TGS SEC RETROSPECTIVE...THE FORGOTTEN SEQUEL
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
Moviegoers know the drill; sequels rarely live up the originals. Whether it be Godfather II, Jaws II, or Rocky II (though Rocky III was pretty good), imitations of the original usually just end up as...imitations.
Sport has its own categories of sequels, too. College basketball fans have seen it plenty of times, though history often shuffles a more-important meeting to the wayside. UCLA-Houston basketball 1968 is one such example; the enduring memory of Bruins-Cougars and “Big E” vs. “Big Lew” was their epic January 20 meeting at the Astrodome that Houston and Elvin Hayes won, 71-69, snapping a 47-game win streak by John Wooden’s team in a spectacle that gained immortality as much for the venue and surrounding hooplah than the result itself. What many modern college hoops fans don't remember is that the game that really counted between UCLA and Houston in 1968 was not that midseasson clash at the Astrodome, but their battle in the Final Four two months later in Los Angeles at the old Sports Arena. The Bruins got their revenge and then some, 101-69, in the national semifinals before winning the NCAA title the next night against North Carolina. But plenty of college fans might have no idea that UCLA and Houston met a second time in 1968; all they know about is the memorable first clash at the Astrodome.
The closest college football example to UCLA-Houston 1968 might be the Ole Miss-LSU matchups of 1959 that, like Bruins-Cougars hoops, included a memorable and epic regular-season game and a subsequent matchup that no one seems to remember. As college football will no doubt celebrate the 60th anniversary of that dramatic LSU win on Halloween night vs. Ole Miss with various stories and recollections later this season, we’re willing to be bet that there will be little or no mention, more than a footnote, of their Sugar Bowl rematch two months later. Which, at the time, was a mega-event, just like the second UCLA-Houston matchup of 1968 at the Final Four. But in both instances, those results were quickly forgotten, consigned to the historical dustbin, while the regular-season meetings continued to live in college sports lore.
We at TGS have friends and do radio shows in both Oxford and Baton Rouge, but after the Tigers have gotten almost all of the historical love from those 1959 matchups, we think it’s time to give the Rebels the attention they deserve, too. And being that TGS was into its third season in 1959, we’re one of the few around today that have recollections of what was going on sixty years ago in the SEC.
Into the late 50s, and early 60s, there might not have been a rivalry anywhere in the country that burned as bright as LSU-Ole Miss. While modern fans might not be surprised about the Tigers’ prowess in any era, they might not realize that Rebels had quite an aura about them in those days as well. “They were kind of like the Dallas Cowboys of the era,” says Jimmy Ott, a popular sports talk host on ESPN radio Baton Rouge, and on whose show with Charles Hanagriff we have been guesting each Friday for the past 15 years. The Ole Miss uniforms indeed looked a bit like the outfits the Cowboys began to wear in the mid 60s, with a similar color scheme. And the Johnny Vaught-coached Rebs were plenty good, too, long before Archie Manning showed up in 1968. In fact, Vaught led Mississippi to 18 bowl games, including 14 straight from 1957 to 1970. He won six Sugar Bowls, was SEC coach of the year six times, and earned three national titles with various polls other than the AP in 1959, 1960 and 1962.
But Ole Miss-LSU has always been special, transcending the games as only the best border rivalries can, and materialized in the mutual hate between the fans. “Go to hell LSU” and “Geaux to hell Ole Miss” are timeless greetings these supporters have for one another, dating to days when the rivalry was at a fever pitch. Between 1958 and 1965, either the Rebs or Tigers were ranked in the Top 10 every time they played. Both were ranked among the nation’ top six teams five of the six times they met between 1958 and 1962. Indeed, the late 50s and early 60s were the midst of a short period of time when both LSU and Ole Miss were in the vortex of the college football hurricane, a period when Vaught and LSU HC Paul Dietzel were across the sidelines from one another.
