Crunch time for Coach O

(Photo by: Gus Stark / LSU Athletics)

For the first time since 1994, LSU football stands at 1-2 after three games. That season 26 years ago marked the end of the Tiger trail for Coach Hudson Hallman. As horrid as that ordeal was, it started better than this one for LSU.

After three games in ‘94, it was apparent that this was Hallman’s best team in his four troubled seasons at Death Valley. His squad opened with a tough but competitive 18-13 loss to No. 15 Texas A&M at Tiger Stadium, then went on the road and belted Mississippi State 44-24.

Game three was the beginning of the end for Curley and Co. as LSU blew a big lead and lost at No. 11 Auburn 30-26 with Jamie Howard throwing three pick six passes to War Eagle defenders.

Game four determined whether Hallman could post his first winning season, and that opportunity was nipped in the bud as South Carolina won 18-17 in Baton Rouge. Hallman finished 4-7 in a year in which his team lost four games by five points or less, prompting Athletic Director Joe Dean to first hire Pat Sulivan, then switch to Gerry DiNardo, who briefly brought back the magic with Curley’s talent.

Hallman lost 28 times in 44 games but possessed some of the best players in LSU history from 1991-94.

His roster included 20 future NFL veterans headlined by Pro Football Hall of Famer Kevin Mawae as well as Eddie Kennison, David LaFleur, Todd Kinchen, Marcus Price and Anthony Marshall.

The current LSU squad is one of the most gifted teams in the land, but has staggered through a COVID haze, dropping two games to teams that are winless against other opponents. Quarterback Myles Brennan has been impressive with 1,112 yards passing but his total is behind collective numbers produced by quarterbacks from Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Missouri.

The Bulldogs, Commodores and Tigers from Mizzou are 2-8 overall, meaning LSU has played the weakest part of its schedule. The hard slog was to start Saturday in Gainesville against Florida, but the game was postponed until December because 21 Gators tested positive for COVID-19.

South Carolina and Auburn, LSU’s next two opponents who have been highly unpredictable weekly, battled Saturday. The Gamecocks scored a 30-22 upset, more proof every team remaining on LSU’s schedule is capable of beating the Tigers.

If LSU finishes with a losing record, it will be stunning for a school that has not had a season with fewer than eight wins in 21 years. And these are the defending national champions with many prominent athletes returning from the greatest team ever featured at the college level.

The LSU defense of 2020 is filled with quality NFL prospects with at least four first round selections and a Top 5 overall pick in Derek Stingley, yet the Tigers have been more porous in three outings than they were in Lou Tepper’s worst days as defensive coordinator in the sad 1999 swan song of DiNardo. The 3-8 debacle to close the last century saw LSU surrender 23.5 points per game. So far in 2020, LSU is giving up 32 points per game.

Ed Orgeron is learning what Hallman and Jerry Stovall experienced in their trials in our state’s most high-profile position. The combination of amazing athletes and low production is a recipe for second guessing coaches for poor strategy. More often, the reason that coaches lose control is that players quit performing to their potential because there is dissension of some kind.

The 2020 team lost top coaches in Dave Aranda and Joe Brady, and Joe Burrow was not only a Heisman Trophy quarterback, but the spiritual leader of the team. Orgeron secured a well-traveled and highly successful defensive strategist in Bo Pelini just as Hallman brought in an offensive coordinator with similar credentials in 1994 in Lynn Amedee.

When team members abruptly left a meeting in September, the bloom fell from the rose of 2019. Orgeron has to find a way for his superstar roster to play harder and smarter to salvage 2020. He has a track record of picking up the pieces after twice performing superbly as an interim coach when Lane Kiffin was canned at USC in 2013 and Les Miles was fired after three games in 2016.

Stovall was National Coach of the Year in 1982 when his team lost three games by a total of seven points. A year later, his squad got steadily worse as the season progressed after starting 2-1 with a 26-point win over Washington and a five-point defeat to Florida State.

LSU finished 4-7 in 1983, leaving Stovall with 22 wins in 44 starts at his alma mater. Twenty-eight of Stovall’s players advanced to the NFL, including Leonard Marshall, Dalton Hilliard, Eric Martin and Alan Risher. Ample talent was insufficient to save Stovall from a near mutiny when Athletic Director Bob Brodhead put him on a game to game evaluation after a 31-17 loss to Florida at home in game four of the ’83 campaign.

That team also showcased an untested quarterback in sophomore Jeff Wickersham, who established school passing records in a disappointing farewell for Stovall, who a few months later was working from his desk at Louisiana National Bank.

Orgeron is in no danger of becoming a banker at 59. He has the comforts of wealth whether he wins or loses, but he is a dogged competitor. This is the moment for him to transfer the fire within him to his troops.

Through three games, he has not succeeded.

Lod Cook 1928-2020

Last week, this column remembered the great LSU alum Lod Cook, who died at 92.

LSU Alumni Association Senior Vice President Amy Parrino, who has been working at LSU since she was a student in 1984, reminded me that President George H.W. Bush joined Presidents Ford and Carter at the opening

of the Lod Cook Center in 1994.

“He was Lod’s favorite,” Parrino recalled.

I can attest to the close relationship between Cook and the first President Bush. Among Lod’s prized possessions was a framed letter from the 41st president, thanking the LSU giant for allowing him to take naps at his Los Angeles home when he traveled west.

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