John Howard Vaught, head coach at the University of Mississippi during the period of the school’s greatest gridiron success, won more football games than any other Mississippi Division 1-A (now Division I Football Bowl Subdivision) coach and led Rebel football to national prominence. Born on 6 May 1909 in Young County, Texas, Vaught was the sixth of eleven children of Rufus Vaught and Sally Harris Vaught. He was class president and valedictorian at Polytechnic High School in Fort Worth and played fullback on the football team. At Texas Christian University he was an honor student and played basketball and football. As a guard on the football team, Vaught was a two-time all–Southwest Conference selection. Texas Christian’s 1932 team, which he captained, won the conference championship, and he was named an all-American.
In 1936 Bear Wolf, head coach at the University of North Carolina and Vaught’s mentor at Texas Christian, hired him to coach linemen. During World War II Vaught served in the US Navy, attaining the rank of lieutenant commander and coaching football in the navy’s Pre-Flight Program, which also produced Bear Bryant, Bud Wilkinson, and several other outstanding college football coaches.
Vaught moved to the University of Mississippi as line coach in 1946. In his first year in Oxford the Rebels won only two games, but head coach Red Drew lauded Vaught’s scouting report and game plan for the victory over Arkansas. When Drew left for Alabama in 1947, Vaught was elevated to head coach. His inaugural team won the 1947 Southeastern Conference championship, a first for the university.
Vaught’s organizational skills, creativity, discipline, preparation, and recruiting acumen were keys to his success. He hired Tom Swayze as a full-time recruiter and assembled a cadre of talented assistants, retaining most of them throughout his tenure as head coach. Preferring speed and quickness over bulk and brawn, Vaught convinced many of Mississippi’s best athletes to play in Oxford. He had strict rules against married players and would not allow them to have cars on campus during football season. A demanding coach and a perfectionist, he stressed the fundamentals of blocking and tackling and installed innovative offensive formations that utilized motion prior to the snap and featured a mobile quarterback sprinting out of the pocket. He also developed outstanding defenses: his 1959 team allowed only three touchdowns all season. On the sidelines Vaught was known for his game-day fedora and his calm demeanor.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s the Rebels were perennially ranked among the Top 10 teams in the country. In 1960 Time magazine noted, “Year in and year out, the University of Mississippi plays some of the finest football in the nation.” In the fall of 1962, however, the school’s reputation suffered tremendously because of state officials’ resistance to desegregating the university and the ensuing riots on campus. Despite the disruptions to daily routine and the presence of thousands of federal troops on campus, the Rebels went undefeated and untied (the only perfect season in school history), won the Southeastern Conference championship, defeated Arkansas in the 1963 Sugar Bowl, and were voted national champions by several media organizations. Vaught called that squad his most courageous team.
In 1970, following an upset loss to Southern Mississippi, Vaught entered the hospital with chest pains and missed the rest of the season. In January 1971, following doctor’s orders, he retired. At that time he had the second-highest winning percentage among active major-college coaches. After Vaught’s successor, Billy Kinard, opened the 1973 campaign by losing two of the first three games, University of Mississippi chancellor Porter L. Fortune fired Kinard and asked Vaught to return. Vaught’s first opponent was Southern Mississippi, and the Rebels delivered a 41–0 thrashing. The squad won five of its eight games under Vaught, who retired again but stayed on as athletic director until 1978. The 1973 team included the university’s first black football players.
During Vaught’s twenty-five seasons, the Rebels compiled a 190–61–12 record, won six Southeastern Conference titles, and brought home a share of three national championships (1959, 1960, 1962). He led the Rebels to eighteen bowl games, including fourteen consecutive appearances, a record at the time. Vaught produced more than two dozen all-Americans and coached many outstanding quarterbacks, including Charlie Conerly and Archie Manning. A Vaught-coached player finished in the top five in the Heisman Trophy balloting four times. And in 1947 and 1962 he was voted Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year. Vaught has been inducted into several halls of fame in Mississippi and Texas, and in 1979 he became a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1982 Hemingway Stadium on the University of Mississippi campus was renamed Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in his honor.
- Rick Cleveland, Vaught: The Man and His Legacy (2000)
- Francis J. Fitzgerald, ed., Greatest Moments in Ole Miss Football History (1999)
- William W. Sorrels and Charles Cavagnaro, Ole Miss Rebels: Mississippi Football (1976)
- Time (28 November 1960)
- John Vaught, Rebel Coach: My Football Family (1971)
- Larry Wells, ed., A Century of Heroes (1993)
- Larry Wells, Ole Miss Football (1980)