Ole Miss-Vandy is a series that has been marked by heartbreak. On October 28, 1989, the Rebels won 24-16, but all the team could focus on is what it had lost.
That day, Vanderbilt was in the red zone in Oxford, Mississippi, when quarterback John Gromos launched a pass down the middle of the field to fullback Brad Gaines. Converging on the same spot on the 2-yard line at the same time was the ball, Gaines, and Ole Miss defensive back Roy Lee “Chucky” Mullins. As Gaines stretched for the ball, the 6-foot, 170-pound redshirt freshman Mullins crashed into the small of his back like a missile. Mullins crumpled to the ground and lay motionless. He suffered four broken vertebrae in his spine, leaving him a quadriplegic for the remainder of his short life.
Mullins died less than two years later from complications from blood clots caused by inactivity. When Gaines was informed about Mullins’ condition immediately after the game, he responded, “I’ve got to get in touch with him somehow.” They became close friends during Mullins’ time in the hospital, and Gaines carries the weight of Mullins injury and death to this day.
Historically, the Ole Miss-Vanderbilt game is one of the oldest rivalries in college football, but it doesn’t get the same respect as many others in the SEC. Heck, it doesn’t even have a nickname like “Third Saturday in October” for Alabama-Tennessee or Auburn and Georgia’s “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.” This year’s game probably won’t grab much attention, either, but there is still plenty on the line for at least one team.
Vanderbilt (4-6, 1-5) has had yet another meager year, but bowl eligibility is still within its grasp. A win over Ole Miss (5-5, 1-5) will keep those hopes alive for head coach Derek Mason. This game is do-or-die for the Commodores, but not Ole Miss due to a postseason ban for violations under the leadership of former coach Hugh Freeze. The Rebels’ main source of motivation will likely be keeping Vandy from reaching a bowl for the third straight season.
The Rebels lead the series 51-39-2, which is amazing because it took Ole Miss 20 games to finally get its first win in 1939. The two teams first met in 1894 in Nashville, and amazingly, the Commodores won the first 10 games in the series by shutout. That’s 323-0 for those scoring at home.
Overall, Vandy won 22 of the first 25 matchups, all of which were played either in Nashville or Memphis. Ole Miss didn’t host its first game in Oxford until October 10, 1953, and won it 28-6, starting a streak of revenge that saw the Rebels win 17 of the next 18 games through 1973, sandwiched around a 1964 tie. Among that number were an equally incredible seven consecutive shutouts from 1955-1962 (the two teams did not play in 1958).
The teams are 5-5 since 2008, but Ole Miss has won four of the last five.
The series is still defined by the “Chucky” Mullins story. After all these years, Gaines still maintains Mullins’ gravesite in Russellville, Alabama, and visits it three times per year: every Christmas, on the anniversary of the injury on October 28, and on the anniversary of Mullins’ death on May 6. It is a tragic story that still resonates with both schools to this day.
This year’s game may not have the emotion of 1989, but you can expect both schools to play with passion at Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday. In a rivalry that has seen every emotion, from joy to tragedy to heartbreak, you would expect nothing less. H&A
Cover photo: #38 Chucky Mullins and Ole Miss head coach Billy Brewer prepare to lead Rebels onto the field
Kickoff for Ole Miss and Vanderbilt is 6:30 p.m. CST on the SEC Network