(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 205-209)
In the early 1950s, many students were caught up in the excitement of extracurricular activities, especially cheering for their championship Mulerider football teams and their new mule mascot, Optimaggie. After Coach Elmer Smith’s great teams of 1947 and 1948, who together had a combined win-loss-tie record of 17–3–2, fans expected more victories but instead suffered through a 3–7 season in 1949. It appeared that 1950 would be more of the same when the team lost the first four games.
Suddenly, the year turned around, beginning with the homecoming game on October 14, 1950. On that evening, the Magnolia Optimist Club presented a Sicilian mule (a donkey) to Dr. Camp for use as the school’s mascot. When the football program was discontinued in the 1930s and again in the Second World War, the practice of having a mule (often with a rider) at games had disappeared. The new mule, named Optimaggie (a combination of Optimist and Aggie), restored that tradition. Optimaggie was a stubborn burro like the one famed World War II cartoonist Bill Maldin portrayed with weary GIs in the war in the mountains of Italy. During SSC football games, Optimaggie
would bray loudly as though he were cheering on the Muleriders, but he sometimes brayed at the wrong times, interrupting local ministers’ prayers that preceded kickoffs in those days.
In accepting the gift of Optimaggie for the school, Dr. Camp predicted that the mule would so raise the players and fans’ spirits and fortunes that they would lose no more games. Whether or not it was Optimaggie’s presence, the result was indeed a remarkable turnaround and a winning streak for the rest of the season. The team had a 6–4–1 record in 1950 and 5 more straight victories in 1951 (11 wins in all) before it lost another game, that one to a non-conference team from Louisiana. In fact, from October 14, 1950, until September 26, 1953, the Muleriders racked up a string of seventeen victories in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference (AIC). When SSC lost to College of the Ozarks in 1953, many fans attributed the defeat to the fact that it was the first AIC game not attended by Optimaggie.
The Magnolia Kiwanis Club had purchased a $1,500 trailer for the mascot in 1951. Painted blue and gold and with Optimaggie’s name in bold letters, the trailer transported him to away games. But for some reason, he was not taken to Clarksville to see the Muleriders play the Mountaineers of Ozarks on the night the winning streak ended. Optimaggie was later mated with a jennet and sired a son in 1954 who was named Adolphus (for SSC president Dr. Dolph Camp). For almost two decades, both father and son regularly appeared at all home games, but over time they attended fewer road (or away) games.
Almost every year during the 1950s, students from other schools tried to steal Optimaggie during the week before crucial games. This act was quickly labeled “mule napping” and often led to retaliatory raids by SSC students to get the mule back and strike a blow—usually with paint—against the opposing college. Optimaggie was successfully abducted by Arkansas A&M in 1950, Arkansas Tech in 1954, Henderson State in 1955, and Northeast Louisiana in 1956. There apparently were other unrecorded thefts. Optimaggie was not difficult to take from his special enclosure at Mulerider Stadium. It was on the edge of campus and unguarded unless students took special precautions. The abductions or attempted abductions happened so often, so the story goes, that in the late 1950s when the Muleriders lost many games, dispirited SSC students did not bother to go after the mule, forcing thieves to bring him back themselves just to get rid of the mule.
In 1950, the reaction to the first abduction was quite different. Before the annual Thanksgiving game between archrivals SSC and Arkansas A&M at Monticello, A&M fraternity brothers took Optimaggie during the night of November 20. The next day they paraded the animal across their campus, bragging that the Boll Weevils had “the game in the bag.” This taunt, reported in the press, prompted some two hundred Mulerider students to stage a counter raid. The fraternity boys, however, were prepared and sprang a trap, capturing scores of raiders whose hair was promptly shaved. After being forced to cheer for Monticello and to pose for a photo in their shorn condition that appeared in the Arkansas Gazette, the captives were released.
On game day at Monticello, November 23, tempers remained frayed. The large crowd of five thousand spectators was fully engaged in the afternoon contest. When the fraternity brothers appeared with Optimaggie intending to return the mule, Mulerider fans misunderstood and rushed over to start a fight. But for prompt action by local police and state troopers a riot might have resulted. That Thanksgiving Day football game was “the hardest hitting game I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Kathryn Brown a half century later. When Mulerider end Doyle Wallace broke the star Boll Weevil player’s leg, she said, “You could hear it crack up in the stands.” The Muleriders won the game 21–14, reclaimed Optimaggie, and took home the goat, M-Aggie, too. Writing in the faculty bulletin, Dean Graham exulted, “Sweet Vengeance—Our Cup Runneth Over.”
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When Coach Elmer Smith fielded his first SSC team in 1951, he finally had more experienced players than in his junior college years. His 1951 and 1952 teams won back-to-back AIC championships and stirred enormous fan loyalty and support. The Muleriders perhaps never again enjoyed as much enthusiasm as in the early 1950s before the distractions of Saturday night television and radio broadcasts of Arkansas Razorbacks’ games began to compete for attention. Mulerider Stadium was packed at every game. Moreover, games were fully reported by some of the most avid sportswriters ever to write for the Bray, including Harold Jameson, Mack Taylor, and Jim Bailey.
The 1951 and 1952 teams were led by sensational quarterback Louis Sanford whose frequent pinpoint passing was unusual in an era dominated by running plays. The pass-catching and open-field running of backs Donald Crews, Grady Cathey, and Jimmy Culp combined with the bruising straight-ahead plunges of fullback Roy Ledbetter to provide an unstoppable offense. The aggressive defensive play of Rip Powell, Paul Grayson, Orin Thornton, and others was equally powerful. A crucial test came in 1951 when the team played Arkansas Tech at SSC’s homecoming on October 6. The Muleriders had not defeated Tech since 1932. This time the Muleriders crushed the Wonder Boys, holding them to only two first downs and seventeen yards rushing. The final score was 27–0. In both the 1951 and 1952 seasons, only the Thanksgiving game with the Boll Weevils stood in the way of claiming AIC titles. The Muleriders prevailed both times by wide margins. The team could have repeated for a third AIC championship but for a heartbreaking loss to Monticello at the 1953 Thanksgiving game.
The talent of Coach Elmer Smith was recognized everywhere. A creative thinker, Smith had developed a “no-name formation” which he described as a combination of the T formation, the wingback, and the box developed by Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. Whatever it was, it worked for him and his teams. He was named Coach of the Year in 1951 and in 1952 was seriously considered, along with Bear Bryant, for the position as head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks.