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How the 1911 Egg Bowl nearly killed 1,500 people and sparked a college football scandal

Ole Miss football in 1911 was defined by scandal, shady business dealings and narrowly avoided tragedy. BUSINESS AS USUAL

Ole Miss and Mississippi A&M face off at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds in Jackson, Mississippi, Thanksgiving Day 1911.
Ole Miss Yearbook, 1912

There was no need to build another grandstand.

Thousands of Ole Miss and Mississippi State (then-Mississippi A&M) fans made the trip to Jackson in November 1911, continuing a relatively new Thanksgiving tradition of watching the rival teams face off at the State Fairgrounds.

The main grandstand, which some fans had grown frustrated within recent years due to its poor visibility, remained mostly empty in the minutes leading up to kickoff. Spectators instead filled the smaller sideline stand and a temporary grandstand built only days earlier on the other side of the field.

Spectators paid an extra $0.25 for a seat on the new bleachers, which offered the best view of the game and could fit up to 2,000 people. In the moments before kickoff, students and fans of both teams grew rowdier and more spirited, “whooping and cheering” and stomping their feet, according to newspaper reports, with people still trying to find seats among the 1,500 fans already packed in the stands.

It was then, witnesses told Jackson newspapers, that the structure began to sway from the commotion. Horrified fans looked on from the other side of the field as the structure’s supports buckled and broke one by one, hurling the grandstand backward as it collapsed to the ground.

“In another second the mass of woodwork was level with the ground, and a thousand or more human beings were struggling, screaming and frantically engaged in trying to extricate themselves from a mingled mass of lumber and humanity.” - Jackson Daily News (Dec. 1, 1911)

More than a thousand people struggled to free themselves from the weight of debris and fellow prone spectators, leading many to prepare for the likelihood of fatalities. Somehow the accident only resulted in around 60 injuries, many of which were bruises and broken bones.

Chancellor Andrew Kincannon’s secretary and daughter were both hurt in the accident. William Hemingway’s ankle was crushed, spurring his direct involvement in fundraising efforts for an on-campus stadium in Oxford that (unbeknownst to him) would one day bear his name.

Miraculously, everyone survived. And after the injured were transported to hospitals and hotel rooms to be treated, the game proceeded as planned with remaining fans sticking around to watch the Aggies claim a 6-0 victory over Ole Miss.

In the days following the accident, the public would learn the city and fairgrounds had no knowledge of the grandstand’s construction. There was no permit. No one was notified. And no explanation for why a structure built to hold 2000 football fans crumbled to pieces before the first play.

It was easy to be grateful the accident wasn’t as unfortunate as it could have been. But it didn’t take long for people to seek out answers about how something like that could happen in the first place. Why was it built? Who was responsible?

Most importantly, who would end up taking the blame?

John W. McCall, Captain of the 1910 Ole Miss Football Team
Ole Miss Yearbook, 1911

John W. McCall had been in Jackson for days preparing for the game, which was a significant part of his job in his first year as president of the state’s intercollegiate athletic association.

Only a year earlier he had been on the field as Ole Miss’ football captain. Now he represented the interests of both schools and was in charge of making the sure the game was a success for all involved.

Though it’s unclear where the idea originated, McCall worked with both universities to construct a temporary grandstand at the fairgrounds. Since gate receipts were a critical revenue stream for both schools, it’s not hard to see the appeal in adding a stand with the potential to bring in an extra $500.

McCall called upon two well-known Ole Miss alumni to find a contractor: Tom Sykes, a professor who lived in Jackson, and local attorney William Hemingway. (Yes, that William Hemingway.)

McCall told them to award the contract to the lowest responsible bidder. The winner? McCall’s uncle, D.D., who bid $25 lower than the others up for the job.

News reports about the accident weren’t thorough enough to determine precisely why the structure failed outside of using words like “flimsy” and “frail” to describe it. Even more troubling was the revelation that no permits had been filed with the city of Jackson to build the structure, meaning there was no formal inspection to ensure the grandstand was up to code.

Instantly clear was who would take responsibility for installing the grandstand, which was no one. All of the blame shifted to D.D. McCall, whose little boy was sitting at the top of the stand when it collapsed.

Ole Miss and A&M released a joint statement after the game absolving both universities and clearing the names of Hemingway and Sykes as acting messengers. Distancing himself even further from the tragedy, McCall said didn’t realize his uncle had secured the contract until after construction began. True or not, it was enough to absolve him in the eyes of the public.

What sticks out among the comments from university officials is the lack of information regarding how McCall’s uncle was directed to build the grandstand. Some reports alleged that no one else involved had any input on the design of the structure—a claim D.D. McCall vehemently denied.

He told reporters he strictly adhered to a sketch Hemingway and Sykes had given him, with two agreed-upon exceptions: He wanted to use heavier lumber than the original design called for and sought to lower the height of the structure from 22 to 16 feet. He also claimed that after he finished construction, both universities agreed to pay him an additional $22.50 for more work on the grandstand.

Meanwhile, the university statements weren’t enough to appease everyone who wanted answers. Both the Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News condemned the universities’ decision to build the additional grandstand, calling it “a money-making scheme,” while also calling out city officials for not taking more responsibility to investigate unauthorized building projects.

The story died down quickly, with little mention of the accident outside of a lawsuit McCall’s uncle filed the following year claiming he never got paid for his work.

But McCall and the financial records of the 1911 game would soon spark an even more significant controversy with lasting impact on both schools.

Let’s back up a minute.

Ole Miss coach Nathan Stauffer led the football program to relative success during his first two years in Oxford. That progress was threatened at the start of the 1911 season when he learned several of his players couldn’t afford to stay enrolled at the university. With some of them already planning to leave Oxford, Stauffer reached out to McCall, asking him to visit Oxford on a business trip.

McCall obliged, and after he arrived and discussed the situation with, he decided to use a personal note to cover the fees of five student-athletes, totaling $288. The plan was for the athletics association to liquidate the amount with revenue from the Thanksgiving rivalry game.

“I thought that it would be much better to adjust the matter without forcing these students to leave school and scattering ugly reports all over the south. … This is a personal matter,” McCall wrote in a letter to the treasurer of the university’s athletic association.

Both universities approved game-related expenses to be carried out by McCall and the intercollegiate association. Ole Miss gave him a budget of $500, which McCall assumed was meant to cover the $288.

Shortly after the game, the aforementioned treasurer, who was also a professor in the medical school with Coach Stauffer, reached out to McCall regarding a line item on his expense report that read “Miscellaneous: $288” followed by several question marks. At the time, Ole Miss was a member of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA) which had strict rules forbidding “alumni scholarships” and other forms of supplemental support for student-athletes.

McCall tried to explain his decision to cover the fees early in the season, assuring him Stauffer had no knowledge of the agreement.

The faculty ignored his explanation and accused Stauffer of paying players, resulting in his resignation and the suspension of eight players by the SIAA. Though the faculty later cleared Stauffer and the players in question in 1912, the damage had been done as none of them returned.

Later that year, Ole Miss refused to play the annual Thanksgiving game against its rival as a form of protest to the SIAA deeming their quarterback ineligible days before the game.

The refusal to play, which Kincannon and other university leaders justified in referring to the SIAA’s investigation as a year-long witch hunt, resulted in the team’s suspension.

They wouldn’t play A&M again until 1915, where the team suffered its most devastating loss in Egg Bowl history: a 65-0 loss to the Aggies at the Tupelo Fairgrounds.

The grandstand stayed intact.