While the name Johnny Vaught would have been instantly recognizable in Fort Worth during the 1930s, it is more easily associated with Oxford today. Born in tiny Olney, Texas in 1909, Johnny Vaught would first make his mark in Fort Worth playing for Polytechnic High School. Vaught’s abilities as a guard caught the attention of the TCU Horned Frog football coaching staff bringing him to the school in the fall of 1929.
Vaught would play on the Freshmen squad that fall under the direction of Coach Dutch Meyer before joining the Varsity team the next season. Vaught’s achievements at TCU are long and well documented, including being an All-Conference selection in 1931 and 1932. The 1932 squad was of particular note, going undefeated with a 10-0-1 record and finishing the season as the Number 10 squad in the country, according to the Dickinson rankings.
Vaught made his mark several times throughout the ’32 campaign, having been elected team captain that year. His extraordinary toughness and athletic ability can be highlighted by simply looking at the second contest from the 1932 season: LSU. Towards the end of the game, the Horned Frogs found themselves in deadlock with the Tigers at 3-3. With little time remaining, disaster struck and TCU turned the ball over on their own 2-yard line, nearly guaranteeing a LSU score to seal the game and derail the Horned Frogs season before it had even really started.
Johnny Vaught would have none of that.
With deep determination and grit, Vaught dug into the line, making a tackle for loss on first down. And then another on second. And another on third. And yet another on fourth, returning the ball to the Frogs, as the Tigers turned it over on downs. In four plays, Vaught had four tackles, all for loss, pushing the Tigers from the 2-yard line back to the 17 and, perhaps most importantly, preventing a loss and maintaining the undefeated season.
Vaught was a tough football player, never taking a single break from any game; however, he wasn’t just a football player. Vaught also received three letters in basketball during his time at TCU, as a substitute guard. Vaught’s role in a basketball game was well known, as he was most frequently used as a “bodyguard” for the more “fragile” skill players.
While Vaught would leave TCU to pursue his coaching career under Raymond “Bear” Wolf at UNC. Vaught helped lay the foundation for what would become a football juggernaut during the decade of the 1930s. The 1932 SWC title was only the Horned Frogs second SWC title, but the small school had tasted success and wasn’t about to look back. Just three years later, in 1935, TCU would claim their first National Championship under the direction of Vaught’s Freshmen team coach, Dutch Meyer. Then in 1938, Meyer would lead the Horned Frogs to their first undefeated and untied season, along with another National Championship. TCU wouldn’t have another undefeated and untied season until 2010 when Gary Patterson led the Horned Frogs to the same feat.
Vaught would, of course, become most known for his period at the helm of Ole Miss football. He would take the position in 1947, although he was reluctant to do so: “I wasn’t even going to take the job and they asked why,” said Vaught in an interview with the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. “I said you can’t recruit here. We only had one player that was the caliber we needed.” Despite his dismay at the level of talent on campus, Vaught would succeed and succeed quickly. In his first season he went 9-2, beating his Alma Mater, TCU, in the Delta Bowl 13-9. Vaught would go on to win six SEC titles and three National Championships with the Rebels, taking them from 9th on the all-time SEC win list when he arrived to 3rd when he retired in 1973.
Former Ole Miss Athletic Director, Pete Boone (also one of Vaught’s pupils) summed up Vaught’s impact by saying, “Coach Vaught took Ole Miss football, and to a certain extent the University of Mississippi, into the national spotlight.”
Vaught passed away on February 3, 2006 at the age of 96. During a memorial service on the Ole Miss campus, Chancellor Robert Khayat stated, “With the death of John Vaught, we lose an epic figure of Twentieth Century college football. Universally recognized as one of the great coaches in American football history, he brought dignity, intellect, creativity and vision to the game. The University of Mississippi has been shaped and influenced by Coach Vaught and we are a better place as a result of his leadership. His players admired and respected him, University administrators and faculty appreciated his commitment to academic excellence and football fans loved him. His was a life well-lived. He will be missed. We thank God for the life of coach John Vaught and celebrate his extraordinary life. He was a public figure but a private man. He was tough but kind.”
Vaught is immortalized as a member of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame (1975) and the College Football Hall of Fame (1979).