The Allstate Sugar Bowl Believes in Champions – Jake Gibbs
Champions have long defined the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The list of Hall of Fame athletes who have competed in the annual contest is breathtaking. Heisman Trophy winners, future NFL Super Bowl champions and national championship coaches have made their mark in the annual game that brings in thousands of fans to New Orleans and millions of television viewers. But the list of Sugar Bowl champions extends well past the gridiron. There is a long list of distinguished individuals who have proven themselves to be champions in life as well – the Sugar Bowl’s current series highlights these lesser known success stories.
On Sept. 22, 1971, the Most Valuable Player of the Sugar Bowl was honored with his own day at Yankee Stadium.
To be sure, this honor came 11 years after Ole Miss star and New York Yankees catcher Jake Gibbs had been recognized as the Sugar Bowl MVP; and it had nothing to do with his memorable Sugar Bowl Stadium performance. But there’s no doubt it locks him squarely into the category of Sugar Bowl participants who went onto championship success away from the gridiron.
To learn how the leader of the national champion Ole Miss Rebels and the star of the 1960 Sugar Bowl had his own Yankee Stadium day, one needs to travel back to the early 1950s.
“When I was like 10 or 12 years old, I would listen to the Baseball Game of the Day, once a week, on the radio,” Gibbs remembered. “We would lie on the bed and listen to the radio. I’d fall asleep like that and always dream about playing in the big leagues. That was my first dream.”
While Gibbs was a baseball star from a young age, in high school he went out for football as well. Despite missing chunks of his sophomore and junior seasons with injuries, it turned out he was pretty darn good on the gridiron. Universities vied for his talents in both sports, but his final decision came down to Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
When he decided that he would give football, as well as baseball, a go at the collegiate level, the winning factor for Ole Miss was the opportunity for him to play for legendary coach Johnny Vaught, who was inducted posthumously into the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame in 2019. Vaught had put the Rebels on the national football map – in the five years before Gibbs’ arrival in 1957, they posted a 41-9-3 mark, including two Sugar Bowls and a Cotton Bowl.
“Coach Vaught was a very intelligent man; he knew his football and he was a great offensive mind,” Gibbs said. “He also knew how to communicate with players; he could be stern – he wanted you to do it right. If you didn’t do it right, he’d get on your butt and straighten you out; you had to do the fundamentals correctly. The other thing was that he believed you had to be on time. We were all 10 minutes early for everything with Coach Vaught. We were a real disciplined football team.”
In the four years that Gibbs was on the roster (1957-60), Ole Miss posted a 38-4-2 record, playing in three Sugar Bowls and one Gator Bowl while winning shares of the national title in both 1959 and 1960. He was a freshman for the Rebels’ 1957 Sugar Bowl win over Texas and then keyed wins over LSU and Rice in the 1960 and 1961 Sugar Bowls, respectively.
“Ole Miss has a great history in the Sugar Bowl,” Gibbs said. “Ole Miss people love to party, so they always love to go to New Orleans.
“And our coaches might have loved it even more,” he added with a laugh. “They loved raw oysters and every time we went to New Orleans, we stayed at a wonderful downtown hotel. The bus would pull up and the coaches would jump off and go right into the oyster bar and start eating oysters before they even checked in.”
While 1961 capped an undefeated national championship season, the 1960 game was perhaps more memorable thanks to the revenge factor.
When Ole Miss and LSU met in Baton Rouge on Halloween night of 1959, the two teams were considered top rivals for not just the SEC championship, but also the national championship. The “Game of the Century” was won by one of the most memorable plays in college football history. Trailing 3-0 late in the game, LSU star Billy Cannon snagged a Gibbs punt off a bounce at the 11-yard line and ran through seven would-be tacklers to the end zone to lift the Tigers to victory. Cannon’s Halloween night run likely vaulted the LSU star to the Heisman Trophy.
The final man that Cannon beat was none other than Gibbs, who most definitely didn’t forget the play.
“I became good friends with Billy through the years,” Gibbs said. “On his famous run, the story was that I was the last man to try and make a tackle on him and Billy would always say, ‘I got to Jake and he never made many tackles anyway, I gave him a little hip move and he took it and I went on past him.’
“He was up here visiting a friend about 15 years ago, we were having some catfish and beer,” Gibbs remembered about a relaxing afternoon when the two former stars were in their late 70s. “I said, ‘Billy, I want you to quit telling people you put a hip move on me, heck, you didn’t have no hip move, you were a straight line [runner].’ Then I said, ‘Billy, let’s go outside. We’ll set up 100 yards and I’m going to tackle your big [behind], I ain’t gonna miss you again!’ We had a lot of fun; that was a good friendship.”
While Gibbs jokes about still looking for revenge all those years later, in reality, he didn’t need to wait nearly so long.
