Mike Leach is in his 35th season coaching college football.
But the Mississippi State head coach says the sport looks about the same as it did when he started out as the offensive line coach at Cal Poly in 1987.
“It has changed less than you might think,” Leach said Monday. “Everybody says that kids are different nowadays. I don’t think they really are.”
That might be true, but long before Leach first patrolled the sidelines in San Luis Obispo, the sport he now coaches was utterly unrecognizable.
Leach’s Mississippi State team prepares to face Vanderbilt at 3 p.m. Saturday, hearkening back to a game that took place more than 117 years ago — in Columbus, no less.
It was back when football was played with three downs. Back when the forward pass didn’t exist. Back when Mississippi State wasn’t even called Mississippi State.
And, perhaps most surprising, back when the Commodores fielded the best football team in the Southeast.
On Oct. 1, 1904, in the first-ever meeting between the two schools, Vanderbilt handed Mississippi A&M — now MSU — what still stands as the second-worst loss in school history in a lopsided defeat at the Columbus Fairgrounds.
“The Vanderbilt football squad opened the season Saturday afternoon in a game that it was thought would be a hard one,” wrote the Nashville Banner on Oct. 3, 1904, “but when it was all over the Mississippi boys left the field with the zero end of a score of 61 to 0.”
‘Bright spots along the way’
Yes, 61 points, even in a sport where at the time scoring was quite a bit harder.
The nation’s 80 participating teams averaged just 16.2 points per game in 1904, according to data from sports-reference.com. In 2020, by contrast, that number was 28.7 points per contest.
And yet Vanderbilt’s decisive victory over the Bulldogs wasn’t even their best showing of the season. Far from it, in fact.
The Commodores beat Georgetown 66-0 the following week and shut out Ole Miss 69-0 the week after that. They posted wins of 97-0 and 81-0 en route to a 9-0 season, becoming one of just five teams to finish the year without a loss or tie. Minnesota was 13-0, Penn was 12-0, and Michigan was 10-0; Auburn went 6-0 and shared the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship with Vanderbilt.
The Commodores’ great season came in their first year under coach Dan McGugin, who racked up a 197-55-19 record in his time in Nashville to become the school’s all-time winningest coach. McGugin coached Vanderbilt from 1904 to 1917 and 1919 to 1934. Why the break? He was busy serving in World War I.
McGugin’s success earned him induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951. He is the namesake of the McGugin Center, which houses Vanderbilt’s athletics offices, its athletic training center and more.
His impact on the school is not lost on current Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea, who grew up in Nashville attending football and basketball games before playing for the Commodores from 2002 to 2004. Now, Lea is back at his alma mater as the team’s first-year head coach.
“I’m well versed in the history of this program because this is my hometown and I followed this program growing up and I played here,” Lea told The Dispatch on Tuesday. “We have a clear awareness of our success in our further history.”
Lea and Vanderbilt athletic director Candice Storey Lee are both alumni of the school, and they have the task of returning the Commodores to the heights they once reached. Vanderbilt has gone 28-61 since 2014, but Lea said there have been “bright spots along the way.”
“We keep the vision for the future in mind every single day, and it’s exciting,” Lea said.
‘Just off of the farm’
Mississippi State, meanwhile, has seen a lot more recent success than its Southeastern Conference foes.
The Bulldogs reached the No. 1 ranking in 2014, the year after Commodores coach James Franklin left to coach Penn State. Vanderbilt hasn’t had a winning season since.
But historically, what the Aggies of Mississippi A&M accomplished can’t quite measure up to what McGugin’s Commodores did. A&M had 15 winning seasons between 1904 and 1934 but never won more than seven games in a year.
The program kicked off in 1895 when W.M. Matthews put together a team at the school for the first time since its 1878 inception. On Nov. 15, 1895, the night before the Aggies’ first game at Southern Baptist University — now Union University — Matthews was instructed to choose the team colors. He selected maroon and white.
A&M lost both games it played that year and all four in 1896 under J.B. Hildebrand. The Aggies didn’t play football for four more years.
But the program was revived by L.B. Harvey in 1901. On Oct. 28 — a Monday — A&M beat Ole Miss 17-0 in the first game in the history of the in-state rivalry.
Dan Martin, who coached the Rebels in 1902, took over at A&M the next year. The Aggies didn’t lose a single game in his first season, beating Alabama and LSU and tying Ole Miss and Tulane en route to a 3-0-2 record.
That success under Martin earned A&M acclaim across the region headed into the fall of 1904. The Aggies were expected to flex their country muscle on a Vanderbilt team that went 6-1-1 under coach J.H. Henry the year before in the two schools’ Oct. 1 season opener — their first-ever meeting.
“The Agricultural and Mechanical boys (were) touted to be all just off of the farm and with a surplus of bone and sinews,” the Banner wrote.
So much for that.
“The (Aggies) turned out to be neither as heavy nor as fast as expected, and the Commodores probably surprised even Coach McGugin,” the paper proclaimed.
In fact, Vanderbilt turned in a performance that led the Banner to dub the 1904 team the best in the history of the university — just one game in.
“Probably never before in the history of the game at Vanderbilt has a squad shown up so well in the opening game as was the case Saturday,” the Banner said. “The men not only played the game in mid-season style individually, but put up a really wonderful exhibition of team work.”
The Commodores have never had another season without a loss or tie; their 8-0-1 record under McGugin in 1922 is the closest they’ve come to replicating that year.
And they showed their strength against A&M from the very start, handing the Aggies a loss only topped in school history by a 74-0 Mississippi State loss at Houston in 1969.
Incorporating strong blocking and what the Banner billed as a “hurry-up” offense, the Commodores scored the first touchdown of the game three minutes into it. The score was worth five points; quarterback Frank Kyle “kicked goal” — the equivalent of the extra point — to make it 6-0.
Kyle — all of 5-foot-11 and 162 pounds — proceeded to score a 90-yard touchdown on a trick play, but he missed the point after. It hardly mattered.
Failing to march the necessary five yards on its first two downs, A&M punted on its third and final down. Vanderbilt’s Dan Blake, the team’s starting left halfback, returned the punt 60 yards for another touchdown.
The rout was on. Starting halfback Ed Hamilton had touchdowns of 40 and 50 yards; backup Owsley Manier had his own 50-yard score. Right halfback Honus Craig added two touchdowns, and Kyle returned an A&M punt 105 yards for a score.
“Kyle has never since he has been in college put up a better game at quarter,” the Banner crowed.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt’s defense shined. The Commodores held the Aggies to just two first downs all game in the shutout win.
And it was just par for the course for a Vanderbilt team that allowed just four points all season, all in the same game — a 29-4 win over Missouri-Rolla, now Missouri S&T.
“It is undoubtedly one of the strongest lines on the defensive any Southern college has ever had,” the Banner said after the blanking of A&M.
But the Aggies’ season continued. A&M lost to Alabama, Ole Miss and Tulane before beating Tennessee Medical College 59-0, losing to Cumberland and beating Louisiana Industrial — now Louisiana Tech — to wrap up the season with a 2-5 record.
The Aggies wouldn’t face Vanderbilt again until 1923, when the two teams played to a surely scintillating 0-0 tie. Both schools joined the SEC in 1932 — the year Mississippi A&M became Mississippi State College — but there were gaps. The two didn’t play from 1943 to 1969 before matching up again in 1970 in Memphis.
And despite the one-sided result of that first game, Mississippi State owns a 14-7-2 all-time record against Vanderbilt. In their second-most recent meeting in 2014, the Bulldogs handed the Commodores a 51-0 loss.
Maybe it was payback.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.