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Undefeated 50 years later

On Oct. 1, 1962, James Meredith became the first black student at The University of Mississippi. Before and after his official enrollment, violent riots and hate shook the campus and took the focus off of what Ole Miss was known for at the time — the most successful football program in school history.
Ole Miss head football coach Johnny Vaught built a program that teams across the country feared. In 1959, Vaught led the Rebels to their first national championship and produced the same result the following season. In 1961, the Rebels lost just two games and finished the season as the fifth-best team in the nation. Wanting to prove that they could win a national championship after the previous year’s disappointing outcome, the Rebels understood that 1962 was a very important year. Going into the season, the players knew people would be watching how they would respond following the down year. “You prepare every season the same way,” 1962 co-starting quarterback Jim Weatherly said. “We prepared just the same as every other season with the same goal as every other season—to win—and that was very important to all of us, especially Coach Vaught.” What the Ole Miss coaches and players failed to realize was that the eyes of the nation would be on the school for a completely different reason.
Meredith’s goal to put pressure on President Kennedy’s administration and gain civil rights for blacks began long before the federal government ruled that Ole Miss had to allow him to enroll. He applied to the university the day that President Kennedy was inaugurated, and he hoped that his goal was close to being met. He was denied admission to the university on two separate occasions before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he had the right to be enrolled. Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett was furious about the federal government’s decision to enroll Meredith. Barnett made it his personal mission to not allow Meredith to enroll and publicly refuted President Kennedy’s wishes, even if it took force. On Sept. 29, 1962, the Rebels played the University of Kentucky Wildcats in Mississippi Memorial Stadium in Jackson. The Rebels played a sloppy game up until halftime but were winning 7-0 — something Coach Vaught considered “just as bad as losing.” While Vaught was desperately trying to inspire some life into his team in the locker room, Governor Barnett was pumping up the crowd of about 40,000. The crowd, which had heard the news about Meredith, was unaware that Barnett had made a deal with President Kennedy to allow Meredith to enroll. The fans made daunting, racist chants about how Barnett should stop Meredith from enrolling. Barnett felt the pressure building and caved in. “I love Mississippi, and I love her people,” Barnett exclaimed over the P.A. system. The roar of the crowd’s cheers and the popping sound of thousands of Confederate flags virtually shook downtown Jackson. Barnett basked in the glory of the crowd’s approval as he stood at midfield, and he walked off the field to call President Kennedy to inform him that the secret deal was off. The Rebels’ second half was just as sloppy as the first, but the Rebels did muster another score and squeezed by the Wildcats with a 14-0 victory. Ole Miss’ win was hardly the most important thing to happen in Mississippi Memorial Stadium that day.
The majority of the Rebel football players returned to Oxford on Sunday, Sept. 30. As the bus rolled past the Lyceum, they witnessed the beginning of the riot. A decent-sized crowd of students had gathered, waving confederate flags and starting a few chants. As the day passed, the decent-sized crowd became a huge one, and the chants became deafening. “When the crowd started growing out in front of the Lyceum, I went back to the dorm,” Weatherly said. “I personally don’t recall any players taking part in the riot, although I did hear some stories.” According to a few different accounts told later, some of the players did join the riot. Others watched from a distance. Coach Vaught was actually called upon by university officials to try to calm the crowd. Instead, the coach decided to focus on his team and headed to Miller Hall, the football dormitory. “(Miller) was the refuge for the team,” Weatherly said. “We were able to all stay together under the watchful eye of the coaches.” “Don’t go out,” Vaught preached to his players. He begged his players to remain focused. The gunshots and explosions outside the confines of Miller rang out throughout the night, and Vaught’s leadership prevailed over the players’ temptations to join the war in the Circle. Two people died that night, and about 200 more were injured.
The walk from Miller Hall to the practice field the next morning was like walking through a battlefield. Blood-stained sidewalks, broken bricks, shotgun shells and empty liquor bottles were only some of the obstacles keeping the team from getting to practice. Some players recalled that walk as one of the most difficult things they have ever had to do. Others bit their tongue because they were proud that their classmates stood up the way they did. Regardless of the individual opinions of the players, they knew that Vaught was waiting for them to get to practice. When they reached the practice field, they discovered thousands of tents that Army troops had set up in order to prepare for more riots. The football schedule called for the homecoming game against undefeated Houston in just five days, despite rumors of the government shutting down the entire university. “That next week was unsettling, to say the least,” 1962 running back Louis Guy said. “In addition to the military that was all over campus, we didn’t know where we were playing our game, if even at all, until Friday afternoon. Plus, we were playing another undefeated team. It’s incredible that Vaught kept our focus that week.” The “homecoming” game was eventually played in Jackson, and the Rebels prevailed 40-7. As the season went on, students at Ole Miss eventually became more fired up about the undefeated football team than Meredith. The Rebels finished the season 10-0 and won a share of the national championship.
The same students who fired weapons or threw bricks at people on Sept. 30, 1962, cheered on the football team as the Rebels beat Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1963. Throughout the fall semester of 1962, the riot was the most important thing that happened at Ole Miss — despite the most successful football season in school history. Today, generations later, descendants of people involved in the riot line the Walk of Champions, the hallowed path with an archway donated by members of the 1962 football team, to watch their Rebels make their way to Vaught-Hemingway stadium for football games. The Ole Miss football team, like most other football teams, has many black players, as well as a few black coaches. In just 50 years, the University of Mississippi has changed to a completely different place. James Meredith changed the way blacks were perceived at Ole Miss. Vaught’s team in 1962 not only remained focused through the hardest time in Ole Miss history, but they showed the world there was more on the school’s mind than racism and war. Many argue that without that football team, there would have been much more violence and bloodshed. No matter the argument, the success of that team will never be tarnished and will always be appreciated by the Ole Miss family.