ENGSTER: Stovall Still Making LSU Proud
Earlier this month, Jerry Stovall regaled the annual Louisiana Farmer of the Year event at White Oak Plantation.
Twenty-five years and seven coaches have passed since he left LSU, but Stovall can still stir the masses with recollections of his life of acclaim and despair.
“How many of you have been fired on television?” Stovall asked wistfully in the early moments of his address.
Former Gov. John McKeithen bellowed when Stovall was being fired on Dec. 2, 1983, about the unusual and sinister way LSU was saying goodbye to a true Louisiana hero.
McKeithen controlled the microphone at the LSU System Building a quarter-century ago, but Stovall’s detractors had the votes. On a 13-5 count, Stovall was a given a pink slip by the university that he had brought honor to since his enrollment in the fall of 1959.
Stovall survived his unceremonious departure at the hands of then-LSU athletic director Bob Brodhead. When Brodhead’s life ended 12 years later, Stovall was the only LSU representative at the funeral of Bottom Line Bob. While Brodhead fell from grace as Tiger AD, Stovall became the athletic director at Louisiana Tech. For the last 15 years, the former St. Louis Cardinals’ All-Pro safety has served as president of the Baton Rouge Area Sports Foundation.
Stovall’s career was exceptional, but one of near misses. The West Monroe native finished second to Terry Baker in a close 1962 race for the Heisman Trophy (707 points to 618 points). There were no national championships for Stovall as the Tigers finished third in 1961 and seventh in the final polling of ’62.
Stovall was second to Baker in the NFL Draft of 1963 (Baker taken by the Rams and Stovall next by the Cardinals), and Jerry was fired at his beloved LSU 11 months after being named National Coach of the Year by the NCAA.
When discussions erupt about the validity of Stovall’s firing in 1983, you will get no argument from this corner that Brodhead was brutally determined to fire a holdover from the Paul Dietzel-Charles McClendon era and did everything possible to engineer the outcome and undermine Stovall en route to the December 1983 Board of Supervisors brouhaha.
Stovall supplied the ammunition for Brodhead to hand the firing squad as LSU stumbled to a 4-7 season in 1983, including an 0-6 mark in the SEC. For those who recall the debacle of ’83, LSU played an imposing schedule and lost its opener in a 40-35 track meet vs. Florida State. The following weeks saw the Tigers whip Rice 24-10 and top Washington 40-14 (the Huskies were good enough in ’83 to beat Michigan and USC).
In week four, LSU dropped its SEC opener to Florida at Tiger Stadium. Jeff Wickersham was guiding the Tigers on a possible game-winning drive as the Tigers trailed 24-17 late in the fourth quarter. The Gators’ Wilbur Marshall picked off a Wickersham pass and darted the length of the field, and Florida prevailed 31-17.
With a 2-2 record, Brodhead put Stovall on a “game-by-game evaluation” and notified the media of his edict. A demoralized Tiger team lost five of its next seven games, and Stovall was gone from the Ole War Skule. More time has now elapsed since Stovall’s firing than the 24 years from his arrival as a freshman and departure at age 42.
If he had not been fired in ’83, Stovall had performed so magnificently on the recruiting trail that he quite possibly would still be coach today. Bill Arnsparger and Mike Archer produced a 36-9-3 record from 1984 to 1987 with Stovall signees providing the backbone of their success. After Jerry’s kids were gone, LSU went 33-45 in the seven seasons between 1988 and 1994.
Stovall was railroaded as head coach, but he was not robbed of the 1962 Heisman Trophy. Despite the closest vote for the honor to that time, the award went to the right player. Terry Wayne Baker was born May 5, 1941, in Pine River, Minnesota—five days after Stovall was born in West Monroe.
Forty-six years after his Heisman season, Baker remains one of the greatest athletes to have played college sports. Not only was he a brilliant quarterback who guided the unheralded Beavers to a 9-2 record his senior season, but Baker was also an All-America basketball guard.
He directed Oregon State to the Elite Eight in 1962 and the Final Four in 1963.
Due to Baker, OSU was the best roundball unit in the PAC-8 before John Wooden’s mastery enabled him to win 10 national titles at UCLA, beginning the following season in 1964. Basketball aside, Baker’s statistics at quarterback were off the chart in ’62.
The OSU quarterback passed for a national best 1,738 yards and 15 touchdowns and also led the Beavers in rushing with 538 yards (Stovall led LSU with 368 yards). Baker’s 99-yard run against Villanova in the Liberty Bowl of ’62 remains an NCAA record and will never be broken, though it could potentially be equaled.
Despite his college greatness, the 6-3, 200-pound Baker was a bust in the NFL. He played three seasons for the Los Angeles Rams. As a backup quarterback, Baker passed for 154 yards and rushed for 210 yards in 18 forgettable games in Los Angeles.
Off the field, Baker earned a law degree from the University of Southern California, and at last report he was still practicing his craft in Oregon at age 66. In 1962, Terry Wayne Baker was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, but he has lived out of the spotlight since he carved a college legend in the town of Corvallis.
Stovall, by contrast, has remained in the sporting headlines. He was a three-time All-Pro with St. Louis, but his fellow safety and roommate with the Cardinals, Larry Wilson, was an even brighter NFL star. Wilson was an eight-time All-Pro and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jerry is proof that champions often fall short of the pinnacle. As Stovall approaches his 67th birthday next month, he carries a varied and enviable record of accomplishment that is his alone.
No. 21 was never heralded at LSU in the same way No. 20 was in his day, but Stovall’s setbacks have been handled with grace and class that few men have exhibited under similar circumstances.
Jim Engster is the general manager of Louisiana Network and Tiger Rag. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.