Following the thrilling LSU win on Halloween night, Mercer Bailey of the Associated Press wrote, “Maybe the Sugar Bowl folks should go ahead and invite Louisiana State and Mississippi for its New Year’s Day extravaganza. If tense, exciting football is what they want, they could hardly improve on a rematch on the national champion Tigers and those classy Rebels.”
That was exactly what happened five weeks later when the Sugar Bowl match-up was announced.
The game, of course, would be televised, the first bowl to be telecast in color from coast-to-coast; and tickets were being swapped for anything and everything. Four tickets went for a 14-foot fiberglass boat; 60 tickets went for a 1952 Cadillac and four new tires. It was estimated the Sugar Bowl had over a quarter of a million requests for tickets.
When game day arrived, the Rebels earned that revenge. And then some.
Gibbs broke open a scoreless tie just before the half with a 43-yard touchdown connection with James “Cowboy” Woodruff and the Ole Miss defense was infallible, holding the Tigers to a total of 74 yards. Bobby Franklin, the other Ole Miss quarterback in a platoon-system, added two more touchdowns in the second half to earn MVP honors in the 21-0 victory.
Vaught was magnanimous in victory, pointing out the injuries that decimated the Tiger team that beat the Rebels in the regular season. “Don’t forget LSU lost three pretty good football players,” he said. “[Quarterback Warren] Rabb wasn’t at his best, [halfback Johnny] Robinson was of little use offensively [due to a fractured hand] and [halfback Wendell] Harris didn’t dress out. Those are three mighty fine football players.”
“That was a big-time game – you had 85,000 people there, sell-out crowd, standing room only,” Gibbs remembered. “It was a tough game. Both teams were equal in talent with great coaching staffs; there was a lot of excitement and it was a lot of fun.”
When Ole Miss returned to the Sugar Bowl the following year, it capped a 10-0-1 season with a 14-6 victory over Rice from the Southwest Conference. Gibbs scored both touchdowns for the Rebels and earned the Miller-Digby Awards as the game’s most outstanding player.
Shortly after the Sugar Bowl victory capped his collegiate football career, Gibbs took a phone call from the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles and star quarterback Norm Van Brocklin had won the 1960 NFL Championship with a 17-13 win over the Green Bay Packers – the only playoff defeat of Vince Lombardi’s career.
“We were in the dorm one night and someone called me to the phone; we just had one phone in the hall back then,” Gibbs said. “He told me he was from the Eagles, Van Brocklin was retiring and they were thinking about making me their number one draft choice to replace him. I told them, ‘I have to be honest with you, I’m not going to make a decision on football or baseball until I get through my last year of baseball.’ He said, ‘Baseball?’ He didn’t know I played baseball too; before we hung up the phone, he told me they’d try to get me in the later rounds.”
Gibbs starred once again for the Rebel baseball team that spring and he became the first Mississippi collegiate athlete to earn All-America honors in both football and baseball.
The Eagles didn’t cross his mind when he realized a childhood dream by signing with the New York Yankees shortly after the collegiate baseball season.
“I signed with the Yankees because they were a winning team with a winning tradition; they were in the World Series all the time,” Gibbs said. “I made the decision that if I was going for the Big Leagues, I may as well go for the number one team.”
The Yankees rolled out the red carpet for Gibbs. In addition to a $100,000 signing bonus, Yankees general manager Roy Hamey personally escorted Gibbs from Mississippi to New York.
“We landed in New York and headed straight to the stadium for that evening’s game,” Gibbs remembered. “I’ll admit, I started getting nervous – ‘I’m going to Yankee Stadium!’ I didn’t know how to handle it. They opened that locker room door and we walked in, [manager] Ralph Houk came over, Mickey Mantle came over, Moose Skowron came over, the whole team, they made me feel at home right away. That was quite an experience – I saw Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubiak, holy mackerel, I had watched all these guys play on tv!”
The Yankees had set up a locker with number 41 ready to go for Gibbs. He had the opportunity to take batting practice and infield practice with the team for the next 11 days – though he watched the games from the stands. He was then assigned to the Yankee AAA affiliate in Richmond.
After two years as an infielder, he arrived at spring training in February of 1963 and Houk brought him in and told him the team wanted to convert him to catcher.
“Houk told me, ‘We feel like you’re the one guy in our organization, through your football experience as a quarterback, leadership, calling plays, taking charge, with that background, you can make the change and make it quick.’ I had never thought of being a catcher, but it all worked out.”
After learning the trade of catcher, Gibbs made the big leagues full-time in 1965. He would become a beloved player to fans and teammates alike.
“Putting on the New York Yankee uniform every day and hearing them play ‘New York, New York’ when we won was probably the most fun I’ve ever had,” he said.
