They are all old men now in their 60s and 70s, no longer with flat bellies and thick hair, but instead with body parts that mysteriously hurt.
But every year when LSU and Ole Miss get together for their annual football throwdown – this Saturday’s get-together in Baton Rouge is the 99th game in the series – they take a mental sip from the fountain of youth.
Just for a moment, they are 20 years old again, strapping on their gold and their blue helmets, they are Tigers and Rebels playing in the greatest college football rivalry of its era.
They recall the sights, the sounds, the smells, their coaches, the plays they didn’t make, the plays they made and the plays they wish they would have made that they still tell everyone they did make.
"The Monday before the first time I played against LSU in 1968,” says Archie Manning, perhaps Ole Miss’ most iconic player in history, “I hopped in (Rebels’) coach (Johnny) Vaught's El Camino to ride over to the football office for our quarterbacks meeting.
“He looks at me and says, 'Archie - this is it. Tiger Stadium. Saturday night. Ole Miss-LSU. This is what college football is all about.' "
The greatest LSU-Ole Miss games were played between 1958-62 when both teams were ranked in the top 10 in five of those six games played. LSU held a 3-2-1 edge in those showdowns.
The Tigers-Rebels series had some notable moments before then, as in '47, Vaught's first season guiding the Rebels, when Ole Miss won, 20-18, in Baton Rouge. In that game, LSU's Y.A. Tittle intercepted a Charlie Conerly pass and had his belt buckle ripped off. Tittle ran as far as he could holding his pants with one hand before they drooped to his knees and he was tackled.
But the series didn't begin its trek toward legendary status until February 1955 when LSU, seeking a head coach, hired Paul Dietzel, a 29-year-old offensive line coach from Army. Tall and blond with a smile that earned him the nickname "Pepsodent Paul," he soon recruited athletes that could match those of Vaught’s Rebels.
When that happened, LSU vs. Ole Miss advanced from a next-door neighbor rivalry to nail-biting, dramatic battles for national rankings, conference championships and bowl games on the line.
There was Billy Cannon's 89-yard TD punt return in '59 that gave LSU a 7-3 victory and Cannon the Heisman Trophy, as well as the 21-0 Ole Miss revenge victory later that season in the Sugar Bowl. There was the unexpected almost every year. There were impassioned chants from the Tigers’ and Rebels’ faithful respectively of "Go To Hell, LSU" and "Go to Hell, Ole Miss."
"It was hard-nosed football," says Jake Gibbs, who was a Rebels quarterback from 1958-60, and later the school's baseball coach after a fine major league career with the New York Yankees. "But it was clean football, just a lot of fun. Both teams had a lot of respect for each other, and a lot of us are still friends to this day."
The heyday of the LSU-Ole Miss rivalry was played out against the backdrop of an innocent, almost “Happy Days” slice of Americana.
It was a time of Friday night bonfires and pep rallies when your best girl usually wore your 'M' or 'L' letter sweater, an era when Ole Miss was in a dry county and students had to drive 30 miles to the Wagon Wheel in Holly Springs to buy beer. It was a period in Baton Rouge when a burger and shake at Hopper’s Drive-In started a big night that ended with an amorous couple parking at the university lakes to watch the submarine (wink, wink!) races.
LSU had lost six straight games to Ole Miss when Dietzel’s Tigers, in his fourth season in Baton Rouge, finally broke through in 1958 with a 14-0 victory over the Rebels in LSU’s perfect 11-0 national championship season.
The reason that the Tigers had finally elevated to Ole Miss’ level was simple. Dietzel knew Vaught was a great coach and tried to learn something every time he coached against him.
Lesson No. 1 came the second time Dietzel faced Vaught in 1956, a 46-17 Ole Miss win in which LSU led, 17-14, at the half.
"In that '56 game, it was hot as the dickens in Tiger Stadium, and they played us with three teams while we were only good enough to play our starters,” says Dietzel, now 86, and living in Baton Rouge with his wife Anne. “By halftime, we were dead on our feet, so worn out you could squeegee us off the deck. Ole Miss was fresh."
Two years worth of recruiting classes resulted in Dietzel copying Vaught's system, except Dietzel called his third-team the "Chinese Bandits," something he borrowed from a comic strip called "Terry and the Pirates" that said the Chinese Bandits "are the most vicious people in the world." Vaught called the Chinese Bandits “Dietzel’s publicity stunt.”
Lesson No. 2 came when Dietzel was coaching in several Ole Miss players in a postseason all-star game.
"They wouldn’t even talk to me for the first several days,” Dietzel recalls. “When they finally spoke to me, I asked them about their conditioning. They told me they ran 20 50-yard dashes in full gear at the end of every practice. The next spring, I had our guys run 21 50-yard dashes in full pads at the end of every practice."
The Dietzel-Vaught coaching matchup was full of psychological ploys.
In August 2002, about four years before Vaught died at age 96, I visited him at his farm on the outskirts of Oxford about 10 minutes from the stadium named for him. He was sharp as a tack and he loved talking about playing LSU and coaching against Dietzel, particularly since Ole Miss played most of its games against LSU in Tiger Stadium.
"I liked to play 'em because they were a great football team," said Vaught, who was 15-8-3 against the Tigers. "But we always got half the gate receipts from the games in Baton Rouge. We'd make a lot of money, and we knew we could whip 'em. I always felt they had a lot of coaching changes (four LSU coaches in Vaught's era), and they never did establish a great defense."
Dietzel refutes Vaught’s “whip ’em” statement.
“Johnny had a very short memory, because the last four times we played (three in Baton Rouge, once in Oxford), we won three times and tied once,” Dietzel says. “That’s not exactly getting whipped.”
Vaught always tried to convince his team that Tiger Stadium was friendly territory. One year before both teams ran on the field, Vaught held his team in the tunnel, waiting for LSU's pregame entrance.
"I had a group of sophomores worried about the noise, and I told them I'm going to show you we have more people down here pulling for us than they do," Vaught said. "LSU always waited to run on the field last to get a big ovation.
"We waited and they waited. Finally, they turned their people loose, and we did, too. There was a huge ovation. I got our team in the huddle and said, 'See boys, we have just as many fans here as they do.' "
Just days before the '58 and '59 games, the LSU campus got bombed with "Go to Hell LSU" leaflets.
"Somebody flew by and dropped thousands of leaflets," says LSU quarterback-defensive back Warren Rabb, who made a goal line stop along with Cannon on Ole Miss's Doug Elmore to preserve LSU's '59 victory. "We thought coach Dietzel might have had something to do with it."
Dietzel still proclaims innocence.
“Somebody said, `Well, Dietzel is an old pilot, so you know who dropped those leaflets’,” he says. “People asked me, `Did you?’ I said, `No, I didn’t, but I want to thank them.’ ”
Football historians still consider LSU’s four-point win over the Rebels on Halloween night the greatest game in SEC history.
LSU, the defending national champions sporting an 18-game win streak (dating back to the last game of the ’57 season) and a No. 1 ranking, had college football’s most explosive player in Cannon. Ole Miss, since losing to the Tigers in ’58, had won nine-of-10 games and was ranked No. 3. Both teams were 6-0 and both had defenses that hadn’t budged all season – LSU had allowed just six points on two field goals and Ole Miss had given up just seven points on one touchdown.
That’s why when the Tigers emerged from that game a winner, Dietzel was amazed and still is after all these years at a soothsaying pre-game story written by Walter Stewart of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
“His whole column was about how both LSU and Ole Miss were evenly matched, how both teams were big and fast and well-coached,” Dietzel says. “He wrote that since he thought the game would be close, sometime in the game the team with a great player will have that great player step up and win the game. It’s like Walter Stewart had a crystal ball.”
That great player was Cannon, who was under orders not to field any punt inside his 15-yard line. But when Gibbs' third-down punt took a high bounce ("About 10 feet in the air," Gibbs says) with about 10 minutes left in the game, Cannon caught it at the 11, faked Ole Miss’ Larry Grantham and began shaking off tacklers and picking up blockers.
