If late Ole Miss football coach Johnny Vaught were still alive – the greatest Rebel of all died in February 2006 – he would have gotten a visit this month from current Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Saban’s first question to Vaught: “How did you do it?”
On Jan. 9 in the BCS national championship game at New Orleans, No. 1 and SEC champion LSU plays No. 2 Alabama.
It is only the second time ever two SEC teams have been re-matched in a bowl or national title game after playing in the regular season.
The BCS rankings forced this re-match of a Nov. 5 game won 9-6 in overtime by then-No. 1 LSU over then-No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
The only other re-match of SEC powerhouses in a bowl following a regular season meeting was between No. 2 Vaught-coached Ole Miss and No. 3 Paul Dietzel coached-LSU in the 1960 Sugar Bowl, which resulted in a 21-0 Rebels’ rout. It came after then-No. 1 LSU beat then-No. 3 Ole Miss 7-3 on Billy Cannon’s 89-yard TD punt return about two months earlier on Halloween night 1959.
Amazingly, LSU had a choice to play in another bowl or not play in a bowl at all, but chose to play Ole Miss again.
“If I had been Dietzel, I wouldn’t have played us again,” Coach Vaught told me in an interview about 10 years ago. “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).”
In fact, the Tigers, who were 11-0 as 1958 national champions and 9-1 in the 1959 regular season, losing at Tennessee 14-13 the week after the dramatic Tiger Stadium win over Ole Miss, almost voted to go to no bowl at all.
Back in those days, conferences were tied to certain bowls. When a bowl wanted to cut a deal with a school, it went after that school as quickly as it felt comfortable doing so.
In Ole Miss’ case, the Sugar Bowl decided to invite the Rebels just after they stomped Tennessee, 37-7, on Nov. 14, 1959. At that point, Ole Miss was ranked No. 2 with an 8-1 record with a regular season game left against Mississippi State.
Never in the wildest dreams did Ole Miss think it would get a re-match with LSU. But it happened because the Tigers’ bowl choices had gotten reduced to either Ole Miss in the Sugar, TCU in the Bluebonnet or voting not to accept any bowl.
When Tigers’ coach Dietzel first informally polled his team, a third of them voted to go to no bowl. He and his players wanted to wait until after a Dec. 5 game between No. 1 Syracuse and UCLA to make a decision whether to accept a bowl bid.
Because if Syracuse lost the game, it meant LSU would play Ole Miss for the Football Writers of America national championship, which back then was the only national title awarded after the bowls. If Syracuse won, then LSU would stay home.
But the Tigers didn’t wait until Dec. 5. On Nov. 23, two days after LSU closed the regular season with a lackluster 14-6 win over Tulane, Dietzel had his team take an official team vote on the bowls.
"We wanted to go to the Orange Bowl or the Cotton Bowl," said Dietzel, who’s retired and living in Baton Rouge. “But those bowls decided on other teams (Syracuse vs. Texas in the Cotton, No. 5 Georgia vs. Missouri in the Orange Bowl. "Our team discussed it without our coaching staff present, 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.”
A crowd of media gathered outside LSU’s team meeting room for an announcement. After 70 minutes, then-LSU sports information director Ace Higgins (yes, my late father) emerged saying, “They voted to play.” Cannon then walked out and added, “It’s a unanimous vote. I guess it’s Ole Miss again.”
Just like the Jan. 9 LSU-Alabama re-match ticket is a hot commodity – the cheapest ticket is being sold for roughly $1,350 ($1,000 over face value) – the LSU-Ole Miss ’60 re-match in the Sugar Bowl made for some unusual trades, such as 60 tickets for a 1952 Cadillac and four new tires.
Fans expected another tight game. In another interesting parallel to the upcoming LSU-Alabama re-match featuring the nation’s top two defenses (Alabama No. 1 and LSU No. 2), the ’60 Sugar Bowl featured LSU and Ole Miss defenses ranked No. 1 and No. 2 nationally.
LSU’s biggest problem was three of its biggest offensive threats surrounding Heisman Trophy winner Cannon – quarterback Warren Rabb (knee strain), halfback Johnny Robinson (broken hand) and halfback Wendell Harris (broken arm) – were slowed or didn’t play at all.
“We didn't take our 'A' game, and Ole Miss was on fire," Dietzel said.
The Rebels were completely dominating, gaining 373 yards and limiting LSU to the lowest total offense output in the bowl’s history, a meager 74 yards thanks to minus 15 yards rushing. LSU didn't cross midfield until there were eight minutes left in the game.
"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."
Vaught did two things that Alabama’s Saban may want to take note in a few weeks before round two against the Tigers.
First, Vaught dumped the conservative offensive approach he had in the Halloween night loss. His quarterbacks completed 15-of-27 passes for 223 yards and three TDs, with QB Bobby Ray Franklin earning game MVP honors by throwing for 148 yards and two TDs.
Secondly, Vaught took advantage of LSU’s offensive injuries. Sensing Cannon was the lone threat, Vaught decided to have Ole Miss defensive back Billy Brewer shadowed Cannon.
“I went everywhere Billy went,” said Brewer, who later became Ole Miss’ head coach and is now retired in Oxford. “We knew LSU wouldn’t throw it much, so we played man defense and Billy was my guy.”
Brewer did a magnificent job. Cannon had 8 yards rushing on 6 attempts. The only time he got past the goal line was after the game when he stood under the Sugar Bowl Stadium goalposts and signed a three-year, $100,000 contract with the AFL’s Houston Oilers.
So 53 years after the first and only rematch of SEC teams in a bowl game, on a damp 49-degree wind-blown day in Sugar Bowl Stadium, comes the second rematch in the climate-controlled Louisiana Superdome.
Alabama players, remembering four missed Crimson Tide field goals in the November loss to the Tigers, are counting the days until they get to New Orleans.
LSU players can’t wait, either.
“I keep hearing Alabama didn’t play its best game against us,” LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “Well, we didn’t play our best game against them, either.”