For reasons of geography, tradition and choice the University of Mississippi has always been a particularly inbred salient of a particularly inbred state. Unlike most major colleges, Ole Miss recruits its football teams from a comparatively narrow band of American society: the young, white male population of the state. The coaching staff is equally insular and changeless. Young assistant coaches, felt-hatted and content with their station, have grown gray on the sidelines, not to mention the sideburns.
At Ole Miss the athletic director and head football coach are brothers; second and third generations of fathers, sons and brothers play on the teams. Football games are family reunions, merry-go-rounds of hugs and kisses. Pooles marry Heidels, who are cousins to...and so on in Faulknerian confusion.
But time alters even dynasties, and Ole Miss is changing. Today an occasional black face may be seen at Rebel practice sessions, and a few outsiders (i.e., non-Mississippians) have joined the coaching staff. Even John Vaught, who coached at Ole Miss for 23 years before retiring in 1970, has changed. Last spring he was photographed wearing a hairpiece; this fall he has completed his memoirs (Rebel Coach, Memphis State University Press, $6.95)—two of the more improbable acts of this most private of the country's great football coaches.
When John Vaught arrived at Ole Miss in 1947, the school had to borrow jerseys from the University of Alabama to present a respectable appearance. When Vaught retired last season, following a heart attack, only Darrell Royal at Texas, among those coaches active for at least 15 seasons, had a better record—by 1/1,000th of a percentage point. Of all the coaches in Southeastern Conference history, none—not even Bear Bryant or General Bob Neyland—has won as many games and championships.
That, then, is the range of Rebel Coach. Early on in his book it is apparent that Vaught, the Texan, loves Ole Miss. Sure, he sees its freckles and warts, but he embraces them as part of the whole lovable bundle. Even disagreeable events, like the armed hostility that ruled in the wake of the James Meredith incident in 1962, have their compensations. Vaught's 1962 squad, unbeaten and untied, is credited by its coach with having helped restore order and diminish racial tension.
Vaught is sparing with his analysis of his coaching techniques (pressed to reveal his secret of success, he will say only that it was because he used good old Mississippi boys), but he does make a conscientious effort to explain the mystique of Mississippi football and, in the process, the state itself.