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Bob Sanders, Discontent, and Allyn McKeen: How MSU ousted its winningest football coach ever

You might think that fans these days are much more restless with their coaches than in previous years, but what happened to Allyn McKeen in 1948 proves that theory wrong.

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McKeen, pictured right, was the school's most successful coach in history, but even that wasn't enough to save his job
McKeen, pictured right, was the school's most successful coach in history, but even that wasn't enough to save his job
photo used with permission from Mike Nemeth, Mississippi State University

Even though many think of the 1990's as the most productive decade of Bulldog football, it was actually the 1940's that could arguably hold that distinction in Bulldog football history. At that time, the program was led by Allyn McKeen, a former player under Robert Neyland at the University of Tennessee, and a man considered to be a bright young star in college coaching circles. McKeen had just finished up a perfect 10-0 season at West Tennessee State Teachers College (now known as Memphis. Your jokes go here.) when he was tabbed by Athletic Director Dudy Noble for the head coaching position in Starkville.

All McKeen would do in his time at Mississippi State was go 65-13 in nine seasons, including the infamous 1941 team that is still considered by some of us to be National Champions. Here's a look at his gaudy coaching record while in Starkville:

Year Record Conference Record Conference Standing Bowl AP Ranking
1939 8-2 3-2 4th
1940 10-0-1 4-0-1 2nd Orange Bowl (W) 9
1941 8-1-1 4-0-1 1st (champions) 16
1942 8-2 5-2 4th 18
1943 No season World War II
1944 6-2 3-2 5th
1945 6-3 2-3 T-7th
1946 8-3 3-2 5th
1947 7-3 2-2 4th
1948 4-4-1 3-3 7th

Yet despite all of his well-documented success, even McKeen couldn't outrun the pressure to win at a high level year in and year out. After a respectable 7-3 year '47, McKeen's 1948 team suffered a disappointing 4-4-1 record, and that was enough for some fans to begin to grumble. With pressure from alumni, McKeen was let go by Mississippi State, just six seasons after an SEC championship, and with one -- yes ONE -- season of four losses or greater. By today's standards, McKeen's teams would have gone to a bowl every year except for 1948, the season that he was promptly fired after.

But it get's even crazier. Remember we told you that the AD at the time, MSU legend Dudy Noble, fired McKeen partially out of pressure from alumni? That pressure came from former Bulldog Bob Sanders.  Sanders, who played in maroon and white himself, had gained clout in the state, and when he became frustrated with McKeen's coaching efforts, he began a covert operation to have him removed.  The MSU Football Vault book (which is well worth your money, btw) tells it like this:

Former player Bob Sanders had developed financial and political clout in Mississippi, and well-heeled alumnus expected McKeen, Noble and others at Mississippi State to satisfy his every whim.  When McKeen did not, Sanders began the covert process of having him removed.  Sanders used his power to swing board members in his favor and eventually had the wherewithal to have McKeen fired.  Gone was the coach who led Mississippi State to a 65-19-3 record during nine non-losing years. [...]  It would be 16 years before Mississippi State would reach seven wins in a season again.

Wow.  If that last sentence doesn't speak volumes as to the ramifications of McKeen's firing, then I don't know what will.  It would be easy to put all the blame on Saunders, but as it turns out, there had been grumblings about McKeen and even AD Dudy Noble before Saunders went on his mission to have McKeen removed.  Even the students circulated a petition to have McKeen removed, along with Noble.  You are talking about two of the greatest names in MSU's history, and our own students were trying to have them removed.  It's hard to say what was the cause for the students dislike of McKeen, but it has been speculated that it was over McKeen's refusal to transition to a more modern offense, such as the "T" formation.  When it came down to it though, McKeen was essentially ousted over a couple of Egg Bowl losses, a 4-4 season, and one disgruntled alumnus and former player with too much say.

So go ahead and bookmark this article folks for that day when your grandfather says that fans these days are too hasty and want coaches out too quickly. You remind him that in a brief instant of assured insanity in the 1940s, Mississippi State shooed away the best thing that had ever happened to MSU football over one season and man's personalmission to have his say in a program's direction.

For more great reading on MSU's football history, make sure to check out the Mississippi State Football Vault book, available in stores.