By GLENN GUILBEAU
The passing of classic LSU coach Paul Dietzel Tuesday made me think of something I often think of when the 1958-59 period of LSU football comes up.
In my "Back To The Future,” I’m going to Tiger Stadium. Could you imagine revisiting Highway 61 in a ’57 Chevy and heading west from New Orleans on the afternoon of Oct. 31, 1959, with a national championship in your rearview mirror and another one surely on the way with a Heisman to boot?
This was LSU’s mythological period. Only it was true. Dietzel was the leading man, and had the looks for it right into his 80s. The defense had one of the greatest nicknames in the history of sport – "The Chinese Bandits,” named after a cartoon strip. The tailback’s name was Cannon, who played like one. He was also Dietzel's roguish prince who helped forge Tiger Stadium as the swampy and spooky ultimate Saturday Night Live of football by returning a punt for a touchdown to beat Ole Miss on Halloween Night in 1959 that is still replayed every year.
You can’t make this up. Frank Capra couldn’t make this up.
There has never been another undefeated LSU season since 1958. LSU has never been ranked No. 1 for as many weeks as it was in ’58 and ’59, and no one but Cannon has ever won a Heisman Trophy. These were "Happy Days” and nights.
Friday was not of those days. Dietzel was laid to rest at 89. Members of LSU’s Greatest Generation wept. He was the last surviving member of the staff that came to LSU in 1955 and brought LSU higher than ever. It took LSU 45 years to repeat as national champions.
"It’s another loss," said Lynn LeBlanc, a starting offensive tackle in ’58 and ’59 out of Crowley who later became an assistant under Charles McClendon. "It seems like its one after another."
The first Monday of every month, LeBlanc and the others met at La Madeleine’s restaurant on Jefferson Highway with their coach until only recently. Warren Rabb, an All-Southeastern Conference quarterback in 1958 who grew up in a house on Government Street near Calandro’s grocery and went to Baton Rouge High across the street, went regularly.
LeBlanc was Rabb’s left tackle on the White Team, the first unit of offensive stars who wore white tops in Dietzel's innovative platoon system that helped LSU win the 1958 national championship team. LeBlanc was an LSU assistant from 1969-79 and has remained here.
Jerry Stovall, an All-American tailback from West Monroe who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1962 and was LSU's head coach from 1980-83, attended the La Madeleine meetings as well along with Don "Scooter” Purvis, a tailback from Crystal Springs, Miss., who played from 1957-59. Both live in Baton Rouge.
"We’d have breakfast and talk about old times and what we were doing,” Rabb said.
The coach they were meeting with was the same coach they met with as teen-agers and young adults in the 1950s at LSU. Dietzel was born in Fremont, Ohio, but, like so many of his players not from here and from here, he made his last home in Baton Rouge.
"He was a little sentimental the last time I went a couple of months ago,” LeBlanc said. "We’d go around the table and we’d each say what we were up to. He’d always kind of choke up a little bit and couldn’t say anything. I got the feeling he knew he wasn’t going to be coming to see us anymore.”
Dietzel developed a blood disorder that eventually claimed his life.
"I thought he still looked pretty good, maybe just a little weaker the last time I saw him,” Rabb said. "He was still real sharp, but you never knew if he was in as good a shape as you thought he was.”
LeBlanc had planned to go see him just recently but said he didn’t get around to it. "I also kind of wanted to remember him as being vibrant and looking good. That’s how he always was,” he said.
"Oh gosh, this is a sad day,” Rabb said. "One thing I’ve been thinking about coach was how much I really respected him. I thought he was top notch. He was not only a great coach, but a great man. I never will forget him coming to my house to recruit me. I had hurt my knee my senior year, and he and Carl Maddox (an assistant who would later become athletic director and who has also passed away) came by to see how I was doing. And they said they had a scholarship for me. He was a great recruiter. He could convince you of things."
They were planning a gala 90th birthday party for Dietzel next year on Sept. 5 - the Friday night before LSU’s first home game of 2014 against Sam Houston State.
LeBlanc remembers those Friday nights when he was an LSU player.
"He’d come by and get us at the athletic dorm and we’d walk over to Tiger Stadium, and we’d watch a movie he picked out in the film room,” he said. "It was always a war movie. People fighting, always a lot of action. Then he'd stop under this big oak tree on the way back to the dorm and talk to us about the game the next day. He was a great motivator. He knew how to talk to you.”
Dietzel knew the movie material. He flew World War II bombing missions in a B-29 Superfortress over Japan in the Army Air Corps, which later became the Air Force.
"We all really admired him about that,” LeBlanc said. "A lot of coaches at that time had been in the war. Knowing Coach Dietzel gave us a chance to be a part of that.”
