By Seph Anderson
As published in the Mar/Apr 2015 Issue
Throughout the storied history of Ole Miss Football, there have been many special teams.
The 1935 Orange Bowl Team.
The 1952 Team that upset #3 Maryland.
The 1959, 1960 and 1962 National Champions.
The 1947, 1954, 1955, 1960, 1962, and 1963 SEC Champions.
The 1971 Rebels.
Brewer’s teams from the early 90’s.
Chucky Mullins’ 1989 Rebels.
Eli’s 2003 Rebels.
The 2008 & 2009 Cotton Bowl Champs.
Even this past year’s version of the Johnny Rebs.
However, regardless of the which individual team or season shines brightest in your minds, the 1947 Ole Miss Football Rebels will forever be remembered as the “Wonder Team” and for good reason. You’re probably asking yourself, “What was so special about the 1947 team?”
Well, my Rebel brethren, ask no more. For I’m about to tell the story of that wondrous squad. So sit back, pour that hot toddy and let these words and images sink into your Rebel memories.
Setting the Stage for 1947
From its inaugural season of football in 1893, which began in style with a 55-0 win over Southwest Baptist University, to a 1924 campaign concluded with a 7-0 win over Millsaps, a total of 22 different men served as head coach at the University of Mississippi. Consequently, neither continuity nor any real sustained leadership characterized the red and blue over that period.
However, the hiring of head coach Homer Hazel in 1925 would be a sign of good things to come in Oxford. Over a five-year span, through the 1929 season, Hazel led the Rebels to a near .500 mark, 21-22. It was an improvement. Then, in 1930, Ed Walker was named head coach. The well-liked head coach would take full advantage of newfound program continuity established under his predecessor.
Leading the Rebels through the 1937 campaign, Walker coached the first All-American at Ole Miss in Frank “Bruiser” Kinard, helped Ole Miss become a charter member of the SEC (1933), led his club to the school’s first-ever bowl game (1935 Orange Bowl), was a driving force behind generating a formidable team nickname for school athletic squads (Rebels) and led the Rebels to a 38-38-8 combined record over eight seasons.
Stepping in next where Walker left off was Harry Mehre, who guided Ole Miss to a 39-26-1 mark ahead of World War II. In 1946, with the war over, long-time University of Alabama assistant Harold “Red” Drew was hired to lead the football program. However, Drew’s tenure with the Rebels would be a brief one.
The 1946 season would prove to be a difficult one, as the Rebels would finish a mere 2-7 and produce the fewest offensive points in a season (76) ever by an Ole Miss club (to this day). To Drew’s (and Mehre’s) defense, it was a difficult period to piece together a quality football team, around the bookend of a war. Nevertheless, when the opportunity to return to Alabama presented itself after the 1946 season, this time to be head coach, Drew left for Tuscaloosa.
January 13, 1947 – John H. Vaught Hired as Head Coach
While Drew’s stint at Ole Miss was brief and unsuccessful, there would turn out to be quite the silver lining result from his lone season with the Rebels. That fortuitous lining was a former TCU All-American Guard and assistant line coach that stayed in Oxford when Drew went back to Alabama. His name: John Howard Vaught.
With Drew on his way to Alabama and Vaught having already become well-liked and well-respected amongst his Ole Miss players in his first season in Oxford, the then 38-year-old was promoted to head coach by Director of Athletics C.M. “Tad” Smith on January 13, 1947.
A promising, smart and likeable figure he may have been at the time, little did anyone around the Ole Miss program know just how much Johnny Vaught would mean to Ole Miss Football.
Vaught’s Cast of Coaches
Ahead of the 1947 season and coming fresh off a putrid 2-7 campaign under Drew, the consensus prediction of sportswriters was for the Rebels to finish last in the conference. Despite the likes of talented tailback Charlie Conerly and former Army All-American end Barney Poole among others, most outside of the Ole Miss program expected nothing much better than the two-win season from the year prior.
Nevertheless, Vaught went to work assembling the best group of assistant coaches possible, to field the best team possible in his first year at the helm of the Ole Miss enterprise. And he did just that. Hiring a new hand or two, as well as keeping a few holdovers from Drew’s staff, the new head coach had assembled a quality staff to lead his boys into a new era.
A fellow assistant line coach the year prior with Vaught, former Alabama basketball and football standout Jim Whatley took sole reign of the Rebel line in 1947. Another former Alabama player, All-American halfback Johnny Cain, was given control of the backfield. James “Buster” Poole, brother of Ole Miss great Barney Poole and three-year All-Pro with the New York Giants, came to Oxford to coach the ends along with former Rebel Wobble Davison. The great Tom Swayze served as chief scout along with former assistant TCU football coach and head basketball coach Mike Brumbelow. Former Rebel quarterback Ed Stone served as a scouting assistant. Additionally, former Rebel great Junie Hovious coached the freshman squad.
And having worked tirelessly with his assistant coaches to prepare his kids over the summer, Vaught’s Rebels opened up the year at home against the Kentucky Wildcats on September 20, 1947. While no one outside the Ole Miss program expected the Rebels to make noise in 1947, Vaught’s kids thought otherwise. In fact, they thought just the opposite.
Then-freshman back Farley “Fish” Salmon, “Coach Vaught instilled confidence. He said, “Hell boys, you can beat anybody. You can do anything, if you want to.” He coached and motivated us in such a way that we believed him. He was a great coach, but an excellent motivator.”
Remembering the 1947
A big underdog to open the year and in front of 18,000 strong at Hemingway Stadium, John Vaught took the field for the first time as Ole Miss Head Coach on September, 20. On the other side of the field stood his friend and coaching counterpart at Kentucky, a man by the name of Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Upon fielding the opening kickoff, the Rebels worked the ball downfield and across the goal line in less than five minutes, as tailback Charlie Conerly hooked up with end Barney Poole for the first score. A tailback on paper, Conerly’s aerial assault defined his career. In essence, he was a quarterback, too.
When Kentucky got the ball, eventual NFL quarterback great George Blanda found end Wah Wah Jones for a touchdown to even the affair. However, the young Blanda would only manage to go 3-9 through the air that afternoon for a total of 22 passing yards.
After Rebel defensive legend-in-the-making Bobby Wilson intercepted Blanda in the third quarter, Ole Miss scored once more to pull off a 14-7 win “that astonished the whole nation” and avenged the 20-6 loss to the Wildcats in 1946. Today, Wilson remains Ole Miss’ all-time career interception leader (20)and holds the records for most interception return yards in a game (160) and most interception return yards in a career (379).
Following the season-opening, upset win over Kentucky, Vaught took his team south to Jacksonville, Florida for what would be a matchup with a Gator club riding a ten-game losing streak. After failing to score before intermission in a windy environment, the Rebels crossed the goal line twice in the second half to leave with the 14-6 victory. It was a game in which Conerly did as much damage on the ground as through the air (12/19 for 82 yards), as he rushed 14 times for 65 big yards.
All the work Vaught and Whatley had done with the Ole Miss line the year prior under “Red” Drew was paying off, as strong line play gave players like Conerly and Poole opportunities to excel.
South Carolina Game
After returning home from Florida, the boys in red and blue would next head north to Memphis for a date with South Carolina at Crump Stadium. Despite a rain-laden contest with the Gamecocks, the Rebels controlled the game from start to finish on both sides of the ball.
Once again, the “Conerly to Poole” combination was front and center, as the two found one another early and often. “Charlie Conerly put on the most amazing performance ever seen at Crump Stadium. Although the rain was coming down in torrents, Mr. Football threw perfect strikes with the pigskin all afternoon.” 1
But it wasn’t just the offense that showed out against Carolina. The Rebel defense played arguably one of the best four quarters of football ever put together, before or after, by an Ole Miss defense.
When the final horn sounded at the end of the fourth quarter, South Carolina had been held to a single first down, 30 yards rushing, 8 yards passing and only 24 total plays on offense. To this day, the 38 yards of total offense remains the seventh fewest allowed by an Ole Miss defense in a single outing. Also noteworthy was Jack Odom’s amazing 87-yard fumble return, which remains the second-longest fumble return in Ole Miss history.
