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.

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