On the LSU sideline, Dietzel watched Cannon field the ball with his heart in his throat.
“When that ball took a high bounce and I saw Billy drawing a bead on it,” Dietzel says, “I said to myself, `Billy, no, no, NO!’ I’m thinking if he catches the ball, gets hit immediately and fumbles, the game is over.
“Instead, I started screaming `Go, go, GO!’ When he took off down the sideline, it was electrifying.”
Cannon said a few years ago that because he had returned a previous punt about 25 yards, because field conditions were getting sloppy on a damp, foggy night and because everyone was getting tired with a game drawing to a close, he’d take his chances on returning the next punt if “I got a decent bounce.”
Which is exactly what happened.
"When I got to midfield (where he slipped past Gibbs just in front of Vaught), I saw Johnny Robinson looking back for someone to block,” Cannon said. “I knew all I had to do was not stub my toe."
Vaught was sick.
"It was unbelievable because he (Cannon) hadn't gained 5 yards all day," said Vaught, who ordered his team to punt several times on first down to regain field position. "I was close enough to tackle Cannon, but I was afraid I'd miss."
Rebels placekicker Robert Khayat, who retired last year as Ole Miss’ Chancellor, recalls a stunned Vaught dropping to his knees.
"He had on this gray suit, sunk to his knees and he got up with mud patches on both knees," Khayat says.
When you watch the replay of Cannon’s run, (click here to watch
), you’ll see an official suddenly come from nowhere, stepping out from the Ole Miss sideline with Cannon about 20 yards into his run. The official runs stride for stride with Cannon and throws his up signaling touchdown when Cannon scores.
As it turns out, that guy wasn’t even part of the officiating crew.
It was last year in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger when veteran columnist Rick Cleveland revealed that the man in the striped shirt tailing Cannon and running down the sideline past Vaught was Bill Rogers, a Jackson native and Ole Miss fan.
Rogers was 29 years old then and didn’t have a ticket to the game. He’s now in his 60s and a car salesman in Jackson.
Rogers’ incredible tale is this: He traveled by train to the game and met a couple of friends who had tickets. He was hoping to buy a ticket from a scalper, but there were no tickets to be found.
So Rogers, a high school referee, went to his backup plan. He brought a duffel bag with his referee uniform, so he goes to a bathroom, puts on a uniform and walks confidently toward a stadium gate.
Before Rogers could talk himself in the game, the gate attendant waves him through without a word. Rogers heads straight to the field where he takes a seat on the Ole Miss bench.
He thought the jig was up when the real officiating crew showed up, but the referee was sympathetic to his cause when Rogers told him the truth.
“When I told him, he just laughed and laughed and then he told me to enjoy the game,” Rogers told Cleveland. “He said, `If anybody asks you what you're doing, just tell them you're a back-up in case one of us gets hurt.’ ''
Rogers stayed out of harm’s way until Cannon’s fabled run, when he got caught up in the moment.
“I really was for Ole Miss,'' Rogers told Cleveland. “That was just my referee's instincts.”
Gibbs has tried hard to escape the memory of Cannon’s run, that is still replayed on TV during LSU-Ole Miss game week, along with the dramatic radio call of then Tiger play-by-play announcer J.C. Politz.
After Gibbs became Ole Miss's baseball coach, LSU fans were unmerciful when the Rebels played in Baton Rouge. One year, every time Gibbs went to the mound to make a pitching change, Cannon's run would be played over a loudspeaker and an LSU fan with a high voice would squeal, 'Catch him, Jake. Catch him!' ”
Finally, after several trips to the mound, an exasperated Gibbs turned to the heckler and loudly announced, "Hey, 10 other SOB's missed him before I did."
The whole stadium erupted in laughter.
It wasn't a laughing matter at the end of the '59 season when No. 3 LSU agreed to give No. 2 Ole Miss a re-match in the Sugar Bowl. The Rebels responded by blanking the lethargic Tigers, 21-0, and outgaining LSU, 373-74.
