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Remembering ‘The Gunslinger’ of college football, Archie Cooley

Archie Cooley, center, with Jerry Rice, left, and Willie Totten when they were honored at Mississippi Valley State at an awards function in recent years. (Photo courtesy of MVSU)

Archie “The Gunslinger” Cooley, the most unconventional of football coaches, has died at the age of 84, and, frankly, I don’t even know how to begin to describe him. 

So let’s begin like this: There will never be another one. Cooley, which is how he referred to himself so often in the third person, was an original. In the mid-1980s, in Mississippi, he wrestled the college football spotlight away from Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Southern Miss and Jackson State, his alma mater, and shined it ever so brightly on Mississippi Valley State.

Rick Cleveland
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Rick Cleveland

He was a sports writer’s dream. Need a column? Call Cooley. He always delivered. He wore a cowboy hat, usually with a feather in it, and that hat covered a brain that was years and years ahead of all others when it came to offensive football.

Back when most college football teams were running “three-yards-and-cloud-of-dust” offenses, Cooley’s MVSU Delta Devils were spreading the field, never huddling, and throwing the ball on every down and then throwing it some more. The stuff you see big-time college and NFL offenses doing now, he was doing then.

The only thing the Valley Delta Devils had more of than passing plays were nicknames. Cooley was The Gunslinger. Jerry Rice was World, short for All World. Willie Totten, the quarterback, was Satellite. The offense was The Satellite Express. The offensive line was known as Tons of Fun. Vincent Brown, the great linebacker, was The Undertaker. Together, they were a blast.

The first time I saw then in person was Sept. 24, 1984, when they came to Jackson to play one of W.C. Gorden’s terrific Jackson State teams. Valley had scored 86 points in its opener and 77 points in its second game. Rice was catching about 20 passes and four touchdowns a game. Totten’s passing stats were so gaudy that the NCAA chief statistician accused Valley sports information director Chuck Prophet of making them up. Prophet sent the NCAA the game films and said, “Correct me if I’m wrong.” He wasn’t.

So Valley came to Jackson, drawing a crowd of more than 50,000, and on the first offensive play, the Devils flanked four wide receivers in single file to the left side and one wide receiver, the one wearing jersey number 88, to the far right. No. 88 was Jerry Rice and Jackson State had only one defensive back to cover him. 

Well, you know what happened next. Rice ran right past the defender, Totten lofted a pass down the field, which Rice caught and gracefully ran to the end zone a good 10 yards ahead of the defender.

Valley won 49-32. During the game’s final minutes, Cooley paraded up and down the Valley sideline, waving a green and white Valley banner. Valley had not defeated JSU in 30 years. Afterwards, he led the Valley players in a victory lap around the Memorial Stadium. “We’ve done the impossible!” Cooley, a former Jackson State All American center and linebacker, shouted.

“Now I know how they’ve been feeling for the last 30 years,” Cooley said, and he said a lot more.

“Jackson State said they had to score 30 points to win,” he said. “Ha! They would have had to score 50 because we scored 49. I’m gonna talk now because they have to live with it for a year.”

Cooley could ever more talk. He could brag and he could back it up. He was from the old Dizzy Dean school of boasters: “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.” 

Cooley could do it and did.

He was a Laurel native, a graduate of tradition-rich Oak Park High School, also the alma mater of such famous Mississippians as Olympic long jumping champion Ralph Boston and world renowned opera soprano Leontyne Price. Cooley grew up with next to nothing. “A lot of times, growing up, I’d open the refrigerator for something to eat, and the only thing in there was water,” Cooley told me. “So, I’d drink a glass of water and go out and play football.”

He played center and linebacker at Jackson State. He was a defensive coordinator for years at Tennessee State before taking the job at Valley. He said all those years as a defensive coach, he kept a notebook of plays other teams used that he knew he wanted to use when he became a head coach. Clearly, most were passing plays.

And, yes, it helped to have a receiver like Rice and a quarterback like Totten, both now in the College Football Hall of Fame. But Cooley called the shots and he brought the cameras and microphones to Itta Bena, which is Choctaw for “Home in the Woods.” I remember trying to give driving directions from Jackson to Itta Bena to a reporter from The New York Times. He said I lost him at “turn right at the cotton gin.”

That 1984 Valley team was undefeated at the same time SWAC rival Alcorn State was undefeated through mid-October. They were scheduled to play in November in Itta Bena. A young Jackson sports columnist – this one – wrote a column that the game should be moved to Jackson where 50,000 more people could see it. So, they moved it to Jackson and played it on a Sunday. More than 64,000 people attended, which made it the biggest pay day in the history of either school. Marino Casem’s Alcorn State Braves won 42-28 in a game never to be forgotten by anyone who was there.

Cooley would leave MVSU after the 1986 season and go on to coach at Arkansas Pine Bluff, Norfolk State and Paul Quinn College in Dallas. His teams never again rose to the prominence of those Valley teams when CBS, NBC, ABC, The New York Times and Sports Illustrated all found their way to Itta Bena, where they told the story of the highest scoring college football team in history and their leader, the self-proclaimed Gunslinger.

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