"Mississippi State Bulldogs"





By Dr. Ken 

There are college football teams that are traditionally good. As one analyzes their historical record, even an “off year” will yield six or seven wins. It may be an aberration to finish on the losing side of the slate and fans expect in the least, an intermittent run at the National Championship. Other programs rarely post a victorious season and may have a long history of downtrodden performances. Perhaps their glory days were generations past, not even recalled in story by current fans. The love of one’s team often will have no connection or at least no obvious connection to wins and losses but rather, it will be based upon an allegiance born of location, attendance, or a singular memorable event. Even teams with a lack or absence of a winning tradition can stir its followers with passionate emotion and the specific team that “strikes” any particular fan or group of fans as a memorable or favorite team, may pale relative to others with better records. The mid-1960’s teams of Mississippi State University proved to be squads whose hard, gritty play won the hearts not only of fellow Bulldogs fanatics, but fans throughout the Southeastern Conference.


Justin Canale and Marcus Rhoden were solid and often spectacular for Mississippi State

For the uninitiated who can only perceive overmatched squads falling to Alabama, Auburn, and LSU, it must be understood that MSU played hellacious football prior to World War II. The undefeated 10-0 Orange Bowl victor of 1940 may have posted the high water mark but typically, the Maroon Bulldogs would enjoy one and two loss seasons prior to dropping the sport in 1943 due to the War effort, and under head coach Allyn McKeen, picked up very much where the War had disrupted their winning ways, in the seasons immediately following WW II. McKeen’s 65-19-3 record, completed between 1939 and 1948 says it all and it was emphasized by the undefeated ’40 squad and one or two loss teams in six of his nine seasons at the helm. Unfortunately, other than the four year period evenly divided between coaching legends Murray Warmath and Darrell Royal from 1952 through 1955, the record has been less than consistently stellar despite occasional forays into the national rankings. Even in 1967, Sports Illustrated Magazine noted, “(New head coach) Charles Shira faces an enormous task, a task that more than one contemporary rejected for softer pleasures than restoring an empire. No thanks, they replied to the Maroon supplication, better to paint the Sistine Chapel or smuggle a camel through the eye of a needle or restore world order or some other simple assignment. Mississippi State's winning seasons have sometimes seemed to appear as infrequently as Halley’s Comet. In between have been plagues of locusts and itching nettles, not to mention the triumphant smiles of the Ole Miss fans who beat Mississippi State on the field, in the recruiting wars, and to the most popular girls on the courthouse square. Occasionally battles have been won. Seldom have wars been won.”

Marcus Rhoden, SEC Sprint Champion and always a danger with the football in his hands

Kudos were always given to soften the blow of ineptitude, due to the tough SEC schedule and MSU’s willingness to take on the best of the regional non-conference foes but the bottom line was that Mississippi State was viewed as an also-ran, always behind Ole Miss in whatever line was available. Recruiting to Starkville was and remains difficult relative to many of the other SEC universities and the Bulldog football program has shown it. Yet, while the successful 1963 squad, a 16-12 winner over North Carolina State in the Liberty Bowl and 7-2-2 finisher who took Alabama to its limit in a 20-19 loss, was beloved, those following, less successful teams seemed to capture the imagination of the Bulldog faithful. The 1964 through ’66 MSU squads recorded 4-6, 4-6, and 2-8 seasons respectively, certainly nothing that compared to their ’63 achievement where only that close intra-conference loss to Bear Bryant’s loaded Crimson Tide kept them from the SEC title. Yet, the exciting play of a few star players and consistent all out effort of a never-quit supporting class has allowed them to remain in the conscious thought of quite a number of MSU faithful.

Coach Paul Davis who took the Bulldogs to their first bowl game in twenty-two years in the 1963 season, was a candidate for a number of coach of the year honors and agreed with fans’ expectations that the ’64 team would be at least the equal of his Cinderella squad. With many starters returning, the 4-6 mark of ’64 was a disappointment, especially with excellent play from running backs Hoyle Granger and Marcus Rhoden. Granger, who later made his mark as a power runner for the Houston Oilers, was very much an outside threat while at State. He had led his Class B Oberlin High School to the Louisiana State Championship finals three consecutive years and was a first team All State pick as both a junior and senior. His 12.5 yards per carry average in his final high school season made him highly recruited and it was somewhat of a coup that the Bulldogs signed him. At MSU, he was team rushing leader with more than enough speed to sweep beyond the ends. Rhoden, a flyer out of Florida’s Jacksonville area won the 1965 SEC 60 yard sprint title and tallied seven TD’s as a soph in ’64. With two-way guard Justin Canale, one of six football playing brothers supplying perhaps the best first-step-and-forearm-shiver in the SEC and a deadly accurate place kicking foot, the momentum of the 1963 season did have everyone expecting more. As both a positive and negative, the season finale against rival Ole Miss served as another supposed momentum builder for ’65.

Fullback Hoyle Granger scores the winning TD vs. Ole Miss in the classic 1964 contest

In a nationally televised contest, the Bulldogs, after eighteen years without a win over the Rebels, finally defeated a Johnny Vaught coached squad, with Granger supplying the winning one-yard TD dive with only 1:29 on the clock. Canale’s two field goals, one of forty-eight yards, were the difference makers and Rhoden of course, scored the other State touchdown. The great game naturally whetted the appetites of the MSU fans who saw their favorites riding high into 1965 and was the saving grace for the ’64 season. That momentum seemed to be in place as the number nine ranked Bulldogs rolled over their first four 1965 foes. Unfortunately, even with Granger, Rhoden, a solid supporting cast and the great start to the season, the result was another disappointing 4-6 mark with six consecutive losses. Even with Granger off to a pro career, the Ole Miss game of 1965 and Dwight Douglas Lewis at linebacker to assist Rhoden’s offense in the latter’s final season gave rise to very high expectations. If two straight 4-6 seasons were a disappointment, the 2-8 finish that the 1966 team posted was a complete disaster, one that cost both Coach Davis and Athletic Director Wade Walker their jobs.

Granger, power or speed, he had both as a Bulldog

Thus, a Mississippi State program that went 4-6, 4-6, and 2-8, albeit with a stirring victory over arch rival Ole Miss, remains a favorite of many MSU loyalists. Certainly, the “name” players were of excellent caliber but few in number and recalled perhaps by only the most ardent of MSU fans. Still, the tough, tenacious, and all out play of these gallant athletes keeps them in the memories of their many fans.  Thanks to Paul Hout and his inspiration of this article.