How special was Ole Miss-LSU? The late Pete Finney, longtime sports columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and a friend of TGS for more than five decades, began covering LSU football in 1954, once recounted for us his memories about the glory days of the Ole Miss-LSU rivalry. “In the late 50s and early 60s, Ole Miss-LSU was by far the biggest rivalry in southern football and at least as big as anything else in the country,” Finney said. “You had great teams, great coaches, great players, and they were both in the hunt for national championships and major bowls.”
While Ole Miss and LSU evolved into more of a regional than national rivalry over the past 50 years, the “glory era” of Rebs-Tigers effectively stretched fifteen seasons from 1958-72. But if there was a boiling point in the rivalry, it came in 1959, when the teams met not once, but twice, with national poll consequences on the line each time.
The 1958-59 LSU teams were among the most colorful of the TGS era, thanks to an idea HC Dietzel hit upon that changed his fortunes, linked to the enactment of substitution rule changes in 1953 that effectively restored football to a one-platoon game. Coaches attempted to find the best ways around the rules, but no one came up with a more effective method than Dietzel engineered in 1958, when he divided his unfancied Tigers into three units...White, Go, and Chinese Bandits, the latter a second-string defense molded primarily from underclassmen and walk-ons. The Bandits developed a feisty character and generated immense popularity; members of the unit temporarily promoted to the second string "Go" unit in place of injured players asked Dietzel to move them back to the Bandits as soon as possible. Their spirit inspired better play out of LSU’s stars, including 1959 Heisman Trophy-winning back Billy Cannon (more on Cannon in a moment).
The Halloween classic in 1959 was indeed unforgettable. Both entered Tiger Stadium that Saturday night as unbeatens, with LSU on top of the polls and Ole Miss at number three. (For the record, Ara Parseghian’s Northwestern, as recounted in a TGS Big Ten Retrospective piece last summer, was ranked second in the polls into late October; eventual national champ Syracuse sat at number five). The game was a tense, defensive standoff for the ages, and while national TV did not cover Ole Miss-LSU, or any night games into late the next decade, many could follow the game on radio thanks to some booming signals from a couple of clear-channel radio outlets covering the action. Indeed, listening to J.C. Politz describe LSU home action at night became a ritual not only in Louisiana, but as far away as Minneapolis, St. Louis, Denver, and even Boston, because the games were aired on the blowtorch signals of both WWL in New Orleans and KWKH in Shreveport. So even minus national TV, many college football fans not only in the South but elsewhere in the country were able to keep track and listen along to the big Halloween showdown of 1959.
The sky was ominous all that week in Baton Rouge, and Saturday again dawned gray and drizzly, threatening a further softening of the turf in LSU's Tiger Stadium after a damp week, but scalpers were reported still to be getting as much as $100 for a good seat, and $25 to $40 for a poor one, for Saturday night’s showdown. Another chap offered to swap his Cadillac for four seats; another even more desperate fellow offered to swap his wife for a ticket. (Wonder if she knew what her husband was planning.) Sheesh!
As night approached, the sky would mostly clear, and a throng of 67,500 filled up the Tiger Stadium saucer. The temperature was 73; humidity 100%; pent-up emotion off the charts.
The first half, however, was a nightmare for LSU. Three times the Tigers lost fumbles to Ole Miss. The second lapse was by the idolized All-America left halfback Cannon, and it made possible a Mississippi score. A tremendous punt by the Rebels' Bobby Ray Franklin had gone out of bounds on the LSU five-yard line. Cannon slammed off tackle to the 15, but was hit while moving the ball from one hand to the other and fumbled to Billy Brewer of Ole Miss (a future Rebels HC) at the 20. (With Franklin, Jake Gibbs and Doug Elmore, Brewer was one of the Rebels' quarterback stars of the game; he covered all three LSU fumbles.) Ole Miss then drove to the Tiger three in four plays. On third down, Gibbs, a future New York Yankees catcher, swept to the right and was hurled back to the five-yard line by LSU end Mickey Mangham, the same Mickey who had caught the game-winning TD in the previous Sugar Bowl vs. Clemson. On fourth down the Ole Miss specialist, Bob Khayat, who was revered at Oxford more for having dated a pair of Miss Americas (Mary Ann Mobley and Lynda Lee Mead) during their Ole Miss days than his future jobs as PK with the Redskins or as school chancellor, kicked a 22-yard field goal. With just half of the first quarter played, LSU was behind 3-0 and in trouble, for the fast and resourceful Rebels kept the Tigers pinned to their own terrain the rest of the first half.
The Rebs had a chance to pad the lead before halftime after a fumble recovery at the LSU 29, but driving inside of the LSU 10, Vaught disdained a field goal try, and Franklin was stopped on a rollout from the LSU 7 on the last play of the half. LSU could flatter itself by the 3-0 halftime scoreline, as Ole Miss had dominated the first thirty minutes.
In the third quarter, the electrifying Cannon, who weighed 207 pounds and had twice run the hundred in 9.4 seconds, put pressure on Ole Miss by returning an intercepted pass into Rebel territory. With the ball on the Ole Miss 31, the Tigers' Wendell Harris, who had made five field goals in five attempts entering the game, kicked a wobbler that appeared to be partly blocked, and the Rebels' three points looked larger by the minute.
With Ole Miss still in control and looking like its 3-0 lead would hold up, Vaught would turn conservative, even ordering the multi-talented Gibbs to punt on first downs, where the booming kicks would roll deep into LSU territory. Three times Vaught ordered the punts on first downs, but the Tigers were doing nothing vs. the rugged Rebel defense led by LB Larry Grantham (a future New York Titan and Jet). But it was on another Gibbs punt with 10 minutes to play that SEC history would take a decided turn.
Gibbs angled his punt away from Cannon so that Billy could not quite catch the ball in the air. The ball bounced, but it would neatly carom into Cannon’s hands at the LSU 11-yard line. And then Cannon was off on the run of the year, or the century (if you’e an LSU fan, that is). Cannon weaved through and then outran the pursuit to score an 89-yard return and the TD of his life. The deafening roar in Tiger Stadium could likely have been heard in Oxford, and would partially drown out the return’s final seconds of the celebrated radio call by the legendary Politz, whose description of “the play” became a hot seller (at least in Louisiana) on 45 RPM vinyl records of the day.
In later years, even Ole Miss HC Vaught would grudgingly acknowledge the greatness of Cannon’s punt return. “Outside of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803,” said Vaught, “many Cajuns consider Billy Cannon’s run the greatest event in state history.”
There are some footnotes to Cannon’s dramatic punt return that have been mostly forgotten in college football folklore. Ten minutes were still to play after Cannon’s TD, and Ole Miss would use nearly all of that time in a long drive that tested LSU to the core, eventually reaching the Tiger 2 before Reb QB Doug Elmore was stopped by, among others, Cannon (also a DB) to preserve the 7-3 win. And it would be a prequel to “Ole Miss-LSU 2" on New Year’s Day in New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl.
Could the rematch possibly live up to the first meeting, which immediately became a national sensation? NBC, televising the game, certainly hoped so. And the game would be supremely hyped, as the college football nation, having heard of the Cannon Halloween dramatics, couldn't wait to see an Ole Miss and LSU rematch on their TV sets at home. But a few things had happened on the way to New Year’s Day in New Orleans.
The following week at Knoxville, Bowden Wyatt’s scrappy Tennessee, which had ended Auburn’s 24-game win streak in the opener, played giant killer once again against the top-ranked Bayou Bengals, who entered Shields-Watkins Field (before it became officially known as Neyland Stadium) on a 19-game win streak. LSU was dominating the action, but could not extend an early 7-0 lead. A pair of 3rd Q Vols TDs, including a 54-yard interception return by DB Jim Cartwright, stepping in front of a Warren Rabb pass intended for HB Johnny Robinson (of future Kansas City Chiefs fame), staked them to a 14-7 lead, but LSU got back in the game in the 4th Q following a fumbled punt by the Vols’ Billy Majors, which the Tigers recovered on the UT 2.
