Friday, August 21, 2009

SEC coaching rivalries: Johnny Vaught vs. Paul Dietzel, 1955-1961

I doubt that the memory of any SEC coach towers over the program he led the way Johnny Vaught does Ole’ Miss. Fans and commentators only somewhat familiar with Southern football would doubtless point to the Bear at Alabama. But Paul Bryant is far from being Alabama’s only winning coach. Thomas and Wade before him, and Gene Stallings after him all earned national titles. Thomas and Wade both left Alabama with winning percentages over .810, comparing favorably to the Bear’s .824. Between 1947 and 1970, and a valedictory season in 1973, Vaught went 190-61-12 in Oxford – a win percentage of .745. The second best mark for a Mississippi coach over more than five games is N. P. Stauffer with .690 from 1911 to 1913. Since Vaught retired, David Cutcliff’s .600 effort from 1998 to 2004 is the closest any successor has come.

Even more significantly, Vaught’s six conference titles are the only ones Ole' Miss has ever won. Until the second coming Manning in the form of Eli, chances are that anything you know about the entire history of Rebel football happened with Vaught on the sideline.

Vaught grew up in Olney, Texas before moving to Fort Worth to live with his grandmother and attend Polytechnic Heights High School. He played his first varsity prep football game against Poly’s local rival, the legendry Masonic Home “Mighty Mites.” Poly lost 40-0. Vaught learned a lot about grit, resolve and team psychology from Poly’s frequent bouts with Masonic Home (which the Mites generally won despite considerable disadvantages in size and manpower).

As a guard in college, playing for TCU under Francis Schmidt, Vaught learned valuable lessons about strategy. TCU’s teams were known for offensive innovation in the 1930s. Schmidt, who moved on to Ohio State in 1934, and his successor Dutch Meyer, ran numerous variations of the single and double wings as well as the spread. Often throwing the ball 30-40 times a game in an age when 150 attempts a season was a lot, TCU confused and out strategized bigger opponents. None of this was lost on Vaught, who despite not being large even by contemporary standards led TCU's line for several seasons. In 1932 every starting TCU lineman won all-Southwest Conference honors.

Vaught worked as a line coach at North Carolina in the late 1930s when the Tar Heels were a national power. He served in the Navy during WWII and took the Mississippi job after the 1946 season. He would never coach anywhere else. The 1946 Rebels had finished a woeful 2-7. One year later Vaught’s first team finished 9-2, went undefeated in conference play and won the SEC for the first time in school history. Vaught brought a new attitude to Oxford. He was serious about football, a thinking coach and a winner. His first act as head coach was to order the state highway department to dig a new practice field in an eight-foot pit. He surrounded the pit with trees and campus cops and went to work. Vaught’s practices were always secret, and with good reason. His flexible strategic approach to offensive planning was, like Schmidt and Meyer at TCU, years ahead of the times. Vaught routinely surprised opponents who looked far more talented on paper.

The most famous example of Vaught’s coaching genius came in November 1969 at Tennessee against Doug Dickey’s undefeated, top-ranked Volunteers. Vaught’s underrated Rebels were 5-3, but had taken all their losses on the road and two of them by a single point each. Junior quarterback Archie Manning had amassed 1,394 yards and 6 TDs on 128 completions in 222 attempts. He had also run for 363 yards on 100 carries with 11 TDs. Despite Manning's impressive stats Tennessee’s all-American linebacker Steve Kiner brashly called Mississippi’s players “mules” in an interview several weeks prior to the season. Tennessee fans, supremely confident in their team, compounded the insult by wearing buttons reading “Archie who?” Someone even found the spare cash to pay for a small plane to fly over Mississippi’s practice field and drop leaflets reading “Archie mud”. Naturally common opinion in Mississippi was that an unknown Vol backer had paid for the stunt, but no one ever claimed credit and at least one Rebel beat writer suspected that Vaught had organized it himself in order to rile up his players.
Vaught knew Tennessee would build their defensive game plan around Manning’s scrambling outside play. He spent the entire week working on inside blocking and went into the November 15th meeting in Jackson prepared to run draw plays with running backs Bo Bowen and Randy Reed. On the Rebels’ first possession Manning led an 82 yard drive in 11 plays for a score, almost entirely on hand-offs. Just as Vaught predicted, Tennessee loaded the edges of the line. The Vols, including an injured Kiner watching from the sideline, reeled as Ole’ Miss ran over them inside. Six Tennessee starters left the game with injuries as a surging Mississippi team romped to a 38-0 win that could easily have been even more lopsided. Locals watched aghast and sheepishly removed their buttons as UT’s national championships hopes went up in flames.

