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When Mississippi State fans rattled their cowbells on Nov. 9, 1974, the person they were trying to rattle the most was Phil Gargis. Auburn’s tough-as-nails starting quarterback from 1974-1976 was under center for the Tigers that day in Jackson, ground zero for the cowbell controversy that still rages today.
“You couldn’t hear anything,” Gargis recalls. “It (the cowbells) interfered, no question.”
Sure, the cowbells had always been annoying — that was the point. But the tradition had grown over the past decade because Mississippi State just kept making participation easier and easier.
In 1964, ironically the first year of a fairly strict SEC rule forbidding SEC fans from cheering too loudly at football games, MSU’s bookstore began selling custom cowbells with handles welded on for easier ringing.
What do you get when you reduce arm muscle fatigue? More cowbell.
What do you get when it’s a close game (featuring three bench-clearing brawls) against a conference rival your team hasn’t beaten in 10 years? The most cowbell.
“It was definitely a little bit louder than normal because it was a tight game,” Gargis says. “They (MSU) were competitive, they had a pretty good year going.”
Auburn’s great 1974 team finished the season 10-2, beating Texas in the Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs finished the season 9-3 and with a Sun Bowl win over North Carolina.
“I think more people were involved because the cowbells had caught on. Everybody was bringing them. And it was just louder.”
And, according to Gargis, “Coach Jordan was just in one of those moods.”
“He came up to me on the sideline and said ‘do not run the play’. He was trying to get the officials to penalize Mississippi State. Two or three times he asked them to quiet them down,” Gargis says. “I’d look over and he’d shake his head ‘no, no don’t run the play’. They ended up giving us a delay of game.”
Gargis himself asked officials to something about the noise at least eight times. After the game, Shug took referee James Artley to task for not doing his duty.
“All he had to do was walk off 15 yards one time and that would have taken care of things,” said Shug, who actually walked onto the field a couple of times to implore Artley to quiet the crowd. “He knew about it (the bells) beforehand and he still didn’t do anything.”
“If we had gotten our butts beat I wouldn’t say anything about this,” Jordan said.
Shug gave Mississippi State credit for “coming back and making one helluva game of it.” But he also blamed the bells for making it as close as it was. That excessive crowd noise rule was being violated with every clang and it was costing Auburn yards, and not just from symbolic protest penalties. Auburn twice jumped off sides. Gargis fumbled on Mississippi State’s six-yard line.
“We had a lot of check offs at the line of scrimmage back then and you just couldn’t hear them,” Gargis says. “It was definitely a factor in the game.”
Mississippi State wound up losing the game, 24-20. They almost lost a tradition in the process.
As he promised in his post-game press conference, Shug wrote SEC Commissioner Boyd McWhorter, who was actually at the game, requesting that cowbells be banned from SEC stadiums. Several months later, they were.
Many of them wound up in Jordan’s office.
“They came c.o.d.” Jordan said a year later. “I’ve got enough to fill a whole section.”
Related: Guess which school tried to buy 1,000 cowbells from Mississippi State to ring at the 1974 Iron Bowl. (Hint: It wasn’t Auburn.)
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