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Released December 22, 2003

By David Tisdale

HATTIESBURG -- One of the most loyal supporters of The University of Southern Mississippi football program never even stepped foot on the university's campus.

But what the late John Austin Dickey of Chattanooga, Tenn., described to family and friends as a "scrappy performance" by the team on a cold, overcast Thanksgiving Day in 1958 against the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga was enough to make him as loyal as the most die-hard graduate.

Dickey, 16, was sitting in the stands that day at Chattanooga's Chamberlain Field, enduring the icy temperatures while watching the then-Mississippi Southern College football team take on the hometown UT-C Moccasins. It was the last game of the season for the "Southerners," who were looking to wrap up an undefeated season against the Mocs.

Looking on with a growing mixture of awe and admiration, Dickey witnessed a dramatic game-saving, four-down goal-line stand in the fourth quarter that preserved MSC's victory, a 20-13 win that earned the school the first of two College Division National championships.

MSC's heroics in denying the Moccasins' comeback left an indelible impression on Dickey.

"He loved that team from the time he saw them," said his sister, Helene Dickey Champlin of Athens, Ga. "He thought they were so gutsy, the way they were just determined they weren't going to let Chattanooga score there in the fourth quarter."

From that day on, Dickey would monitor Southern Miss' athletic successes from afar, watching the Golden Eagles (students adopted a mascot change in the early 1970s) perform on television in both football and basketball, and keeping up with scores of Southern Miss games in newspapers.

Despite his limited contact with Southern Miss, Dickey's devotion to the university's football team, born from attending one football game, inspired him to faithfully set aside money in savings that he planned to will to the university for football scholarships.

"He saved just about everything he ever made to put in for that scholarship," Champlin said. "We (family) always bought him things we knew he wouldn't get for himself, because if you gave him money, you knew it would go into the savings account. It took a lot of sacrifice, but he wanted to do it. I would say he was pretty devoted."

Last year, Dickey passed away at the age of 60, and after nearly half a century of carefully squirreling away every nickel and dime he could spare, his support of Golden Eagles football will continue in his absence in the form of a gift of more than $180,000, the combination of savings, bonds and an annuity.

The reticent Dickey, who never married, worked in the shipping division for Cutter Laboratories in Chattanooga. Champlin said her brother didn't own a car, lived in an apartment and didn't use credit cards. "He wouldn't go into debt," she said.

"John wasn't a real high-profile person," Champlin said. "He was real shy. He wasn't a big talker."

Born Aug. 31, 1942, in San Francisco, Dickey was the son of the late Capt. and Mrs. Ivan N. Dickey. He graduated from Chattanooga High School and attended Austin Peay College. Besides Champlin, Dickey is survived by another sister, Cynthia Dickey Belvin of Chattanooga and a brother, Michael Dickey, also of Chattanooga.

Dickey's pastimes included watching sports on television, varying from football to basketball to golf. However, football was always his favorite sport, Champlin said, and the only team whose success he concerned himself with was Southern Miss. "That was the only one he was ever really gung-ho for," she said.

Like most teams in the 1950s, it wasn't unusual for a football player to play on both offense and defense, and such was the case for Richard Johnston, who started at center and linebacker for the Southerners that day in 1958 against Chattanooga. Consequently, Johnston was in on the play in the fourth quarter that led to the infamous fumble, but at linebacker he also helped lead the charge on defense that prevented Chattanooga from cashing in on the miscue.

The faulty exchange on the snap at MSC's one-yard line between Johnston and quarterback George Sekul inspires some good-natured ribbing between the two former teammates to this day.

"He accuses me of fumbling the ball, and I tell him I'm not sure who fumbled it - that was the bad news," Johnston said, "but the good news is that in four downs, we held them out of the end zone."

In his role as a team captain, Johnston was responsible for relaying the defensive signals. "I called for a Gap-8, or goal line defense," he said, and Johnston and his teammates proceeded to stave off the Moccasins.

