Alabama and Ole Miss play football for the 64th time Saturday. They played for the first time in 1894 and many young folks would assume the two always have been rivals.
Not so. From 1944 until 1965, the two did not play one another at all in the regular season.
They were in neighboring states. They belonged to the same conference. They were, for much of that time, national football powers.
They didn’t play.
“We were always told that Alabama wouldn’t play us,” says Robert Khayat, who played for Ole Miss in the late 1950s and was later the school’s chancellor. “Later, I found out, the Alabama players were told it was because we refused to play them.”
For much of that time, I believe, coaching legends Bear Bryant of Alabama and John Vaught of Ole Miss had a gentleman’s agreement not to play one another. In other words: Why should we beat up on each other when there are so many other teams we can beat?
“I think there’s probably something to that,” said Warner Alford, who played for Vaught and was later the Ole Miss athletic director.
“Back then, you could pick your opponents, even for conference games,” Alford continued. “Coach Vaught and Coach Bryant were really good friends. They probably just decided not to play each other.”
They played a regular season game for the first time in 21 years in 1965. Why the change of heart? Nobody seems to know.
Bryant won three straight before Archie Manning entered the picture at Ole Miss and won two of his three, losing to Alabama 33-32 his junior year in what might have been the best performance of his career.
His memories of the series?
“I remember how close Coach Vaught was to Coach Bryant,” Manning said. “Coach Vaught called him Paul, and I don’t think I ever heard anybody else call him Paul.
“Coach Bryant came over into our locker room after all three games. My sophomore year, Coach Vaught wanted to make sure I met him. He said, ‘Paul, I want you to meet my quarterback, Archie.’ All three years, Coach Bryant could not have been nicer.”
Famed ABC broadcaster Chris Schenkel called that 1969 game, in which Manning gained 540 yards of total offense in defeat, “the greatest game in college football history.”
Both Bryant and Vaught disagreed. Both thought their defenses stunk up Legion Field that night.
Bryant was one of just a few coaches with a winning record against Vaught – and that, by the most narrow of margins. Bryant was 7-6-1 vs. Vaught. That included 2-4-1 when Bryant was at Kentucky and 5-2 at Alabama.
In 1999, when I was working on a Vaught biography, Vaught, at 90, had this to say about Bryant, “I always loved to coach against him because it was such a challenge. He was a good friend and as good a coach as there was. I miss him. He died way too soon.”
The respect was mutual. Bryant once said of Vaught: “Johnny’s teams were always ready to play. They were always well-prepared and Johnny was always a gentleman, in victory or defeat.
The similarities between the two are striking. Both grew up on farms and ranches, as part of huge families. Vaught was one of 11 children, Bryant one of 13. Both worked hard as young’uns to help their families make it. Bryant rode a mule to school; Vaught rode a horse. Both were in their teens before they were introduced to football. And, of course, both were winners.
Interestingly, Ole Miss won the first meeting with Alabama 6-0 in 1894. The Rebels, under Hugh Freeze, have won the last two. In between, Alabama is a whopping 51-7-2 against the Rebels.