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. Although the great Archie Manning played for Vaught in the late 1960s his best seasons came in the late 1950s and early 60s. All four of his ten win seasons occurred between 1955 and 1962. Only once in that stretch did he win less than nine games. Four of his six Sugar Bowl championships came in those eight seasons. And as good as those fat years were for Vaught, they would have been even better were it not for Paul Dietzel and his LSU Tigers.

Dietzel grew up in Fremont, Ohio. He played one year of college ball at Duke before joining the U.S. Air Force for WWII. He completed his college career after the war as an all-American center at Miami, Ohio before taking assistant coaching jobs at Cincinnati, Kentucky and Army. Dietzel learned from the best in his profession, working for Paul Bryant in Lexington and Earl Blaik at West Point. When a struggling LSU hired Dietzel to his first head coaching job in 1955 the school did not gain a proven commodity, but they knew their man possessed pedigree. Even still, Dietzel’s career in Baton Rouge started slowly.

The Tigers were not the most talented southern outfit and had not fielded truly great teams in several decades. LSU posted losing seasons in 1955 and 1956, before improving to a still underwhelming 5-5 in 1957. Then Dietzel hit upon an idea that changed his fortunes. In 1953 substitution rules had been enacted which effectively restored football to a one platoon game. Coaches attempted to find the best ways around the rules, sharing talent across various units to reduce the drop off between their starters and second string. But no one came up with a more effective method than Dietzel engineered in 1958.

During pre-season drills Dietzel divided his unfancied Tigers into three units. He selected his best eleven men and designated them the first team for both offense and defense. His second eleven he designated the second string offense. For his second string defense Dietzel created a unit from mostly underclassmen and walk-ons which he named “the Chinese bandits”. Despite largely lacking talent and only playing in relief situations to keep the starters fresh, the bandits developed a feisty character, a true espirit de corps and immense popularity. Members of the unit temporarily promoted to the second string in place of injured players asked Dietzel to move them back to the bandits as soon as possible. They performed admirably, blocking punts on several occasions to give the offense prime field position. Their spirit inspired better play out of LSU’s stars, and with a first team back field featuring future Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon that improvement was costly to opponents.

Paul Dietzel and Billy Cannon

Cannon grew up in Baton Rouge and sold peanuts at Tiger stadium as a boy. The all-American prep star had no end of scholarship offers but was only ever going to LSU. The stud lived up to his billing, gaining 512 yards in eight games as a sophomore in 1957, his first varsity season. In 1958 Cannon’s team best 686 yard on 115 carries (5.9 ypc) led LSU to an undefeated 11-0 season crowned with a 7-0 win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and an AP national championship. Dietzel came out of nowhere to lead the Tigers to the Promised Land, picking up Football Coaches Association coach of the year honors on the way.

LSU’s success set Cannon up for a Heisman run as a senior. Dietzel’s Tigers went 9-2 in 1959 and after a disappointing 5-4-1 campaign the following year went 10-1 in 1961 with an Orange Bowl win. Dietzel compiled a 46-24-3 record in seven seasons with three bowl appearances, a national title and a Heisman winner for his resume. Of those 24 losses only seven occurred after his first three years. For four seasons Dietzel threatened to establish LSU as a national power, but after his successful 1961 campaign accepted an offer to take over as the head coach at West Point.
Despite his early promise Dietzel never again attained the prominence he enjoyed in Baton Rouge. He was the unfortunate victim of changing winds in college football. In 1961 the service academies were still elite programs and coveted coaching jobs. Army’s Pete Dawkins had claimed the 1958 Heisman Trophy. Navy had two Heisman winners in 1960 and 1963 -Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach. But neither program has earned a Heisman Trophy or so much as flirted with the top of the polls since. Top recruits simply did not want to join the services after the early 1960s. Starved of the best talent Dietzel went a disappointing 21-18-1 in four seasons at West Point. He decided to cut his losses and moved on to a long career at South Carolina, where he compiled a respectable record of 155-119-8 but made only one bowl appearance and never sniffed a national title chase. In retrospect, leaving Baton Rouge was a mistake for Deitzel. As a consequence of the relative obscurity his successive coaching career suffered, one of the better four year spells in SEC coaching history is now largely forgotten. Probably only LSU and South Carolina fans would mention Dietzel in conversations about great SEC coaches. But for four brief and fierce seasons, Paul Dietzel joined Johnny Vaught in ruling southern football.
In the seven seasons that Dietzel and Vaught coached against one another their teams actually met eight times. Back in those days it was not uncommon for the Sugar Bowl to select two SEC teams if they were the best available, so LSU and Ole’ Miss squared off twice in 1959. Vaught edged the series 4-3-1. Between 1958 and 1961 the two coaches won three of four SEC championships. After Dietzel left for Army Vaught won the next two SEC titles outright without too much difficulty. Vaught won the first three head-to-head meetings, but from 1958 Dietzel went 3-1-1 against Ole’ Miss with the one loss coming in the Sugar Bowl.