Cannon would quickly score a TD to cut the gap to 14-13, but Dietzel, going for the win, saw Cannon piled up less than a foot short of the goal on the 2-point try by none other than Billy Majors, who redeemed himself, and then some, for his fumbled punt moments before, saving a 14-13 win. Despite having three different backs outrush the entire Vol team, the Tigers saw their long win streak snapped, and LSU would surrender top spot in the polls to Ben Schwartzwalder’s Syracuse.
In those days, though it had yet to stage a rematch in its history, it was not uncommon for the Sugar Bowl to select two SEC teams if they were the best available, and ranked 2 (Ole Miss) and 3 (LSU) at the end of the regular season, a rematch in New Orleans of the Halloween thriller was an easy call.
However, some felt a rematch would be too sectional to suit the taste of television. "Not so," said Tom Gallery, director of sports at NBC, which would televise the game. "NBC would be most happy if the Sugar Bowl was able to land LSU and Ole Miss. The game would be a natural again, as it was the first time."
LSU was not so enthusiastic. The Tigers would be placed at a severe psychological disadvantage playing a team they had already defeated. Also, LSU was a weary, wounded football team at season's end.
The other bowls were rapidly filling. Syracuse, which took over the No. 1 position after LSU's loss to Tennessee, was paired with 4th-ranked SWC champ Texas in the Cotton; fifth-ranked Georgia, which won the SEC championship after the LSU-Tennessee-Ole Miss round robin, was matched with Missouri in the Orange. If the Bayou Bengals wanted a bowl game, it would have to be either in the Sugar against Ole Miss or in Houston's Bluebonnet in another rematch with a defeated opponent, Texas Christian, a 10-0 loser to the Tigers in September.
Dietzel polled his LSU team informally and a full third voted to sit out the bowls altogether. Dietzel and the Tigers preferred to choose a bowl after a December 5 game between Syracuse and UCLA. If Syracuse lost the game, it would mean LSU could be playing at least for the Football Writer's of America's version of the national championship, which was awarded after the bowl games. If Syracuse won, then LSU would stay home. Dietzel said, "If an honor (a bowl invitation) becomes a chore, then perhaps it is left undone."
The Tigers took an official team vote, considering both the Sugar and Bluebonnet invitations as well as sitting out the bowls, on November 23 with a battalion of newspapermen sitting outside. Tension began to mount as the session stretched into a half hour and then an hour. Seventy minutes after the voting started, Carl Higgins, LSU's sports information director, burst into the waiting room and announced, "They voted to play." Billy Cannon walked in with a slight grin and said, "It was a unanimous vote. So I guess it will be Ole Miss again." Dietzel described his reaction as "shell-shocked" as he thought the team would call it a year.
Dietzel wasn’t the only one who was surprised. "Nobody in his right mind would play Ole Miss twice in one season,” said Clemson HC Frank Howard.
"I can't believe they agreed to play us again," Rebel HC Vaught would say 40 years later. "That was the dumbest thing anybody ever did. No way we were going to lose that game."
Veteran sports columnist Pete Finney had a slightly different take. "Paul Dietzel wasn't dumb,” said Finney. “No way he wanted to play Ole Miss again. He basically had no choice because of politics."
The hype for the rematch would match and even slightly exceed the Halloween classic. The game, of course, would be televised by NBC, the first bowl to be telecast in color from coast-to-coast, and tickets were again at a premium, being swapped for used cars and refrigerator repairs. (We're not sure if the fellow who offered his wife for a ticket to the Halloween game at Baton Rouge did so again for the Sugar Bowl, but demand was high, so we wouldn't be surprised if he did.) Four tickets went for a 14-foot fiberglass boat; 60 tickets went for a 1952 Cadillac and 4 new tires. The sizzle of the rematch had fans on fire. It was estimated the Sugar Bowl had over a quarter of a million requests for tickets.
