Rebels' Shafer leaves big shoes to fill
By By Stan Torgerson
May 2, 2002
The loss of athletic director John Shafer bothers me. Not that Chancellor Robert Khayat won't be able to find a suitable replacement. He said recently he preferred to fill the job with someone who has an Ole Miss background. There are many capable people who are part of the school's family who would be qualified. It's just that Shafer was something different.
He came to Ole Miss from the University of Georgia in 1998 after 16 years with the Bulldogs. The last four he had served as an Associate Athletic Director. Before that he had been an Assistant A.D. at Vanderbilt.
Shafer was an Auburn graduate. Add that to his Vanderbilt and Georgia experience and he had served three SEC schools over a period in excess of 20 years.
But when he came to Ole Miss he had one thing on his mind, to help the Rebels become what everyone wanted them to be, a member of the top level in the league, competitive with all, enjoying facilities comparable with any. He accomplished both goals.
I've been with the Rebel family for over 40 years. There has been a long line of athletic directors in that time period, Tad Smith, Bruiser Kinard, John Vaught, Warner Alford, Pete Boone and Shafer. Shafer will rank with the best.
Tad Smith was an institution all to himself. He was kindly, knowledgeable, and a leader who loved his school as much as anyone I have ever known. He also was a hands off executive. He always knew what was going on but he also allowed the football program the leeway to make its own decisions.
If he had a weakness it was in basketball. He never realized the sport's real potential and he never adequately funded it. He ran the Rebel program during the heyday of Kentucky basketball when everyone was convinced no one could compete with Adolph Rupp. He never employed a coach who won more games than he lost. Even the beloved Bonnie Graham was only 144-169 in his 13 years coaching Reb basketball.
Eddie Crawford then took over and in six years won only 46 games while losing 97, followed by Cob Jarvis who had eight years as coach and finished 87-117. Tad Smith never saw fit to make a change.
It is ironic that the Rebel basketball gym is named for Tad who loved football but never developed an equal love for his school's basketball program. He served as A.D. for 25 years, 1946-1971.
Bruiser Kinard took over in 1971. We'll never really know what Bruiser might have done. He was fired in the 1973 midnight purge, along with his brother Billy, the football coach at the time.
Then John Vaught took over for the next five years, 1973-1978. While he represented the university well as the legend he was, I never really felt Vaught liked administrative work. He was a coach, first last and always. His major claim to fame was he hired Bob Weltlich from Indiana as basketball coach and Bob turned the program around. But his choice of Ken Cooper to succeed Kinard as football coach never worked out.
Warner Alford stepped in for a 16 year stretch, 1978-1994. He was a former player himself and was promoted from assistant athletic director when Vaught left, but in his 16 years at the helm Rebel football had only six winning seasons. When Weltlich left the basketball program after the 1982 season and Alford hired first Lee Hunt, followed by Ed Murphy and then Rob Evans, Ole Miss basketball had only one winning season in the SEC and 11 losing ones under Warner's direction. Evans eventually made the sport a winner while Robert Khayat served as interim athletic director in 1994 but it was during Pete Boone's term in the office, 1995-1998 that Rod Barnes was hired (1998) and he took the Rebels to the heights with encouragement from Shafer.
As you can see from this list every athletic director since at least 1946 has had Ole Miss roots. Then Shafer was hired after Boone resigned, the first outsider. To his everlasting credit his administration has posted outstanding won/loss records in almost all sports as well as a massive building program accompanied by solid financing.
In addition to his executive skills, Shafer had charm and was a master of public relations for the university. He remembered names and had a smile as wide as the Pacific Ocean. You had to like him.
So what will Shafers long term mark be on the University of Mississippi? The enlargement of the stadium? Certainly. Other athletic upgrades? Yes. He has changed the physical appearance of Ole Miss for all time.
But I think there's something else. Shafer had the knowledge and the courage to hire an assistant coach from the University of Tennessee to run the Rebel football program. It can be said for certain he investigated and considered coaches who had at one time worn the Red and Blue as a player. But in the end he decided David Cutcliffe was the best fit and the past three years have proven he was right.
His work has been true and his judgement profound. He has done his best for Ole Miss in the past and those who know him can only hope he does as well for himself in the future.