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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...TURN BACK THE CLOCK IN BATON ROUGE
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Among our favorite exercises each year at TGS are the well-received “Retrospective” pieces we run each summer in conjunction with our website college football conference previews. Having been publishing since 1957, we have nearly six decades worth of memories to draw upon and catalog as we deem appropriate, and the “Retrospectives” allow us the opportunity to indulge upon the best of those recollections.

Somewhat coincidentally, the 2014 gridiron revival in the Magnolia State immediately brings to mind some of our earlier days at TGS and an era in which Johnny Vaught’s Ole Miss was a constant presence near the top of the polls (as the Rebs are again this season for HC Hugh Freeze). More specifically, Saturday’s renewal of hostilities vs. LSU at Baton Rouge recalls one of our favorite “Retrospectives” from this past summer when we highlighted the glory years of the history between the Rebels and the Tigers, a rivalry which once burned as bright or brighter than any in country.

For the uninitiated, Ole Miss-LSU was at one time Auburn-Alabama...and then some. And when both programs suffered bad stretches, it was the echoes of Billy Cannon’s Halloween punt return and Archie “Who” that reminded everyone to keep things uncivil. Ole Miss-LSU has always transcended the games 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 and will undoubtedly be dusted off for the upcoming renewal of the heated rivalry on Saturday.

Remember, 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’s 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 at the top of the college football universe, a period when Vaught and LSU HC Paul Dietzel were across the sidelines from one another.

How special was Ole Miss-LSU? 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, and a few years ago was recounting for another article some of 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.”

Much as Jimmy Ott, the longtime host (with Charles Hanagriff) of “Sports Today” on ESPN Radio Baton Rouge, and on whose show we have appeared each Friday for more than a decade, recently recalled when remembering the glory days of Ole Miss and LSU. “Back in those days,” Ott told us in the summer, “Ole Miss was kind of like the Dallas Cowboys of college football.”

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. Our summer SEC “Retrospective” piece detailed almost all of those matchups, including the epic Halloween night thriller at Baton Rouge in 1959 between Dietzel’s top-ranked and defending national champ Tigers and Vaught’s third-ranked, also unbeaten Rebels.

The 1958-59 LSU teams were among the most colorful of the TGS era, thanks to an idea 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.

It was Cannon who would prove the savior of the 1959 Halloween classic vs. Ole Miss. With LSU trailing 3-0 and barely 10 minutes to play, the Rebs’ Jake Gibbs angled a punt away from Cannon so that he could not quite catch it. 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’re 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 legendary Tiger play-by-play man J.C. Politz, whose description of “the play” became a hot seller (at least in Louisiana) on “45” 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 several footnotes to Cannon’s dramatic punt return that have been mostly forgotten in college football folklore, but examined in-depth within our “Retrospective” piece. There were still ten minutes 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. But LSU would be knocked from the top of the polls the following week when shocked 14-13 at Tennessee. And eventually there would be a Sugar Bowl rematch vs. Ole Miss, with even more hype and ballyhoo than the epic Halloween showdown. Yet few recall the rematch because the Rebs dominated and got their quick revenge in a 21-0 win. “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.”

Those epic duels from the 1959 season were just part of the tale we told in our “Retrospective” regarding this rivalry. Hopefully, there might be another chapter to add to the rich Ole Miss-LSU tradition after Saturday’s renewal at Tiger Stadium. (To view all of our college football “Retrospective” pieces, go to our website home page.)

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HOT SEAT UPDATE: SEC sources are now suggesting that Florida HC Will Muschamp might not last the season after last week’s ugly 42-13 home loss to Missouri. At 3-3 in a year in which the SEC East is the weakest in memory, the Gators are no guarantee to even reach a bowl, and most insiders suggest the only remaining mystery surrounding the Florida situation is whether Muschamp will still be coaching for the regular-season finale vs. Florida State. Meanwhile, Big Ten sources say the seat is hot at Michigan, not only for HC Brady Hoke, but also for AD Dave Brandon.



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