Shutout in hand, the Rebels returned home 33-0 winners.
While the first three games of the Vaught era were triumphant, the fourth, an October 11, 1947 away date with Vanderbilt, would prove to be less favorable for the newly-ranked, No. 18 Rebs.
A combination of poor receiving and trouble holding onto the ball, as evidenced by losing three of five fumbles, cost the upstart Rebels a 4-0 start to the season. Down 10-0 at the half, the Rebels would go on to fall 10-6 at the hands of the Commodores. Dealt a reality check, Ole Miss fell to 3-1 on the young season.
Having fallen in Music City, Vaught’s boys wouldn’t suffer the same fate in as many weeks, as they traveled to Sugar Bowl Stadium on October 18, 1947 to take on Tulane. In front of a crowd of 35,000, “Conerly’s every move was faultless as he found three receivers for touchdown passes and plunged across to pay dirt himself for the other score.”1
Coming out of the half leading 13-0, the Rebels would quickly increase their lead when Conerly connected with his favorite target (Poole) early in the quarter on a fourth down to extend the lead to 20-0. While the Green Wave would eventually put some points on the board to cut the lead to 20-14, once again Conerly would do amazing things on a fourth down to put the game out of reach.
“Conerly solved this with one (fourth down attempt) of his most deceptive and neatly executed plays we’ve ever seen. He faked the ball three times, then feinted to his left with a pass and finally lobbed one through the middle to Joe Johnson for the score.” That would do it in New Orleans, as the Rebels improved to 4-1 with the 27-14 road win.1
Next up for Ole Miss, a return trip to Crump Stadium in Memphis.
This time, the opponent was Arkansas. And this time, things would be much more difficult.
Coming off a loss to No. 3 Texas in Crump Stadium just the week prior, the Razorbacks showed up on October 25, 1947 ready to compete with the Rebels from the opening kick. It seemed that whatever Conerly and crew were able to accomplish in the wet, muddy environment was easily matched time and time again by the Hogs.
Despite Conerly’s 14-23, 138-yard, two touchdown passing performance, not to mention 42 rushing yards on 10 carries and an astounding 39.4 punting average on 10 punts, the Razorbacks would upend the good guys that afternoon by a score of 19-14.
There would be no time to look back, as the rival LSU Bayou Bengals loomed large next on the schedule for the 4-2 Rebels. If this upstart Oxford bunch, winners of their first three games by a combined 61-13, were to finish what they started in their new head coach’s first season, they would have to fix any mistakes prior to traveling to Baton Rouge.
On November 1, 1947, Vaught led his kids into Tiger Stadium for a matchup with No. 17 LSU.
As has become typical of the annual affair, the 1947 edition would prove to be memorable. In front of 46,000 college football fans, the underdog Rebels gave it their all for sixty minutes.
Despite being beaten in nearly every statistical category by the end of the game, Ole Miss had held its own quarter for quarter in the heavyweight fight. In fact, it was a game in which Conerly became the first player in college football history to score three times in a single, 60-minute game against LSU.
The combination of another wondrous interception by the great Bobby Wilson, this time at the expense of eventual NFL great Y.A. Tittle and missed extra point attempts by LSU, Vaught, Conerly, Poole, Wilson and the rest of the Rebels walked out of Tiger Stadium victorious (20-18).
That right there, an upset, road win over a ranked, rival LSU squad in the “best game anybody ever saw,” set the tone for the final three games of the regular season. With a record of 5-2, Vaught’s Rebels found themselves in the hunt for the school’s first conference crown.
On November 8, 1947, for the third time that season, Ole Miss headed back to Crump for a game. This time, the matchup was against legendary coach Robert Neyland’s Tennessee Volunteers. And while the Vols entered the contest with a paltry 2-4 record, remind you that in 19 previous games against Tennessee, not once had an Ole Miss team come out victorious. History certainly wasn’t in Ole Miss’ favor heading into the matchup, but that didn’t seem to matter very much.
