How Ole Miss and Arkansas Met in the 1963 Sugar Bowl


“The number is listed.”

Johnny Vaught’s Mississippi Rebels, in those halcyon days of Southeastern Conference football, appeared to be suffering a bit of an identity crisis.  Over the course of a decade, the Rebels were consistently the SEC’s premier team.  Yet since 1951, Tennessee, Auburn, LSU, and Alabama had all won consensus national championships.  Ole Miss had only been presented the Grantland Rice Award by the Football Writers of America as the country’s No. 1 team after its 1961 Sugar Bowl victory, though that did not carry the weight of the wire service voting. 

Vaught seemed determined to show the doubters just how good his program was during the 1963 bowls.  On the eve of the LSU-Mississippi football game, the Sugar Bowl tendered an invitation to Vaught, continent upon a victory over the Tigers.  The Rebels were on their way to the school’s first unbeaten, untied season.  At the same time the Sugar Bowl extended an invitation to Alabama, 3rd-ranked and unbeaten in 25 games.

The South was anxious for a match-up between two SEC teams which had not played each other during the season.  ‘Bama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, because he had played in the Sugar Bowl the year before and then returned to New Orleans to play Tulane in September, wasn’t interested. 

Quoting unnamed sources almost daily, a few New Orleans writers kept the Ole Miss-Alabama brew stirred, but nothing substantial materialized.  Then Vaught, in a telephone interview with Associated Press reporter Ben Thomas, seemed to try to challenge Alabama in the same manner in which LSU had been pressured into the 1960 game.  Thomas asked Vaught if he had a bowl preference.  The Rebel coach laughed and replied, “Yeah, but I can’t say it.”  Thomas asked specifically if Ole Miss wanted to play Alabama.  Vaught answered that it would be the best of the bowls.  “It would match two of the finest teams in college football,” he said.  “We’ll play anybody, I don’t care who they are.”

Bryant responded.  “We’ve got three more teams licking their chops to get at us, starting with Miami.  When they get through with us, if they (Ole Miss) still want us, the number is listed.”  That week, after a game in Florida with the University of Miami, Bryant, who saw no logic in risking his national ranking against a team from his own conference, a committed to the Orange Bowl. 

This all meant the Sugar Bowl was sent scrambling for the next best match-up it could find.  Frank Broyles’ Arkansas Razorbacks, with a loss only in the final 36 seconds to Texas, was a strong prospect with the Gator, Bluebonnet, and Liberty Bowls.  Broyles wanted a quick answer from the Sugar Bowl or he would commit to another bowl.

The Sugar answered with an invitation to play Ole Miss.  He accepted – contingent upon Texas winning the Southwest Conference title and the Cotton Bowl berth. 

Mississippi and Arkansas had been longtime rivals whose series had been terminated by Broyles in 1962.  Since Broyles took over in 1958, Arkansas enjoyed its finest football moments.  But he was unable to beat the Rebels in four tries.  “It’s easier to change coaches than change teams,” said Broyles at the announcement of the series termination.

“You know,” Broyles said after accepting the conditional invitation,” when people chided me about canceling the series, I told them that we’d play Mississippi in a bowl game.  Now look.  And here we are again.”

Third-ranked Mississippi, 27-1-1 over the last three seasons, won its Southeastern Conference championship with the league’s best offense, the nation’s best defense, and a versatile quarterback named Glynn Griffing.  Sixth-ranked Arkansas led the Southwest Conference in rushing and total defense in going unbeaten for nine games.

The game didn’t have the lure of the Rose Bowl, which for the first time in bowl history had a No. 1 (Southern Cal) and a No. 2 (Wisconsin) team, but it was a good selection.

Texas upheld its end by beating Texas A&M 13-3 on Thanksgiving Day to take its SWC title.  That score held Sugar Bowl interest as much as any during the 1962 season, because if Texas had lost, Arkansas would have been the SWC champion and in Dallas on New Year’s Day.  But Texas would not have turned to New Orleans.  It would have been in the Bluebonnet Bowl.

Story 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.

 

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