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Cleveland: Iron Mike Dennis

Photo courtesy of Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame
Photo courtesy of Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame

The great Mike Dennis came along long before football recruits were judged by stars. But had today’s star system applied back in 1961, Dennis might have been tagged with six.

This is a tale of old-time recruiting, before there was a limit on scholarships or visits, on or off campus. This was before the dead period before national signing day, before recruiting services, talent combines and the like.

This was back when coaches such as Bear Bryant and John Vaught successfully recruited just about every player they coveted and some they didn’t.  Bryant and Vaught would sign some players just to keep said players from playing at rival universities. Why not? There were no limits. Vaught and Bryant were not accustomed to losing someone they wanted, but where Dennis was concerned, Bryant or Vaught, one, was bound to lose.

Bear wanted Dennis and wanted him badly. Vaught wanted him and Vaught rarely lost Mississippi players he wanted.

Iron Mike Dennis, as he was called, was a hard-charging Jackson Murrah running back with linebacker power and sprinter’s speed. Dennis, who was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame this past Saturday, was a sprint champion at 200 pounds when many linemen weren’t that large. He possessed the power to run between the tackles and the speed to run around the end. Jack Carlisle, the legendary coach with a 60-year career, still calls Dennis the most complete back he ever coached.

Recruiting junkies today would scarcely believe what went on in the recruitment of Dennis. Practically every school in the nation wanted Dennis, who was also an model student and citizen.

Says Carlisle of Dennis’s recruitment: “It was a circus. There were so many college coaches on the sideline at our practices it was a distraction.”

Dennis had grown up an Ole Miss fan, so Vaught had that edge. But this was in the early ’60s at about the time Bama folks swore Bryant could walk on water. The Bear wanted Dennis and he didn’t cut corners to try and get him. Just for starters, he sent his son, Paul Bryant, Jr., over to Jackson for a couple of weeks the summer before Dennis’s senior season to spend time with Dennis.

Paul, Jr. would return to watch Dennis’s last five high school games in person. When Dennis visited Alabama, he didn’t stay in a dorm or at a hotel. No, he stayed in Bear Bryant’s house and drove his car.

In fact, Dennis visited Alabama at the same time as a recruit from Biloxi, a future Crimson Tide standout named Jackie Sherrill.

“Jackie and I drove around Tuscaloosa in Bear Bryant’s Cadillac,” Dennis said. “I really thought I might go there.”

Bryant even offered scholarships to two of Dennis’s lightly recruited teammates in an effort to lure Dennis.

But Ole Miss recruited Dennis every bit as hard. Assistant coach and Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame charter member Bruiser Kinard spent so much time in Jackson he could have taken up residence. Vaught also recruited Dennis personally.

Dennis went back and forth between the two. In the end, Dennis chose Ole Miss. Says he, “You can’t imagine how hard it was to tell Bear Bryant no.”

But that didn’t stop schools, including Alabama, from recruiting Dennis right up to signing day. Again, there was no dead period at the end of recruitment back then. Several schools sent representatives to Murrah the day before signing day hoping to change his mind. Bruiser Kinard was there and didn’t like what he saw.

“I guess it’s OK to tell this story now,” Carlisle said. “Bruiser looked around and said, ‘We gotta get him outta here.’”

So, Bruiser Kinard got Dennis out of school, took him to the King Edward Hotel where he rented a room on the top floor under an assumed name. And there they stayed until midnight that evening. At 12:01 a.m., National Signing Day, John Vaught knocked on the door and Mike Dennis signed with Ole Miss.

Most know the rest of the story. Iron Mike Dennis was the Rebels’ last two-time All-SEC running back until Deuce McAllister came along. When highlights of Dennis’s career were played at the induction ceremony, 16-year NFL veteran Fred McAfee was visibly amazed.

“Man, that guy could go,” Fast Freddie said.

Yes, Iron Mike really could.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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