Unlike previous trips to Crump Stadium, conditions for the Tennessee game were actually pretty good. And “Chunkin’ Charlie” and the Rebels would take full advantage. For whatever had gone wrong in the previous 19 games against the Vols, things went well, very well for Ole Miss in its twentieth attempt.
Out-gaining the Big Orange by an astounding 332 yards on offense, the Ole Miss offense put on a show.
Despite all of his defensive genius, the head Vol had no answer for Conerly. After the game, a defeated Gen. Neyland was quoted as saying, “Charlie Conerly is the best football player I’ve ever seen.”
“Every man, woman and child in the State of Mississippi vowed to get Tennessee after last year’s loss. This was the game the boys were pointing for all year. Johnny Vaught and his coaches hadn’t taken pity on the helpless Vols the score might have been 75 instead of 43.”
Improving to 6-2 on the season, the Rebels inched that much closer to their first SEC crown.
A late-season cupcake of sorts, the Chattanooga Moccasins made the trip over to Oxford for a November 15, 1947 affair. “Ten thousand people showed up clamoring for Charlie Conerly to break the national pass completion record, and far be it for Charles to disappoint his fans.”1
Behind a 20-32, 159-yard, two touchdown performance, Conerly broke the national college football single-season pass completion record and would eventually set the new mark at 133 by the end of the season. Not to be outdone, the Rebel tailback’s partner in crime, Poole, shined as well.
Hauling in 13 passes that afternoon at Hemingway Stadium, Poole set a new single-game school reception record which remains intact today. Another great performance was put on by Will Glover, who racked up 151 punt return yards against the Mocs, a mark which still rests as the No. 2 single-game punt return performance in Ole Miss history.
Behind yet another impressive offensive outing, superb special teams play and a four-interception day by the defense, Ole Miss cruised to a 52-0 victory in front of the home crowd.
Mississippi State Game
And finally, all eyes turned to the Battle of the Golden Egg, with Conerly and Co. looking to bring the prized trophy back to Oxford where it belonged.
On November 29, 1947, in front of a sellout crowd in Starkville, Vaught coached his No. 15-ranked Rebels to the first of what would be many victories throughout his tenure. Capped by a dominant 33-14 win over its in-state rival, for the first time since the red and blue first took to the gridiron in 1893, Ole Miss had earned its first conference championship.
Back to Memphis, Back to Business: The Delta Bowl
With a final regular season record of 8-2, the SEC-champion Rebels headed back to Memphis for a New Years Day, Delta Bowl contest the school had reached an agreement to play in prior to the season even beginning. Returning to their unofficial home away from home, Crump Stadium in nearby Memphis, the Rebels were set to take on TCU in the inaugural Delta Bowl. That’s right, the dream run this team had made in 1947 would be capped off with a game against their coach’s alma mater. Go figure.
Back in a bowl game for only the second time ever (1935 Orange Bowl), the 28,000 that packed Crump Stadium on that blustery, bitter New Years Day wanted to see if this would be the year that Ole Miss would pick up its first bowl win. Minus two hiccups against Vanderbilt and Arkansas, everything had seemingly gone right for the 1947 squad, and now there was one game left.
Then-freshman back Kayo Dottley recalls, “People were fighting for tickets. We had sold it out. The band played magnificently and the fans standing outside the stadium may have been louder than the ones inside. It was a cold day, and it got colder and colder as the game went on. Tennessee had heaters on the other side of the field, but all we had were some jackets. Hell, the first pair of pads I got at Ole Miss, I had to take them to the shoe-string shop to get fixed.”
After getting off to a slow start, with a TCU upset looking more and more possible, the Horned Frogs took a 9-0 lead into halftime. While the Rebels would fight hard in the third quarter, the score remained 9-0 at the end of the third. There was one quarter left for the Rebels to try and finish what they had started in Oxford back in September with the upset win over Bear Bryant and Kentucky.
Rallying in the fourth quarter, Conerly connected with Joe Johnson for a score that would cut the TCU lead to 9-6. Continuing to battle on defense, Bobby Wilson soon pulled down a Horned Frog pass that would give Vaught’s squad a chance to come up with the win. Following a Dixie Howell touchdown grab late in the game, the Rebel defense again intercepted TCU to secure the 13- 9 win.