On October 31st 1959 the undefeated, third ranked Rebels rolled into a hostile Halloween Baton Rouge environment for a night game in Tiger stadium. Waiting for them were Dietzel’s undefeated, top-ranked LSU. The Tigers has not lost since a home date against Mississippi State on November 16th 1957. The week before that game they had dropped a close 12-14 decision in Oxford. Paul Dietzel, Billy Cannon, the Chinese Bandits and every other Tiger did not feel like returning to the habit of losing to Ole’ Miss.
Despite the inhospitable roars of “Go to Hell Ole’ Miss” from 67,000 rabid home fans, a defensive slug-fest developed with the Rebels finding a 3-0 lead before the break. Early in the third quarter that lead disappeared when Cannon padded his Heisman resume with an interception on defense. Later, with ten minutes remaining in the fourth, the game turned on exactly the kind of play that often decide defensive stand-offs. A Rebel punt to the LSU 11 was fielded by who else but Billy Cannon. The all-American back virtually assured himself of a Heisman trophy as he clutched the ball tightly to his chest and deftly held his balance after a near-stumble. A hit a few yards upfield seemed for a split second to have floored him, but Cannon righted himself again, stepped on the gas and ground his way through a crowd of pursuing Rebels before bursting into daylight at the LSU 40-yard line. He tore away to the end zone at top speed to give LSU a 7-3 lead it would eventually hold with a last-minute goalline stand.
Unfortunately, the Tigers went on to lose in Knoxville the following week. That cost Dietzel a second national title as undefeated Syracuse took the AP crown behind the running of future Heisman winner Ernie Davis. The Orangemen went on to beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl while Sugar Bowl selectors took the opportunity to match the nation’s number two and three teams in a Dietzel-Vaught rematch. In the end, it seemed LSU’s magic had dried up. The Rebels won a disappointing affair easily, 21-0.
LSU-Mississippi would not come up in any conversation about great SEC rivalries, and with good reason. After Dietzel left for West Point in 1962 the two programs never again reached national prominence at the same time. The history of the series, which LSU leads 55-38-4, predominantly constitutes long winning streaks by one school or the other. Rarely have the two programs exchanged blows in alternating years for sustained periods. Only for four short seasons did the two schools share the perch a top the SEC. But for those seasons, if for those only, the LSU-Ole’ Miss rivalry attained epic proportions that deserves to be remembered with the conference’s greatest.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Because we can...

The other day, a friend directed my attention to an interesting tidbit of football trivia.

No doubt every reader will be familiar with John F. Kennedy's famous speech about putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. That speech was given at Rice University, in the football stadium, on September 12th 1962. The theme of the speech was the enterprising spirit of man and the quest for knowledge as an end in itself. Inspiring stuff. Below is a video of the best known part of the speech.

The part that gets cuts from the speech highlights is the sentence immediately preceding this passage (which is the reason everyone is cheering at the beginning of the clip). Immediately before the best known soundbite, the President said this:

"'Why,' some say, 'the moon? Why choose this as our goal?' And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, thirty-five years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?' (Crowd cheers) We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

What a fantastic analogy for the indomitable spirit of man. Rice's all time record against Texas is 21-69-1. (As it happens the one tie occurred a month after this speech in the same venue. Clearly the President motivated the Owls to get an unlikely half-win). Kudos to all schools out there who choose to play games not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Whatever happened to the indomitable spirit of man?

(The full speech can be see here, Rice reference is at 8 minutes. Should you be interested).