But LSU was not in the best of shape. Warren Rabb, the Tiger quarterback, was still hobbled from a knee strain from the Tennessee game more than a month before. There might have been a bit of dissension, too, with rumors of a scrap between Rabb and center Max Fugler. Further complicating matters for LSU was halfback Johnny Robinson, who started with a protective covering over his fractured hand suffered in practice for the bowl. He would not carry a single time in the Sugar Bowl, nor did another halfback (and PK), Wendell Harris, whose injuries kept him completely sidelined. It all meant the Ole Miss defense could zero in on LSU's only threat, Billy Cannon.
Then there was Vaught, who was criticized for his conservative approach in the 7-3 regular season Tiger win, but gave the Rebels the green light to "go for broke" in the Sugar Bowl. This time, the coach wasn't going to hold anything back. But LSU had a defense that had allowed only two teams to score touchdowns all season...it was field goals or nothing at all for the rest, including Ole Miss.
The revenge motive was indeed powerful, and it was the vengeful side (the Rebs) installed as a 7-point favorite. Murky, damp weather made the field muddy in spots, and a cold wind lowered the temperature to 49 degrees at kickoff. But the miserable conditions made for an even more miserable day for LSU.
Like a boxer that couldn’t get off of the ropes, the Tigers were bottled up in their own end from the outset. Unable to move from deep in its territory, LSU had to punt away almost immediately. Taking the ball at its own 43 was Ole Miss, with Bobby Ray Franklin, who had been injured earlier in the season vs. Kentucky and had given way to Jake Gibbs for much of the campaign, back at QB. Moving to the LSU 24 in seven plays, Franklin was then picked off by LSU’s Rabb to kill off the opening drive. But a pattern for the afternoon had been set on the first two possessions; the Tigers would be searching desperately for room to do anything at all when on offense, while the Rebs, with a more-aggressive mindset than the Halloween classic at Baton Rouge, were more willing to mix their play calls and confidently go to the air, but prone to errors.
The pattern continued for the remainder of the first half; LSU totally stonewalled, while Ole Miss was moving the ball. But not scoring. Another advance late in the initial stanza put the Rebs again within striking distance, but a 28-yard FG try by PK Khayat went wide to the right. As in the first meeting, the Tigers were reeling, but had resolutely kept Ole Miss out of the end zone. The 0-0 scoreline endured as the 2nd Q advanced.
Even so, by this time, it was becoming apparent to the fans from Baton Rouge that their team could not continue to simply punt the ball away to Ole Miss and hope the defense could somehow bend but not break in the face of the Rebels’ pressure. Then hope Cannon could make another big play as he did on Halloween. Otherwise the Tigers were at risk of being suffocated by the swarming Ole Miss defense and eventually overrun by the advancing Rebel offense.
But the disturbing pattern continued for LSU. No offensive movement and another punt, setting up Ole Miss on its 42. Once again, the Rebs were on the move, mixing their passes with runs, and a 23-yarder from Franklin to end Jerry Daniels a key play. All of the way to the Tiger 11, where LSU, its defense massed in a tight 8-3 alignment, would hold the Rebs twice on third-and-one and fourth-and-one calls, both times halting punishing FB Charlie Flowers. Though dominating play, things were becoming very exasperating for Ole Miss, which had yet to dent the scoreboard as halftime beckoned.
LSU, feeling it had dodged the bullets, had just 59 seconds to kill off the half when it punted Ole Miss to its 43. The Rebs moved the ball 20 yards in short order, first on a 5-yard run by QB Gibbs, in for Franklin, and a 15-yard roughing penalty on the Tigers, advancing to the LSU 43. After a pass to Jimmy Hall for no gain on the sideline that stopped the clock, Ole Miss finally forged its breakthrough. Halfback Cowboy Woodruff, replacing Hall, brought in a play from Vaught. In an instant, Woodruff had run straight downfield after the snap and was suddenly 10 yards behind the Tiger defense. Gibbs, rolling to his left, then turning around in the pocket, lobbed a perfect strike and the Cowboy scampered untouched into the end zone. With 40 seconds to play in the half, the Rebs had their breakthrough. It was also the first TD pass allowed all season by the Dietzel defense!