In only his first year at the helm, John Vaught had led his Ole Miss Rebels on a magical 9-win season, highlighted by the program’s first SEC championship and bowl victory. Rewarded for the job he had done, Vaught was named SEC Coach of the Year, while Charlie Conerly was named SEC Player and Back of the Year. Also recognized nationally for his gridiron greatness, Conerly was deemed a Heisman Trophy Finalist and finished in fourth place. Moreover, Conerly and offensive weapon Barney Poole were both tabbed All-Americans. The Rebels finished the season ranked No. 13 (AP), which was the program’s highest finish in its 54-year history. They had done it. Done the implausible and impossible.
“The Wonder Team” – A Team of Destiny
In closing, the 1947 “Wonder Team” will forever shine amongst even the greatest Ole Miss Football lore.
And for great reason.
There was talent, but there was also a great deal of youth and inexperience at handling success.
Then consider all of the little, fortuitous things that happened throughout the season.
There was just something special about this group of coaches and players.
Dottley proudly remembers, “We had the best run program my freshman year at Ole Miss (1947) that I ever played for, college or pro. I came to Oxford for summer school before that season, and we practiced from four o’clock to dark every day. We walked nowhere. We ran everywhere. Coach Vaught was smart as a whip.”
Simply put, the 1947 Rebels had that “it” factor.
As “Fish” Salmon recounts, “We were a close-knit group. It was truly one for all and all for one.”
A first-year Ole Miss head coach wins an SEC crown, is named SEC Coach of the Year, coaches two All-Americans and two of the greatest to ever don the red and blue, upsets an eventual coaching giant in “Bear” Bryant in his debut, defeats Tennessee for the first time in program history, walks out of Tiger Stadium a winner, brings home the Golden Egg and cements the school’s first-ever bowl win. And all of that happened in just his first of many, many seasons as head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels.
As for some of the individual players that helped champion the team to greatness, they were guys like Charlie Conerly, Barney Poole, Kayo Dottley, Joe Johnson, Jack Odom, Bobby Wilson, Buck Buchannan and Buddy Bowen, Dixie Howell, Will Glover, Bobby Oswalt, Jerry Tiblier and Farley Salmon.
Simply put, they were Ole Miss legends who played key roles in building Ole Miss Football. At an average age of around 85 years old today, players from the 1947 roster still alive should be thanked and remembered for all they’ve done while they’re still with us. They’re living legends, my Rebel brethren.
Professionally, both Conerly and Poole went on to enjoy successful football careers.
Conerly, a 14-year New York Giant and New York Giants Ring of Honor inductee, was named 1948 Rookie of the Year, earned All-Pro and NFL MVP honors during his career and led the Giants to a 1956 NFL Championship. Additionally, nearly 70 years later, Conerly still ranks amongst the top of several Ole Miss statistical categories (No. 4 Touchdowns Responsible For in a Season, 29; No. 5 Career Punting Average, 43 yard average; No. 6 Passing Touchdowns in a Season, 20).
As for Poole, he enjoyed a seven-season professional football career, which also included time with the New York Giants. And people wonder if Eli is the only reason Rebel fans love the Giants? More Rebels have played for the Giants than any other NFL team.
In closing, the 1947 Ole Miss Football Rebels were a team of destiny, or as they were aptly referred to in the 1948 Ole Miss, they were “The Wonder Team.”
A truly special bunch that did great things together.
A wonderful team, but more importantly a wonderful group of Ole Miss Rebels. – RN
Footnotes: 1- Article sources include digitized editions of the 1948 Ole Miss Annual as well as personal interviews with former players Farley “Fish” Salmon and Kayo Dottley. Special thanks to Langston Rogers for his assistance.
*This is just a sample of some of the stories you’ll find in EVERY issue of Rebel Nation Magazine™. You can subscribe online here and receive every issue delivered right to your home of office. The July/August 2015 Ole Miss Football Preview is next. Issue hits stores on July 7.