invitation.
The victory brought the first top-10 national ranking — No. 6 — ever accorded the Rebels. Ole Miss (8-0-2) was to play SEC champion and No. 2 Georgia Tech (10-0-0), prompting Sen. James Eastland to harrumph, “There never was Cracker a Mississippian couldn’t beat, and I’ll be there to see it.”
Unfortunately for the Rebels, there was. Tech won 24-7
At that point, though, the Ole Miss bond with the Sugar Bowl was formed, at least in part because of New Orleans artist J. Philip Preddy. He left an imprint on Rebels lore with his artwork, including one of the Lyceum with 702 sugar cubes as his canvas. To Vaught, it was a masterpiece.
Preddy’s football works were annually on display in the Canal Street window of a prominent downtown New Orleans department store.
Vaught, in his memoirs, said, “In my visits to homes in Mississippi, I often see portraits of Ole Miss football players painted on inch-thick sugar slabs 9 inches wide and 15 inches deep. Proud families have put them behind glass and consider them heirlooms.”
Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl
1953: Georgia Tech 24, Ole Miss 7
1955: Navy 21, Ole Miss 0
1958: Ole Miss 39, Texas 7
1960: Ole Miss 21, LSU 0
1961: Ole Miss 14, Rice 6
1963: Ole Miss 17, Arkansas 13
1964: Alabama 12, Ole Miss 7
1970: Ole Miss 27, Arkansas 22