Monday, August 10, 2009

SEC coaching rivalries: Robert Neyland vs. Frank Thomas, 1931-1946

General Robert Neyland is unquestionably the Granddaddy of the SEC coaching fraternity. His Volunteers invariably reflected his bullish, bruising and determined character. Even for one-platoon football in the pre-modern era the General’s play book was basic. He insisted on simplicity, running no more than twenty offensive plays to ensure clear headed quarterbacking. In practice Neyland gave more time than any of his peers to the science and timing of blocking. As a result his Tennessee teams racked up 112 shutouts over his thirty-year career. His 1939 Tennessee Vols will forever remain the last major college team to complete a season unscored upon. Neyland never coached anywhere but Knoxville. His legend is therefore inextricably tied to the University of Tennessee's self-image.

Neyland played his football at West Point alongside future notables including Dwight D. Eisenhower. The imposing lineman also won the national collegiate title for heavyweight boxing. This toughness proved invaluable when Neyland was recalled to active duty for WWII at the age of fifty. After almost two decades of college coaching he switched seamlessly back into military life. As a Brigadier-General working in logistics in the South Asia theatre his service earned him an O.B.E – making him the only college football coach decorated by the King of England to my knowledge.

When Tennessee hired Neyland in 1926 his mandate was simple: Beat Vanderbilt. By the time he retired in 1952 he had built a juggernaut so mighty that Vanderbilt would never again even dream of catching their erstwhile rival on the grid iron. Neyland went 173-31-12 in 21 seasons with Southern Conference championships in 1927 and 1932. He claimed a share of his first SEC title in 1939 and won outright titles in 1940 and 1946, either side of his wartime hiatus. He shared his final SEC title with Bobby Dodd’s Georgia Tech in 1951. Five times his teams won at least ten games, including three straight seasons from 1938-40.

The General led Tennessee to five bowls, winning two. Neyland won an AP national championship in 1951 to go along with two earlier titles from other sources. He could easily have won more. In 1950 the Vols beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl while AP champion Oklahoma lost the Sugar Bowl to Paul Bryant’s Kentucky Wildcats.

Despite Neyland finishing his career with an uncharacteristic 13-28 loss to Jim Tatum’s Maryland in the 1952, the General retired with the best winning percentage of any Tennessee coach. His 173 wins in 213 games still hold that record.

UT beating Oklahoma in the 1939 Orange Bowl

General Neyland was not the first southern coach to achieve national notoriety. The University of Alabama announced the arrival of southern football onto the national stage by winning the Rose Bowl under Wallace Wade on New Year's Day 1926. His successor, Frank Thomas continued the legacy. Though Wade’s Alabama career overlapped with Neyland’s tenure at Tennessee by six years, the schools did not begin playing annually until 1928 (Neyland edged Wade 2-1 over the following three seasons). When Thomas accepted the position to succeed Wade, who had fallen out with the school’s directors and departed for Duke, Neyland’s Tennessee program was justifiably the benchmark for success. Alabama President George Denny left Thomas in no doubt as to his expectations, famously telling him as he offered the job:

“Football is ninety percent talent and ten percent coaching. You will be provided with the ninety percent. I will hold you strictly accountable for the ten percent.”

Denny needn’t have worried. Thomas grew up in the chaotic hardship of industrial Chicago in the 1890s. As the son of a poor, immigrant steel worker he possessed considerable tenacity. As a prep star he fell in love with football and set himself to learn the art of coaching. He began that process as quarterback at Notre Dame under Knute Rockne. The Irish legend viewed Thomas as one the most intelligent players he ever coached. After arriving at Alabama Thomas unhesitatingly set about installing a version of Rockne’s box offense. The young coach confidently scrapped Wade’s playbook and met with immediate success. In 1931 his first team went 9-1. Naturally, the sole loss was a lop-sided 25-0 beat down in Knoxville.

Frank Thomas (third from left) and staff

Through fifteen seasons to 1946, when he retired with rising blood pressure, Thomas went 115-24-7. His winning percentage of .812 as an Alabama coach is second only to the Bear. Thomas won the first and second ever SEC championships in 1933 and 1934. Alabama claimed a national championship the latter of those years, going 10-0 and beating Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Thomas' 1945 team went 10-0 but, understandably for the times, every poll voted Army national champion instead. Bama finished that season with a convincing 34-14 Rose Bowl victory over USC. Trojan coach Jeff Cravath said Thomas could have named the score and thanked him for pulling back. Alabama fans have always believed the Pacific Coast Conference began inviting the Big-10 Champion to Pasadena because they were sick of Alabama beating the cream of the West.