Dietzel built a Superfortress at LSU – 11-0 national champions in 1958 ... No. 1 in the nation from late October, 1958, through early November, 1959 ... undefeated from Nov. 30, 1957, through Friday night, Nov. 6, 1959 ... 9-2 in 1959 ... 10-1 SEC champs in 1961 with a No. 4 finish and 25-7 win over No. 7 Colorado in his last game in the Orange Bowl.
All that after he inherited a team that had gone 3-7, 3-5-2 and 5-6 in the three seasons before him.
"When he left, he left a solid foundation,” LeBlanc said.
"Coach Dietzel was an extremely well organized coach and took great pride in being organized and extremely well prepared,” said Stovall, an All-SEC tailback on Dietzel’s SEC championship team in 1961 who would later coach under him at South Carolina. Dietzel, who was also South Carolina's athletic director while the coach, returned to LSU from 1978-82 as athletic director and considered becoming head coach again when his hire to replace McClendon - Bo Rein - died in a plane crash just weeks after being named coach in January of 1980. He was talked out of it, though, and Stovall got the job.
"We lost not only a great coach, but a great man and a great person,” Rabb said. "I’ll be forever grateful for what he did for me.”
Dietzel was just 30 but well accomplished when he became LSU’s coach in 1955. He left an assistant's job on Red Blaik’s staff at Army, where Vince Lombardi was a fellow assistant, to come to LSU. Dietzel had also worked under Bear Bryant at Kentucky in 1951 and ’52 and under Sid Gillman, who used a platoon system, at Cincinnati in 1949-50. He was an All-American center at Miami of Ohio – the cradle of coaches.
"Coach Dietzel was a great organizer and a great motivator,” LeBlanc said. "There was never a wasted minute at his practices. No standing around, and that was somewhat new then. If he had stayed at LSU, he could have been as successful as Bear Bryant.”
Dietzel was fired at Army after going 21-18-1, including an 8-11-1 mark over his last two seasons. He won South Carolina’s only Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 1969 with a 7-4 record, including 6-0 in the league. But he was fired after the 1974 season with a 42-53-1 record.
Dietzel was 46-24-3 in seven seasons at LSU, including 35-7-1 over his last four years. Had he stayed at LSU and averaged eight wins a year from 1962 through 1995, he would have had 328 wins in 41 seasons at the age of 71. Bryant retired from Alabama after the 1983 season at age 70 with 323 wins in 38 seasons. It was Dietzel who beat Bryant in the Bear's first game as Alabama's coach on Sept. 27, 1958, at Ladd Stadium in Mobile, Ala., 13-3. He finished 1-0 against Bryant because during this first golden era of LSU football because at the time the Tigers didn't play Alabama regularly. ... Even then, Bama got scheduling breaks.
Unlike Bryant, Dietzel had many interests and talents outside of football. The lyrics he rewrote for the South Carolina fight song in 1968 remain today. He continued in athletic administration as the commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference in 1976, as athletic director at Indiana in 1977 and ’78 and as LSU’s athletic director from 1978-82 before being fired amid budget problems. He later became athletic director at Samford in Birmingham, Ala., from 1985-87.
Dietzel kept a vacation home in the mountains near Boone, N.C., with his wife Anne and became a watercolor painter and ran a general store there in the 1990s. After moving back to Baton Rouge for his golden years, Dietzel wrote a book in 2008 called, "Call Me Coach: A Life in College Football.”
Texas coach Mack Brown got to know Dietzel when Brown was the Appalachian State head coach in Boone, N.C., in 1983. "He was a man for all seasons,” Brown once said.
"I don’t think you can really talk about LSU sports without Paul Dietzel coming up,” said LSU assistant athletic director Sam Nader, who was an assistant coach at LSU when Dietzel was athletic director. "He was a pacesetter in football and in the overall sports program here.”
Dietzel left LSU for another mission - to try to revive the once proud Army program as he felt it was his duty. That crashed and burned, but the foundation he had put down at LSU lasted for a dozen seasons as McClendon skillfully kept it going.
For 12 seasons after Dietzel left, LSU had winning seasons under McClendon, who was promoted from Dietzel’s staff to replace him. Counting the last four seasons of Dietzel, that was 16 straight winning seasons. LSU will have its 14th straight winning season this year - still two short.
Dietzel’s career and LSU would have soared among or above the greatest through the 1970s, '80s and beyond - right up there with Bear and Alabama - had he stayed at LSU.
Dietzel probably did the math at some point. He could have been LSU's Bear. But duty had called him, and maybe he always knew he was not a coaching lifer. So you can’t blame him for leaving.
But you can credit him for getting the LSU Superfortress started.