Monday, August 15, 2022

Oxford’s Olden Days: Did the 1962 Football Season Save Ole Miss?


Nearly 53 years ago, Ole Miss played the University of Houston in the 1962 Homecoming Game. This was a short six days from what some have called “the last battle of the Civil War.” James Meredith had entered the University of Mississippi during a riot that caused two deaths and countless injuries. Coach John H. Vaught in his book, Rebel Coach, devotes a chapter, entitled “Football Saves A School”, to the 1962 Homecoming Game and the 1962 football season.

Some may say that Coach Vaught went a little far by making the statement that the 1962-football season and specifically the 1962 Homecoming Game saved Ole Miss from being closed Here are some facts surrounding this game and the season. You be the judge as to whether the statement is true or not.

The game had been set for Hemingway Stadium on October 6, 1962. Ole Miss history professor James Silver had written his daughter after the riot that the “chief desire now of the extremists is not to get Meredith but to provoke an incident that Barnett would use to close the school. Closing the school was now their aim”.   The homecoming game of 1962 was an opportunity for just such an incident. There would over 20,000 people in Oxford for the game, and with a great number of outsiders and alumni on campus, such an incident could be possible.

Earlier in the first week of October, 1962, Coach Vaught had received a telephone call from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The Attorney General wanted Vaught to do what he could “to keep the situation calm”. Vaught recalled in his book that, “I said I would, but by Tuesday our Homecoming game with Houston had become a pawn between the state and the federal forces…It took a tremendous fight to keep the game…from being canceled. I felt it essential that the game be played, that it might be the key to getting the campus to settle down.”

In an article in the Clarion Ledger, Chancellor J. D. Williams stated,

“The Ole Miss campus is secure and a condition of near normalcy under the circumstances is rapidly returning. Less than sixty students have formally withdrawn and some of them may return by Monday. We have been advised by Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense, and Cyrus R. Vance, Secretary of the Army, from Washington, concerning our Homecoming game—that it be played in Houston or Jackson, or that the game be canceled.”

Students reacted in varying ways. One complained that the student body “might as well be under marshal law.” Another said, “We’ve had enough trouble around here without inviting the rednecks in for a football game.” Sarcasm was expressed by state legislators in Jackson. Representative Russell Davis, referring to Attorney General Kennedy, said on the floor of the House, “I understand Bobby Kennedy will referee the game.” “If he does referee the game,” replied House Speaker Walter Sillers,

“Ole Miss is beaten before it starts.”

By mid-week the coach had told his players to be ready to fly to Houston for the game. Later towards the end of the week after “much maneuvering by Chancellor Williams and Tad Smith (the Athletic Director),

The Justice Department and the Army agreed to let the Homecoming game be played in Jackson” on Saturday afternoon. To the coach a victory in the Houston game was crucial to the University and to the 1962 football season. “Boys became men that day,” he wrote in his memoirs, “and I think then and there they sensed that no one would be able to stop them, and that a university rode on their shoulder pads.”

The offensive lineup for the 1962 season was as follows: Reed Davis and Woody Dabbs at ends, Jim Dunaway and Jim Roberts and tackles, Bobby Robinson and Don Dickson at guards, Richard Ross at center, Glynn Griffing at quarterback, Chuck Morris and Dave Jennings at tailbacks, Louis Guy and A. J. Holloway at wingbacks, and Perry Lee Dunn and Buck Randall at fullbacks. Griffing and Dunnaway would be chosen as All-Americans that year, with Ole Miss going undefeated, winning the SEC and coming in third in the nation in all of the polls. We would play Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl and defeat them 17-13. The 1962 team was the only undefeated and untied team in the University history.

In November 1962, Chancellor Williams went to the annual meeting of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in Dallas. We were placed on ”extraordinary status” and Mississippi officials were warned that Ole Miss would remain under “close observation” until the next annual meeting in 1963. The 1962 football season went a long way in helping the University being restored to full and unqualified membership.

The Homecoming Game and football season of 1962 may or may not have saved the University from being closed, but it did go a long way in helping the University to get back to normal or as normal as it could be. Evidence of that fact can be seen in an article written by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Relman Morin. CHEERING FOOTBALL CROWD PUSHES RACIAL STRIFE ASIDE was the headline for his article for the Associated Press. Morin was in attendance at the Ole Miss-Houston game in Jackson on October 6. .He wrote in his first sentence, “College football temporarily dulled the anguish of racial strife in Mississippi Saturday.”

Morin went on to state, “Lest there be any doubt about the feelings of the people who saw the game, another explosion of cheers rang out when it was announced that Michigan had defeated Army, 17-0—although Ole Miss doesn’t play either one of them. ‘Ole Miss had been fighting the Army all week,’ a spectator said. The Houston-Ole Miss game was played in Jackson, rather than at the Oxford campus, because Federal authorities felt the danger of further disturbances was too great. As students arrived, they looked like any other college crowd—fact, better behaved than some. It was Joe College with Betty Coed on his arm, out to cheer his team to victory. The Rebels obliged, crushing Houston 40-7.”

Mayfield 34Jack Lamar Mayfield is a fifth generation Oxonian, whose family came to Oxford shortly after the Chickasaw Cession of 1832, and he is the third generation of his family to graduate from the University of Mississippi. He is a former insurance company executive and history instructor at Marshall Academy in Holly Springs, South Panola High School in Batesvile and the Oxford campus of Northwest Community College.

In addition to his weekly blog in Oxford’s Olden Days, Mayfield is also the author of an Images of America series book titled Oxford and Ole Miss published in 2008 for the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation. The Foundation is responsible for restoring the post-Civil War home of famed Mississippi statesman, L.Q.C. Lamar and is now restoring the Burns Belfry, the first African American Church in Oxford.

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