Deflated by the late TD just before halftime, LSU looked condemned to its fate. Unable to move the football and now trailing what appeared to be the better team, the Tigers were in deep trouble. Unless Ole Miss self-destructed, realistic Tiger fans knew that the only honor for their team would be to hold the score down, as the Rebs had looked three TDs better in the first half alone.
Any hope for the Tigers evaporated just after halftime. Ole Miss was aroused, and after Franklin returned the kickoff to his 36, stayed in the game to lead another goalward flight. The Rebs were now gaining yardage in bigger chunks. A 16-yard pass to HB George Blair, and an 18-yard pass to HB Bobby Crespino moved the ball deep into LSU territory before Franklin hit Larry Grantham with an 18-yard TD pass. The Tigers were now looking like Floyd Patterson in the 3rd round of his heavyweight title loss to Ingemar Johansson the previous June at Yankee Stadium, battered around the ring and bounced off of the deck. At 14-0, the Rebs were in complete control, and the revenge for the Halloween loss was in their grasp.
The Tigers continued to do nothing with the ball except punt it away, and another Cannon kick would roll dead at the Reb 25 early in the fourth quarter. Battered into submission, LSU was now susceptible to a knockout blow, which the Rebs administered with power and precision. Mixing runs by Flowers and Blair, Franklin moved the Rebs into LSU territory before opening up the offense. From the Tiger 44, Franklin hit Dewey Partridge for 18 yards to the Tiger 26, Flowers for 15 yards to the nine, and then the final nine yards to Blair for the clinching TD with 9:17 to play. After not conceding a TD pass all season, LSU had surrendered three on this damp and dreary New Year’s in the Big Easy.
The Tigers would make one belated move into Ole Miss territory for their best advancement of the day, pushing as far as the Rebel 34 on a short run by Cannon for a first down. But that was as far as LSU got; Ole Miss not only stonewalled the Tigers right there, but pushed them back a whopping 28 yards, before surrendering the ball on their own 42. Soon the game ended with a 21-0 scoreline, a fitting climax to a thoroughly frustrating day for the Bayou Bengals.
The Rebel dominance was thorough. When the dust cleared, Ole Miss had outgained LSU 363-84, and buried the Tiger rushing game, stonewalled for a stunning -5 yards. Heisman winner Cannon was completely frustrated, gaining just 8 yards rushing on 6 carries. "We did something I don't think we had ever done before," said Rebel safety Billy Brewer. "We went to a man defense in the secondary because we knew LSU wouldn't be a passing threat. My assignment was to stay with Cannon, go everywhere he went.” Which worked brilliantly.
In retrospect, Ole Miss might have been one of college football’s all-time great teams in 1959. Johnny Vaught’s defense, led by Grantham, held every foe to single-digit points, pitching a staggering 8 shutouts in the 11 games on the schedule. The Rebs only conceded 21 points all season, scoring 350 (avg. score 31.8-1.9!) and if not for Cannon’s punt return on Halloween would have likely ended up as the consensus national champions. Though it is worth mentioning that Ole Miss segregation policies of the day would have precluded it from facing eventual national title winner, integrated Syracuse, in bowl action. Had the Rebs won on Halloween, they probably would have drawn Texas in the Cotton Bowl (Georgia was the SEC champ that year, but the Sugar Bowl didn’t have a formal agreement with the conference until 1975, even as it usually invited an SEC team to New Orleans, so the Rebs were not obligated to play in the Sugar). The Longhorns would instead lose the Cotton to Syracuse, 23-14, and the undefeated Orangemen were an easier sell than 1-loss Ole Miss as consensus national champs. In that regard, Cannon’s epic punt return on October 31 was the most important play of the year, if not the decade in college football. If effectively paved the way for Syracuse to win the national title.
But the best team in 1959? That might well have been Ole Miss. And when the 60-year anniversary of Billy Cannon’s famous punt return gets mentioned before this season’s Rebels-Tigers game on November 16, don’t forget there was a sequel to that Halloween thriller...with a far different result!
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