LSU didn't cross midfield until there were eight minutes left in the game. And Cannon, the newly anointed Heisman winner, had 8 yards rushing on six tries after being shadowed all over the field by Ole Miss defensive back (and later head coach) Billy Brewer.
"I knew we'd win because we didn't have to do much to get ready," Vaught said. "We stayed ready, and I concentrated on our ground game. We moved anytime we wanted."
Dietzel explains he didn't want a rematch with Ole Miss. When the Sugar Bowl said Ole Miss had accepted an invitation and the challenge was offered to the Tigers, Dietzel says his team wasn't thrilled about it.
"We wanted to go to the Orange Bowl or the Cotton Bowl," Dietzel says. "The team discussed it without the staff, and they said they'd take the Sugar Bowl if I reduced practice time and if I got more than the allotted number of tickets for their families.
"I told them if that was the case, then we wouldn't go to the Sugar Bowl. I wasn't going to do that. They took another vote and accepted the Sugar Bowl bid. We didn't take our 'A' game, and Ole Miss was on fire."
Vaught was stunned that LSU agreed to a re-match.
“If I had been Dietzel, I wouldn’t have played us again,” Vaught said. “Even in the (Halloween) game they won, we shut them out on offense and we moved the ball all over the field on them. They had that one long run (Cannon’s punt return).”
Even when Cannon graduated after that ’59 season, after Dietzel left LSU after the 1961 season to coach Army and after Alabama began dominating the SEC with Bear Bryant as coach, the Tigers with Charles McClendon as coach and Rebels still had knockdown battles. It remained that way until Vaught finally retired, un-retired and re-retired from coaching in 1973.
Cannon’s vacancy in LSU’s offensive and defensive backfields was taken over by Jerry Stovall, who ended up as the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1962 and later coached the Tigers for four seasons from 1980-83.
“The tradition between LSU and Ole Miss demanded the very best you had to give, no matter how much you’d given before,” says Stovall, 69, who has been president of the Baton Rouge Sports Foundation for the last 17 years. “You knew the stadium would be packed, you knew the game would be well-coached, you knew it would be physically demanding. You knew you wouldn’t be going out dancing after that game.”
“We played in a golden era of football, when players held the sport in high regard, when players held team performance in high regard.”
It stayed that way between LSU and Ole Miss into the early 70s.
There was Ole Miss offensive guard Stan Hindman running down LSU kick returner Lightnin' Joe Labruzzo, catching him from behind on an 81-yard punt return at the 1-yard line in a 37-3 Ole Miss win in Tiger Stadium in 1963. That was the last time Ole Miss won an SEC title.
There was LSU winning, 11-10, in 1964 when Doug Moreau caught a two-point conversion pass deflected by Tommy Luke, father of current Ole Miss assistant Matt Luke - "It seemed like it took forever for the ball to come down after it was tipped," says Moreau, the Tigers’ current long-time football radio analyst.
There were two Archie Manning-led comeback wins in '68 and '69 - "Coach Vaught was a good friend of (LSU coach) Charlie Mac, but he knew him well and we always had good stuff for LSU," Archie says.
No one will forget SEC champion LSU's 61-17 victory in 1970 when Manning played with a cast on a broken arm, or in 1972 when LSU won, 17-16, running four plays in the final 10 seconds, with Bert Jones throwing a game-winning touchdown pass as time expired.
The rivalry never has re-gained the year-to-year consistency it had when Vaught went head-to-head with Dietzel and McClendon, maybe because it has been rare both teams have been highly ranked at the same time.
But every now and then, there have been unique twists between the teams, such former Ole Miss defensive back Billy Brewer becoming coach, and the four years that New Orleans-area native John Fourcade was Ole Miss’ starting quarterback from 1978-81.
As Ole Miss's coach from 1983-93, Brewer said if his team didn't fully grasp the historical aspect of the rivalry, especially when playing in Baton Rouge, he made sure to drive the point home.