Thomas went 4-2 in bowl games, including two Rose Bowls and victories in his only trips to the Cotton and Orange Bowls. By the time he retired Thomas had built upon Wallace Wade’s foundations to build a football Goliath that more than equaled General Neyland’s Tennessee. Alabama boasted a Rose Bowl record of 4-1-1 with four national championships, compared to Tennessee’s Rose Bowl record of 1-1 and one national title. Between 1933 and 1946 Bama and UT won at least a share of the SEC title a combined eight times at an even four a-piece. The two schools began a rivalry in the Neyland-Thomas years that has continued to dominate southern football. To date Alabama’s twenty-one and Tennessee’s thirteen SEC titles are the first and second most.

At the center of this dominating rivalry is the annual clash simply known as “the third Saturday in October.” In Wallace Wade’s final year the Crimson Tide went 10-0, won the Rose Bowl and claimed national title. Neyland’s Tennessee finished 9-1, losing only to Alabama, 18-6 in Tuscaloosa. The following year, Neyland returned the favor. As Thomas’ first Tide team won 9 with a loss in Knoxville, Tennessee went undefeated with only a tie at Kentucky keeping the Vols from a national title. Neyland and Thomas coached head-to-head ten times, with the General having a 3-6-1 edge. Thomas’ overall record against Tennessee was a healthier 7-6-2 (including the war years and 1935, which Neyland did not coach). Thomas did not have a losing record against any school or coach he faced more than once, except Neyland.

Games between the two schools simply meant more than any other. Seven times in the ten years Thomas and Neyland coached against one another the winner went on to claim the SEC crown. Howell Chappell, Alabama’s left Halfback from 1931-1933 recalled intercepting a pass in Knoxville in Thomas’ first win over Neyland in 1933. Chappell stepped out of bounds and into a crowd of High School boys on the sideline. The boys proceeded to kick the Bama back and, according to Chappell:

“Kicked me all the way to the endzone... They weren’t happy about us winning.”

In 1935 as defending Rose Bowl champions the Crimson Tide were the team to beat, led by the record breaking end play of future pro-football standout Don Hutson. Opposite Hutson Alabama’s “other end” attracted less attention. Paul Bryant caught far fewer balls and had less talent, but never disappointed. The week before the Tennessee game Bryant broke a leg in the first quarter against Mississippi State. He returned in the third quarter and finished the game. He went on to play the following week, refusing to come out until a 25-0 victory was all but assured. Bryant caught several passes in the game, two of which he successfully lateraled and one for a touchdown.

Tennessee always showed the same measure of fortitude. In 1932 the two schools met on a windy, rainy, inhospitable day in Birmingham. Tennessee was undefeated and had not lost once in the two year since Wallace Wade’s last game against Neyland. In treacherous conditions the game quickly descended into a kicking duel. Tennessee’s legendary halfback Beattie Feathers exchanged 23 punts with a 46 yard average for Johnny Caine’s effort of 21 punts of a 43 yard average the other way. Conditions were so bad that several times the teams elected to punt on first down. Alabama had a 3-0 lead in the fourth quarter when Feathers landed a punt in a puddle on their one yard line. Tide Tackle Jim Dildy later regretted that his team did not simply take a safety. Instead, Caine punted. He shanked the ball out at the 12.

With one last chance to win the game Tennessee lined up to run a single-wing play with a center snap to right, but the ball spilled due to miscommunication and Bama collapsed the line. As Tennessee backs tripped over one another Feather dived into the crowd and pushed the ball loose. His teammate Chief Cochise grabbed it, knocked two Tide players down and forced his way into the end zone. Such tenacity, quick thinking and unlikely events were all classic Alabama-Tennessee.

General Neyland famously said once:

“You never know about a player until he has played against Alabama.”

That continues to be the standard on Rocky top and in Tuscaloosa.

Instinctively, one might think that when great coaches compete, the success of one must necessarily mean the detriment of the other. In head to head games that is certainly true. But in the grander scheme, southern football has never worked that way. As the game grew and rivalries escalated, the stakes crept incrementally upwards. If one school had a General Neyland, the others must find their Frank Thomas. SEC football has always worked that way, with juggernaut programs continually feeding from competition with one another.
That all began in the 1930s on the Third Saturday in every October.