Southern Miss football reached the pinnacle of college football on two occasions in the program’s history. The Mississippi Southern College, which later became Southern Miss, went a combined 18-1 in their 1958 and 1962 championship seasons.
The “Fabulous Fifties” were truly fabulous for Southern Miss football. As Mississippi Southern College, the Southerners tallied 9 consecutive winning seasons under the leadership of coach Thad “Pie” Vann. The pinnacle of the decade was during the 1958 season.
The 1957 season ended on a sour note for head coach Vann and his team. The Southerners lost their final two games of the 1957 campaign, ending the season 8-2. The final loss marked the second consecutive Tangerine Bowl loss.
In 1958, Vann and the Southerners opened the season against Louisiana Tech. MSC escaped a sloppy game with a 14-0 victory. Following the win, the United Press International released its inaugural College Division poll, and that first poll had MSC sitting at the top.
After a week two win of 15-0 versus Trinity on the road, the Southerners returned home to face Memphis State. MSC trailed by one, with nine minutes remaining in the game. Due to injury, coach Vann had to resort to sophomore backup quarterback Billy Larson of Pascagoula. Larson drove the Southerners down the field to the Memphis State 15-yard line. With the drive stalled at the 15, Vann chose to attempt a field goal with 43 seconds remaining. Vann called on junior end Hugh McInnis to attempt the field goal. McInnis, attempting the first field goal of his college career, kicked the 22-yard game-winning field goal through the uprights to give the top-ranked Southerners the 24-22 win over Memphis State.
Following the close call versus Memphis, the Southerners would go on to tally victories over Southeastern Louisiana, West Texas State and Abilene Christian. MSC was 5-0, winning their previous three games by a combined score of 70-6.
Next up for the Southerners was North Carolina State, Virginia Tech and University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. MSC would go on to defeat North Carolina State 26-14, Virginia Tech 41-0 and UT-Chattanooga 20-13.
MSC remained the top-ranked team in the nation all season and finished in the top spot, claiming the national championship.
On Feb. 22, 1962, Mississippi Southern College became The University of Southern Mississippi. Sept. 15 of that year marked the first appearance of the Southern Mississippi Southerners, when USM traveled to Arlington State and defeated them in dominating fashion, 28-7. The following week, the Southerners hosted the Richmond Spiders, treating the Faulkner Field crowd to a 29-8 win.
After the Southerners’ third consecutive win, the UPI released its first college division poll of the year. The first UPI rankings of the season had the Southerners placed at No. 2, only behind Florida A&M. FAMU opened their first three weeks with blowout victories, winning by a combined 146-18. The AP poll ranked USM at the No. 4 position.
In week four of the 1962 season, the Southerners secured coach Vann’s 100th victory as the school’s head coach. USM traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to face the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. After going back-and-forth early, USM secured the win with three scores in the second half to win 31-13. The win pulled the Southerners into second place in the AP poll.
One of the sloppiest games of the season, in regards to the team’s play and weather, came at Memphis State. After a safety on a blocked punt gave Memphis State a 2-0 lead, the Tigers scored their only touchdown moments later to take an 8-0 lead.
The Southerners had a stroke of good luck as a botched punt resulted in the offense taking the ball on the 1-yard line. Following three failed attempts, fullback George Sekul jumped over the top for a touchdown. A failed 2-point conversion allowed the Tigers to hold on for the win. The loss dropped USM’s record to 4-1, but it did not hurt the team much in the polls as the team retained the No. 2 UPI ranking and fell to only fifth in the AP poll.
Following the loss to Memphis State, the Southerners went on to shutout their next two opponents, North Carolina State and Abilene Christian, to the tune of 30-0. As the Southerners traveled to Arkansas State, USM boasted a 6-1 record and a No. 2 UPI ranking. The Southerners left Jonesboro, Arkansas, with a 20-7 victory, and the USM ranking remained the same in the polls. The next week, the Southerners rolled over Trinity with a 33-6 victory, moving to 8-1 for the season. At 8-1, the Southerners were ranked No. 1 in the UPI and ranked third in the AP poll.
To close out the season, the Southerners played host to Louisiana Tech. USM prevailed in a close 29-18 victory. The win secured the No. 1 ranking in the final UPI college division poll of the season. At 9-1, the University of Southern Mississippi was crowned college division national champions for the second time in school history. In the AP poll, after climbing as high as No. 2, the Southerners ended up ranked fourth.
In 2011, the 1958 and 1962 College Division National Championship teams were inducted into the Legends Club. The two teams are regarded as the best teams in the program’s history.