How Ole Miss and LSU Advanced to the 1960 Sugar BowlJim Cartwright, a Tennessee player, proved to be the most influential figure in the bowl makeup of 1960. But before Mr. Cartwright stepped into the picture, LSU and Mississippi played the season’s “Game of the Century” on Halloween night, 1959. The Tigers, still unbeaten and No. 1-ranked, were losing a game of field position and defense to the No. 3-ranked Rebels until Billy Cannon cut loose with a fourth-quarter superhuman 89-yard punt return for a touchdown. LSU prevailed 7-3.
It was a Southeastern Conference classic. Fred Russell of the Nashville Banner wrote, “For its suspense, and competitive team performance, Louisiana State’s 7-3 throbber over Ole Miss was the fullest and finest football game I’ve witnessed in 31 years of sports reporting.” Mercer Bailey of the Associated Press wrote two days after the game, “Maybe the Sugar Bowl folks should go ahead and invite Louisiana State and Mississippi for its New Year’s Day extravaganza. If tense, exciting football is what they want, they could hardly improve on a rematch on the national champion Tigers and those classy Rebels.”
The wheels were set in motion for the rematch the following weekend by Tennessee’s Jim Cartwright. LSU was running wild against the Vols, but had scored only one touchdown by the third quarter. Quarterback Warren Rabb threw to wide-open halfback Johnny Robinson; and Cartwright, who had been blocked from Rabb’s line of vision, made a leaping interception and ran unmolested 59 yards for the tying touchdown. Cartwright became the first man to cross the Tiger goal line in 40 quarters and changed the entire complexion of the game. LSU, which had three back individually outrush the entire Volunteer team, lost 14-13 and dropped from its No. 1 perch.
Within seven days, Ole Miss tore apart the same Tennessee team 37-7 and moved to No. 2 in the national polls, one spot ahead of LSU. The Rebels were considered the SEC’s “Team of the Decade” and were leaning toward the Cotton Bowl until the Sugar promised to help bring about Mercer Bailey’s dream game, a rematch with LSU. Coach Johnny Vaught unofficially committed to the Sugar Bowl right after the Tennessee victory.
However, some felt a rematch would be too sectional to suit the taste of television. “Not so,” said Tom Gallery, NBC’s sports director. “NBC would be most happy if the Sugar Bowl was able to land LSU and Ole Miss. The game would be a natural again, as it was the first time.”
LSU was not as enthusiastic. The Tigers would be placed at a severe psychological disadvantage playing a team they had already defeated. Also, LSU was a weary, wounded football team at season’s end.
The other bowls were rapidly filling. Syracuse, which took over the No. 1 position after LSU’s loss to Tennessee, was paired with Texas in the Cotton; fifth-ranked Georgia, which won the SEC championship after the LSU-Tennessee-Ole Miss round robin, was matched with Missouri in the Orange. If the Tigers wanted a bowl game, it would have to be either in the Sugar against Ole Miss of in Houston’s Bluebonnet in another rematch with a defeated opponent, Texas Christian.
Paul Dietzel (pictured right with Billy Cannon) polled the team informally and a full third voted to sit out the bowls altogether. Dietzel and the Tigers wanted to choose a bowl after a December 5 game between Syracuse and UCLA. If Syracuse lost the game, it would mean LSU could be playing at least for the Football Writer’s of America’s version of the national championship, which was awarded after the bowl games. If Syracuse won, then LSU would stay home. Dietzel said, “If an honor (a bowl invitation) becomes a chore, then perhaps it is left undone.”
The Tigers took an official team vote, considering both the Sugar and Bluebonnet invitations as well as sitting out the bowl, on November 23 with a battalion of newspapermen sitting outside. Tension began to mount as the session stretched into a half hour and then an hour. Seventy minutes after the voting started, Carl Higgins, LSU’s sports information director, burst into the waiting room and announced, “They voted to play.” Billy Cannon walked in with a slight grin and said, “It was a unanimous vote. So I guess it will be Ole Miss again.” Dietzel described his reaction as “shell-shocked”; he thought the team would call it a year.
As it happened, Syracuse walloped UCLA 36-8. Then on December 22 at practice, halfback Johnny Robinson broke a hand. Things were definitely not going well for LSU.
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.