Ken Shearer, manager for the 1958 team, has documented the history of that season and other Southern Miss football milestones. "We had led the small college poll the whole season, and they (UT-C) were in the top 10, ranked sixth, when we played them," he said, also recalling that the Moccasins were led by All-American quarterback John Green, a native of West Point, Miss.

Johnston said he and his teammates and the MSC coaching staff knew UT-C, which had earlier in the season stunned in-state rival University of Tennessee with a 14-7 win, would be unreceptive hosts. "We knew they wouldn't be some pushover," he said. "We didn't think (because of being undefeated) we would be granted a win automatically."

Johnston was overwhelmed upon learning of Dickey's gift to the football program.

"Gee whiz, for a guy to be that much impressed (with our team) and doing something like he did, that's just spectacular," he said.

"As a player on that team, to know that our performance motivated someone to do something like just tremendous. I wish he were alive today so I could personally thank him."

Southern Miss Athletic Director Richard Giannini said Dickey's donation is "an extraordinary gift from an extraordinary individual." He said the scholarships will bear Dickey's name, as well as honor the 1958 team, and be awarded to a football player who "makes an extraordinary contribution to the team."

"It's unfortunate that we never had the opportunity to know him," Giannini said. "We'll be indebted to him for his kindness and donation forever."

Ben Samel, Southern Miss development officer in charge of planned giving, said the gift from Dickey is unique. Samel assisted in handling the donation to the university "Individuals have their own sense of who they're going to leave their money to and how they're going to do it," he said, adding that a large number of people who give to the university are not graduates.

"Anyone can include us in their estate plans," he said. "It's easy to do and doesn't cost the donor anything."

Coached by the legendary Thad "Pie" Vann, MSC was enjoying one its best seasons in school history in 1958. Victories over "major" colleges North Carolina State (26-14), the defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion, and Virginia Tech (41-0) highlighted the campaign.

Jimmy Talor, who played both offensive and defensive guard on the 1958 MSC team, has fond recollections of Vann, who was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987. Vann served as head coach at the school from 1949-1968. Mississippi Southern football teams were sometimes referred to as "The Vann Men" after their coach.

"He was something special," Taylor said of his former coach. "He just knew how to relate to people."

The team's loyalty to Vann and to the rest of the coaching staff provided them with the motivation to keep Chattanooga from scoring a game-tying touchdown, Taylor said.

"They (coaches) had faith in us, and we wanted to live up to that," he said. "We were thinking, 'when that ball snaps, we're going to push them (Chattanooga) back, they're not going to come this way.'"

Like a lot of other coaches and athletes, Taylor recalls Vann as being unabashedly superstitious. Vann had received a Stetson as a gift from one of the Texas schools MSC faced, which Vann decided was good luck since the team was winning after he was given the hat.

From then on, Taylor said Vann would carry the hat with him during games, but never wore it because "it didn't fit him real good."

Vann gave Taylor the hat at the end of the season, which Taylor still has in his possession. "I guess he thought I wanted to be a cowboy or something," Taylor said, laughing.

Former Southern Miss assistant coach Jack Thomas was on the sideline in Chattanooga that day, and remembers the Southerners as having phenomenal depth at every position, but more importantly, a fierce commitment to winning.

"We didn't play above our heads," said Thomas, who coached the MSC offensive and defensive lines, and went on to serve as an assistant coach at Texas A&M, Hardin-Simmons and Baylor University. "We just had a bunch of good players who wanted to win some ball games."

Thomas still comes back to Hattiesburg to rejoin the team for reunions. "They were as good if not better than any team I was ever associated with," he said.

Current Southern Miss head coach Jeff Bower said Dickey's description of the team as "scrappy" is a signature tradition of the Golden Eagles, one Bower hopes his team will continue to uphold, including in this year's Liberty Bowl against Utah. "It's been that way here for a long time, not only playing physical football, but playing with a lot of character," Bower said. "That's just Southern Miss football."

Champlin said she wishes her brother was still around to enjoy the success this year's Southern Miss team had. "He would be thrilled about them being Conference USA champions and going to the Liberty Bowl," she said. "In fact, he'd probably go to the game."


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM