How Ole Miss and Rice Met in the 1961 Sugar BowlFrom the beginning the Mid-Winter Sports Association seemed to have been conceived under a providential star. Even the strangulation of the segregation law hadn’t damaged its string of success.
A young New Orleans state legislator, Maurice ‘Moon’ Landrieu, believing the race laws clearly put the Sugar Bowl in jeopardy, tried to convince Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis. Davis listened and never got back to Landrieu. Landrieu tried to buttonhole members of the Sugar Bowl for a plan to fight the legislation, but by then the Association was unwilling to take on both state and government public opinion.
The air began seeping from the balloon with the 1961 Sugar Bowl. It wasn’t a dramatic occurrence perhaps, but in looking back, it seems obvious that the Sugar Bowl’s fortunes altered slightly.
Mississippi, which had participated in two of the last three Sugar Bowls, was head and shoulders above the rest of the Southeastern Conference. Because there was no championship berth attached to a New Orleans invitation, the No. 2-ranked Rebels understandably wanted to play elsewhere during the holiday season. It would have been pleasing to New Orleans fans, too, because they wanted new blood in the game. But Ole Miss was the best team in the area, and the Sugar Bowl really didn’t want to take a hand-me-down.
The Rebels, who were prohibited by Mississippi state law from competing against teams with black athletes, were coveted desperately by the Sugar, Gator and Bluebonnet Bowls. Reports filtered out of Houston that Ole Miss had unofficially accepted an invitation to play in that game. Coach Johnny Vaught and Lou Hassell of the Bluebonnet selection committee both denied a deal had been struck.
Ole Miss eventually signed to play in the Sugar Bowl again. Apparently the Rebels gave the Bluebonnet an indication that they were interested. When the Sugar realized it was losing the No. 2 nationally ranked team, it went to work on the warm friendship the bowl and school had enjoyed for years.
To its credit, the Sugar Bowl didn’t only have Mississippi in its sights. It made long-shot attempts at No. 1-ranked Minnesota (the Big Ten contract with the Rose Bowl had lapsed), and was briefly interested in No. 4-ranked Navy, although it is hard to see how a service academy could have gotten around the segregation issue. Sugar Bowl President George Schneider told the New Orleans Quarterback Club that the Association had tried to get Minnesota.
“It’s our understanding that although the Big Ten pact with the Rose Bowl has been concluded; a Big Ten team can only play in the Rose Bowl this year.” It was reassuring to realize that the Sugar Bowl would still reach out.
For whatever reasons, the Sugar Bowl was far more serious about Duke, Baylor and Rice. After a 7-6 Duke loss to North Carolina, New Orleans eyed the season-ending Baylor-Rice game. Baylor dropped out of the picture before the game was played by accepting a Gator Bowl invitation. So the Sugar Bowl more or less pinned its hopes on the Owls, who could move into a tie with Arkansas with a win. An 8-2 co-champion would have suited New Orleans just fine. Instead, the Bears won 12-7 in the fading minutes, a finish that would characterize future Sugar Bowl selections. Rice dropped into second-place SWC tie and put an unranked team with three losses in the Sugar Bowl.
Thrice beaten or not, Rice was no pushover. It had an excellent pass defense, intercepting 17 passes over the course of the season and holding its opponents to a 44 percent completion average. Its defensive middle was good; offensively it ran a sound attack that boasted of 10 backs who carried at least 25 times each, nine gaining 100 yards or more over the course of the season. Its 74 pass receptions were spread over 14 receivers. All Rice lacked was a little luck.
Ole Miss could be awesome. Jake Gibbs, by consensus the finest quarterback in the country, completed passes at a 60.6 ratio and directed his offense to a perfectly balanced 18 rushing touchdowns and 18 passing touchdowns. Another was added by an interception return. Rice Coach Jess Neely assessed, “They tell me Ole Miss can beat you up the middle, humiliate you outside.” He had heard right, and the Owls were immediately made a 10-point underdog – biggest of major bowls.
The only thing that appeared to concern Ole Miss was the rankings. The final Associated Press and United Press International polls came out, placing the Rebels second and third, respectively. Students made “AP” and “UPI” dummies, hung them from the Union Building, and burned them while chanting, “We’re No. 1, to hell with AP and UPI.”
Times-Picayune columnist Buddy Diliberto noticed how unconcerned the Rebels seemed about Rice and wrote the game would be closer than the betting line. Ole Miss, he analyzed, was in the same position LSU was in for the 1959 Sugar Bowl against Clemson. It had no reason to get ‘steamed up.’ “The Rebels can’t prove anything by winning,” said Diliberto.
Vaught had a very difficult time turning his team’s thoughts to the capable Owls. While the Rebels prepared in Oxford, one of his reserve backs, Frank Halbert, asked Vaught if he knew what time the team would arrive in New Orleans. The boy’s family wanted to greet the squad and the anxious sub inquired, “So what time are we going to get there?” The traveling squad hadn’t been made up yet and Vaught responded with, “what do you mean, ‘we?'” Halbert was taken aback. He hesitated, then innocently asked, “Well, coach, you are going too, aren’t you?”
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.