While baseball was his focus, Gibbs still returned to his home state in the off-season. And he enjoyed visiting Ole Miss football practices. It didn’t take Vaught long to enlist the baseball player to jump in and offer instruction to the Rebel quarterbacks, including a promising freshman by the name of Archie Manning in 1967.
“I tell people that I didn’t coach Archie, I was just there watching him,” laughed Gibbs. “He was intelligent, he knew the game, he could really move. You couldn’t hem him up…back in those days, Coach Vaught loved the bootlegs, the sprint-outs, the roll-outs. And Archie loved going back in the pocket, but if he did get flushed out, he could scramble as good as anybody you’ve seen.”
“I grew up 80 miles from Oxford and when I was 11 years old, they were national champs and he was the All-American quarterback. He was my hero,” said Manning, who would win Sugar Bowl MVP honors himself in 1970. “I had the chance to meet him when I was being recruited, which was an exciting time for me. Then when I was playing, he was at all the quarterback meetings after the Yankees season was done. He became a real good friend. Everyone loves Jake. He’s very friendly, happy-go-lucky and funny; and he’s also very humble, just a great man.”
In 1971, Gibbs opted to retire from baseball, leading to the most humbling moment of his life.
“One of the greatest things that ever happened to me, something I never dreamed of, was when I announced my retirement,” he said. “On Sept. 22, 1971, we played our final home game at Yankee Stadium. They gave me Jake Gibbs Day at Yankee Stadium. Jake Gibbs Day. The Yankees gave me a portrait of me swinging the bat in Yankee Stadium, I still have it here hanging in my den. They gave it to me out on the field, where Lou Gehrig and all the famous Yankees stood, behind home plate. They had a microphone out there and I had to speak to the crowd. How in the heck does a lifetime .231 hitter have a day in Yankee Stadium?!”
“The Yankees always appreciated that Jake ‘took one for the team’ at a time of need,” said Yankee historian Marty Appel. “After Elston Howard’s career ended, the Yankee farm system was bare. Not a catcher in sight. So recognizing Jake’s athleticism, they asked him to try catching. If he’d been allowed to continue to play third, his hitting would have been far better. Catching clearly took a toll, but he played on, because he was needed and he loved the Yankees. They wanted to say thank you and did.”
“Retirement” simply referred to his playing career. Gibbs returned to Oxford to take charge of the Rebel baseball team. After his first team started 4-5 in 1972, they settled into a groove and rolled to the SEC Championship with a 15-3 mark. They would win the regional championship and advance to the College World Series for just the fourth time in program history.
“I was always a big fundamental coach; I always thought you had to be prepared” he said, echoing his comments about playing for Vaught. “If you’re prepared fundamentally, and know what the game’s all about, you can coach pretty easily. But I also inherited a good ball club; it was a special year and everything clicked. All the guys came together.”
Following the 1990 season, Gibbs retired as the winningest baseball coach in Ole Miss history. But he wasn’t done being associated with greatness. The Yankees called him back to duty and he coached their catchers in 1993 under Buck Showalter. In 1994 and 1995, owner George Steinbrenner asked him to manage the Tampa Yankees in A ball. In 1994, Gibbs directed his team to the Florida State League championship.
“Steinbrenner gave me a pretty good team,” Gibbs said. “I had Mariano Rivera for a couple of months. And guess who my shortstop was? Derek Jeter. He was like 19 years old. I had no doubt he would be a star. He was a young kid but he had a great head on his shoulders and knew how to play the game. He wasn’t a smart-ass. He was sound fundamentally, but the Yankees were concerned because he had quite a few errors in Greensboro the year before. When I saw him, I couldn’t believe how much territory he could cover. He could get to balls that nobody else could get to. We had to work with him to make sure he turned his hips and shoulders before he threw the ball, so his errors went way down. He was a great player. Even today, when I go up to old timers’ games, Jeter is there sometimes. He played 20 years in the big leagues. He comes out of the dugout and talks to everybody. He was never stuck up and he still doesn’t have a big head.”
After more than a half-century of greatness, Jake Gibbs’ words about Jeter apply perfectly to himself. He was never stuck up and still doesn’t have a big head.
The College Football Hall of Famer who won two Sugar Bowls and played 10 years with the New York Yankees, hobnobbing with the likes of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, before becoming the winningest coach in Ole Miss baseball history, and then molding the careers of future Baseball Hall-of-Famers, still lives in the same house he bought when he returned to Oxford in 1971. And he remembers and appreciates every moment of his amazing life – and still insists that he’d tackle Billy Cannon if given another chance.
- < PREV LA Tech, BYU agree to play Oct 2 in Provo on ESPN2
- NEXT > Northwestern State football players learn from distributing food to those affected by Hurricane Laura