"On the way to the game, I ordered our team buses down the River Road route to Tiger Stadium, down by all the RVs where LSU fans would give us a good cussin', " Brewer said. "Then, we'd get out at the stadium, and all those fans would be on the other side of the fence, shaking it and screaming at us."
Fourcade, one of the nation’s top prep QBs playing for Archbishop Shaw, had the audacity – at least from the view of LSU fans – to sign a scholarship with the Tigers most hated rival.
But Fourcade, now 50 and who has been a coach and/or general manager in various forms of arena football for the last 14 years, said his decision to play in Oxford rather than Baton Rouge was easy. Despite growing up in New Orleans, his favorite college team was Notre Dame and he marked them off his recruiting list after a visit and not liking Irish head coach Dan Devine.
“Both Alabama and LSU told me I wouldn’t play until I was a junior,” Fourcade says. “I would have gone to LSU, because (assistant coach) Barry Wilson recruited me and I really loved Barry Wilson. LSU really thought I was going there, because I was a local guy.
“But (LSU coach) Charlie McClendon sat in my living room and said, `John, we already have Steve Ensminger and David Woodley at quarterback, so you won’t see the field until you’re a junior.’ When (Ole Miss assistant) David Lee came to recruit me, I said, `Let me make it easy for you. What’s my chance of playing as a freshman?’ He said, `You’ll play as a freshman.’ ”
From that moment on, Fourcade, who still ranks second on the Ole Miss career total offense list behind Eli Manning, played like he had a point to prove every time he faced LSU, especially the games in Baton Rouge. Though Fourcade never beat the Tigers – he was 0-3-1 getting a 27-27 tie as a senior – he reveled in every minute of the rivalry. The more he heard the booing LSU fans, the more he liked it.
“The first time I ran on the field at Tiger Stadium, somebody threw an empty Jack Daniels bottle at me,” Fourcade says. "(Ole Miss coach) Steve Sloan said, 'They don't like you, do they?' I said, 'At least they could have thrown a full bottle at me.'
“Another time when the team bus pulled up at Tiger Stadium, it’s when students still lived in the stadium. One of them had hung a dummy with a noose around its neck and the dummy was wearing my jersey number No. 1.
“I loved playing in those games. I was doing the best I could to stick it in their noses. It was so much fun. I’m sure I’m still one of the top five recruits from Louisiana that didn’t sign with LSU. I could be No. 1, you never know.”
Fourcade, who didn’t quit playing football until age 42, wouldn’t mind re-visiting the Ole Miss-LSU series as a coach.
“I’ve always wanted to coach in college, especially at Ole Miss,” says Fourcade, who also does TV and radio work in the New Orleans area during the college and pro seasons. “I wouldn’t care what position I’d coach and I know I can recruit anywhere in the South.”
Maybe one day, Fourcade will re-join the fray. He already knows what current coaches Les Miles of LSU and Houston Nutt of Ole Miss quickly learned – the Tigers and the Rebels, after all these years and no matter the records of each team, is still a big deal.
Just take last year’s game in Oxford when LSU tried frantically and unsuccessfully to snap the ball at the Ole Miss 5-yard line as time expired on a 25-23 Rebels’ victory.
“My very first press conference when I was hired (late November ’07), I was coming off stage and there were chants from our fans about LSU,” said Rebels’ third-year coach Nutt, who’s 2-0 against the Tigers since re-locating in Oxford from Arkansas where he coached the Razorbacks for 10 seasons. “That sent a real message to me.”
Here’s the most sobering message of all, when considering Ole Miss had 11 head coaching changes (prior to Nutt) and LSU had 10 (prior to Miles) since the SEC began in 1933.
Nine of those Rebels’ coaches who resigned, fired or left for another job lost to LSU in their last season at Ole Miss, while seven LSU coaches (including 5-of-the-last 6) in a similar situation lost to Ole Miss in their final year on the job in Baton Rouge.
Bottom line? LSU vs. Ole Miss is forever important in so many ways.