How Navy and Ole Miss Met in the 1955 Sugar Bowl
After the debacle of the 1954 game, the Mid-Winter Sports Association felt obligated to reestablish itself as the premier bowl. The Sugar went hunting in new territory: the service academies. Army and Navy still had college football glitter, and both were excellent football teams. Either one would be a bowl coup.
In the Deep South, fate played a hand in the Sugar Bowl’s 1955 pairing. Ole Miss ran away from the SEC field with a 9-1-0 record. The Rebels led the country in total defense and were fifth in offense, although some critics pointed to a “patty-cake” schedule. Arkansas, the only nationally ranked team Ole Miss played, defeated the Rebs, 6-0. However, Mississippi played exciting football and won the SEC championship.
Coach Johnny Vaught was asked how a Sugar Bowl invitation would be received in Oxford after his squad whipped LSU. Vaught replied he would like to return “because I’m still unhappy over the thing that happened down there two years ago (Georgia Tech’s 1953 victory).” Rebel players weren’t concerned about a game played two years ago. They wanted a Cotton Bowl invitation for another shot at Arkansas. Razorback Coach Bowden Wyatt slammed that door in Ole Miss’ face by telling Dallas officials he saw no reason why he should give a regular season opponent a repeat game.
Army wasn’t interested in Sugar Bowl “feelers.” However, Navy was, and the Cotton Bowl also moved into the picture. Navy had lost two close games to Pittsburgh (19-21) and Notre Dame (0-6) but was a colorful and courageous squad. Coach Eddie Erdelatz, after a particularly satisfying win, likened his team “to that streetcar down in New Orleans, the one they call Desire.” Thus, Navy became the “Team Named Desire.”
Fullback Joe Gattuso felt certain, because of the rumors swirling around the Naval Academy during the week, that if the Midshipmen could defeat Army they would be allowed to participate in a bowl. End Ron Beagle, the Player of the Year, didn’t believe it. But at halftime of a dogfight with the favored Cadets, it was confirmed. “At the half of our game with Army – we were leading 21-20, you know – Coach Erdelatz asked for our attention,” said Beagle. “He told us, ‘Go out and finish the job. Beat Army today and you’re in the Sugar Bowl game!’ That’s all we wanted to know. We wanted to beat Army real bad, and we wanted to go to the Sugar Bowl, too. We went out and got both.”
After beating Army, 27-20, Navy was selected as the first service academy to play in a bowl since the 1924 Rose Bowl. Navy’s bowl opponent was Mississippi, who beat Mississippi State 14-0 in its last game.
According to Sugar Bowl mythology the nation applauded Navy, but realistic odds-makers looked upon the Middies as lambs about to be sacrificed to the lordly Rebels. Before the game opened, Navy was picked as a three-point favorite, a fact that irritated Vaught. “It makes no difference if Navy is the favorite,” said a miffed Vaught. “I saw pictures of Navy’s games with Notre Dame and Army and I’m sure we’re going to win.” But before the game started, Navy halfback Bob Craig came down with tonsillitis and tackle Jim Royer sustained a hip injury and both were unable to play. Noting these losses against an opponent that was 15 pounds heavier, with much deeper reserve strength and more experience, Ole Miss’ stock with the odds-makers climbed. By New Year’s Eve, they were a point-and -a half favorite.
A blast from the frigid winds of social change made a mark on the 1955 Sugar Bowl. Clarence Mitchell, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Washington, protested to Secretary Charles R. Thomas that Sugar Bowl tickets read they were for use by white only and that others were subject to ejection. Actually, blacks had been attending the Sugar Bowl from its inception, although they were seated in segregated areas.
Secretary Thomas replied to Mitchell by telegram, stating the Navy Department had distributed it 13,000 tickets without regard to racial restrictions, “and will be so honored regardless of any printing thereon.” “The Navy statement speaks for itself,” said Bernie Grenrood, then Sugar Bowl president. “no other comment is necessary.”
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.