Jim Engster recalls Alexander the Great
Today, former LSU All-American Charles Alexander is to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In this column from five years ago, Tiger Rag Columnist Jim Engster reflects on Alexander’s legendary 1977 season.
Aug. 30 marks the 114th anniversary of the birth of the Kingfish in Winnfield. It also marks the date for LSU’s kickoff of the 2007 season against Mississippi State. Steve Myers and Steve Townsend started this publication in 1978 with Charles Alexander gracing the inaugural cover of the magazine.
The first game of the Tiger Rag Era produced a stirring 24-17 victory over Lee Corso’s Indiana Hoosiers before a then record crowd of 78,534 fans at Tiger Stadium. The first contest of the 2007 season should produce a light workout against the Bulldogs of Sylvester Croom.
The main man in ‘78 was Alexander the Great. Others called him “Sweets.” He was Hollywood handsome and packed a magnificent combination of power and speed to emerge as a Heisman Trophy candidate 29 years ago. Billy Sims won the honor that year as LSU’s superstar nursed an assortment of leg injuries en route to a season with 1,172 yards rushing.
On the 28th day of July, the Galveston, Texas native who enjoyed the greatest season by an LSU back, celebrates his 50th birthday. Charles Fred Alexander will be a half-century old in a few days. To many, the year of 1977 is chiseled in the memory bank. That’s when the successor to Billy Cannon and forerunner to Dalton Hilliard and Kevin Faulk galloped through opposing defenses for 1,686 yards in the regular season and added another 197 yards against Stanford in the Sun Bowl.
The 20-year old Alexander galloped for 237 yards against Oregon, added 233 against Wyoming, another 199 vs. Tulane, 183 vs. Vanderbilt and 170 yards vs. Florida. It was a toss-up in 1977 as to whether the best back inAmerica was Earl Campbell of Texas or Charles Alexander of LSU.
Alexander’s NFL career was dashed by the assignments he received from Cincinnati Bengals Coach Forrest Gregg. After drafting the LSU product in the first round, Gregg converted the gifted one into a blocking back to clear the way for the massive Pete Johnson. Most of Alexander’s professional rushes were in short yardage situations. Thus, he never gained more than 702 yards in seven NFL seasons.
Alexander does hold one NFL record for fewest fumbles per carry in a career. In addition to his natural talents as a runner, he rarely coughed up the football. His LSU years began with a disappointing 10-7 loss to Nebraska in 1975 at Lincoln and ended with a tough 20-15 defeat to Missouri in the 1978 Liberty Bowl.
Alexander never played on a team to win more than eight games in a season and never tasted victory in a bowl game, but he is the choice in this corner as the best rusher in LSU history. With world-class speed, he was also durable enough to carry the ball more than 40 times in a game on four occasions as a Tiger.
Defenses were stacked to stop the Tiger tailback, but Alexander made his mark despite a late start to the intricacies of football training. It was assistant coach Jerry Stovall, who taught Charlie how to skip rope as a freshman. He came into his own as a sophomore when he shared time with Terry Robiskie. Together, they rushed for 1,993 yards and in 1976 and 1977 became the first two runners in LSU history to surpass 1,000 yards in a season.
Thirty years ago, Elvis Presley died on Aug. 16th in Memphis and the plane carrying the Lynryd Skynryd band to LSU crashed in McComb, Miss., killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant on Oct. 20th.
Charles Alexander was the headliner in TigerTown in the fall of ‘77. He helped his mates pulverize Rice 77-0 and was in the backfield as LSU staged a furious rally to overcome a 21-0 deficit to beat Ole Miss, 28-21 at Jackson. The Tiger offense, which boasted an offensive line known as the “Root Hogs,” set records that continue to stand for most yards rushing in a season (3,353) and most touchdowns on the ground (35).
Hail to No. 4 for making my first semester at LSU a time to savor. Alexander ruled the college world in 1977 and in the twilight of the coaching tenure of another man named Charles, he made Cholly Mac a happy man.