College Football Retrospectives: The badness of Billy Cannon

This column seeks to look back on memorable moments in college football and offer commentary on what makes them unique.

In my last column, I failed to mention one of the other most significant contrasts between the world of the 1960s and 2020s — that of segregation. Teams on the Pacific coast, in the Midwest and in the general geopolitical North of the United States had never been formally segregated, although systemic racism and the relative dearth of opportunities afforded to students of color have been and continue to be obstacles to the true meritocracy that this country touts itself as. 

Educational institutions in the three major athletic conferences generally situated in the South, on the other hand, were entirely white. Daryl Hill broke the color barrier in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in the fall of 1963, a full nine and a half years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and eight after the Supreme Court decided that desegregation should be carried out with haste. 

The fine academic institutions constituting the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Southewest Conference (SWC) and ACC must have simply misplaced this memo. The SWC began to integrate in 1965, the season following Arkansas’ claimed National Championship. The SEC failed to completely integrate, at least on the gridiron, until 1972, when Ole Miss and Louisiana State Uniersity (LSU) finally got with the program, a full 17 years after the Supreme Court’s second ruling and eight years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This should not come as a surprise. The last two programs to integrate, the LSU Tigers and the Ole Miss Rebels, both take their names from Confederate armed forces. While the through-line from “Confederacy” to “Rebels” is rather straightforward, the Tigers take their name from the nickname given to soldiers from Louisiana during the Civil War. The Auburn Tigers’ “War Eagle” chant and secondary mascot allegedly goes back to a Confederate veteran’s pet eagle that he would bring around campus and to football games. 

There is at least one children’s book that eulogizes a man who was willing to put his life on the line to defend his right to keep human beings as property and his pet eagle that got so excited during an Auburn football game in 1892 that it flew around the stadium until it died. While systemic racism is pervasive throughout the United States, you can spot it with a naked eye in the SEC. Wait, what is this column supposed to be about? Football? Football, right, time to talk about football.

In 1959, the LSU Tigers were coming off their first National Championship in football. In fact, it was arguably the best time to ever be a fan of the LSU Tigers. They came into their Halloween game against Ole Miss riding a school record 18-game winning streak. The only problem was that Ole Miss also came into the game at an immaculate 6-0 on the season. 

Both teams were making quite convincing cases for National Championship consideration. Both teams’ defenses were disgustingly effective units, and you could make a case for either of them being the strongest in the country. While the Tigers had not allowed a single touchdown going into the game, Ole Miss had shut out every team they had faced except for Tulane — not that their touchdown made a dent in the Rebels’ 46-point margin of victory. LSU’s offense was not nearly as prolific as the Rebels, as the Tigers’ offensive output peaked in their 27-3 victory over the Miami Hurricanes. The only arguments in favor of the Tigers seemed to be inertia and on the grounds of some kid named Billy.

Billy Cannon was a bad man, both in the Stephen A. Smith describing Aaron Rodgers sense and as a judgement of his character. Imagine Christian McCaffery. Have you got that image in your head? Good. Now, imagine, instead of being a gadget wideout running back hybrid, he is playing snaps at tight end and fullback. Yeah, Cannon could block, not just in pass protection, but for other running backs. 

Okay. He can also pass the ball on trick plays. But, wait, that is not all. Did I mention that he was also lights-out defensive back and the team’s first-string punter? Sure, football was different back then, but LSU had just begun to institute the modern two-platoon, offense and defense, system, and Cannon kept all three of his jobs. It would be one thing if he were an exceptionally good running back and an alright defensive back and punter, but the versatility he exhibited and the trickery he offered the Tigers were next level. 

He was not as adroit at applying his trickery off the field. While still in high school, Billy and his friends tried to extort money from people he had seen soliciting the services of sex workers, receiving a 90-day suspended sentence after failing to handle the pigs as well as he handled the pigskin. Following his retirement from the sport, he would find himself in debt from gambling both at the casino and in the real estate market. He got involved in a counterfeiting scheme and went on to be the prison dentist.

But, in 1959, he was no prison dentist; he was the man of the hour. He led the first-ranked team in the country in total yards. He was catching passes from his quarterback. He was catching passes from the opposing quarterback and taking them back to the house. He was averaging 40 yards per punt, which was a respectable standard back then. He was returning punts. He was returning kickoffs. He put the team on his back. Then came Halloween.

The LSU Tigers had the homefield advantage for that game, but that did not stop Ole Miss from jumping out to a three-point lead, and it was all Cannon’s fault. Cannon really dropped the ball on the opening kickoff when he fumbled it. LSU’s defense managed to hold the Rebels’ potent offense that had put up 53 points against Tulane to a field goal despite having their backs to the wall early. 

What followed was a whole lot of nothing. Football used to be really weird. Teams could kick the ball off instead of receiving the ball following a conceded touchdown or field goal. The point was ostensibly that a turnover with the other team pinned closer to their endzone could be more advantageous than receiving the ball deep in one’s own defensive side of the field. 

This was the logic that lead Ole Miss to repeatedly punt the ball on first down towards the end of the game. Rather than risking turning the ball over close to their own endzone, the Rebels decided that LSU was less dangerous with the ball than they were without it. They would come to rue this tactical miscue when Cannon fielded a punt on a bounce at his own 11-yard line. 

The Ole Miss defense, which had held firm for three quarters, suddenly had no idea what to do with itself. The team that had only allowed one touchdown going into this game had forgotten how to tackle. They looked like they were trying to catch a fish with their bare hands. Ole Miss would go on to march the ball down the field, but Cannon made a stop on fourth down at his own one-yard line to seal the game. Though LSU would proceed to lose their next game away at Tennessee and would be shut out by the Rebels in that year’s Sugar Bowl, Cannon’s Midnight Run landed him the Heisman Award and a place in LSU folklore.