By JIM ENGSTER | President, Tiger Rag Magazine
It was Sunday, June 12, 1977 that I arrived at LSU for summer testing in preparation for enrollment at the Ole War Skule two months later. Four decades ago tonight, “The Silver Streak” was playing at the Varsity across the street from Pleasant Hall where I was residing for a few days. I could see the marquee from the theater as I looked from the window of building named in honor of the 36th governor of the state and the captain of LSU’s first football team.
A host at Pleasant Hall informed us that Elvis Presley had recently performed at the Assembly Center on May 31. The adoring throng was part of history because the King of Rock and Roll was 65 days from death at age 42. Presley was born the year that Huey Long was assassinated, and the influence of the Kingfish on the LSU campus remains relevant today.
When Huey was killed 82 Septembers ago, LSU was in the process of winning its only back to back SEC football titles as the Tigers took SEC honors in 1935-36. In 1977, LSU football was the dominant sport on campus and was led by an embattled coach in 53-year-old Charles McClendon. On the field, Mac’s teams had won just 15 of their previous 36 games entering his 16th season. McClendon was optimistic he could turn the program around with a superb offense featuring the brilliant tailback Charles Alexander, who would run for 1,883 yards in 12 games in 1977.
The fortunes of Charlie Mac took a disastrous turn on opening day in Bloomington, Ind. Lee Corso’s Hoosiers upset LSU 24-21 as Indiana Athletic Director Paul Dietzel watched in amazement. LSU brass convinced Tall Paul he should return home after a 15-year absence. Dietzel was back in TigerTown a year later. He was lured back as athletic director to fire his longtime friend, McClendon.
McClendon’s troops rebounded from the debacle at IU by blasting Rice 77-0 in their home opener as Tiger Stadium was filled to its capacity of 67,000. No LSU team has won a game by such a commanding margin since the night of Sept. 24, 1977 when Tiger zealots were shouting, “We want a 100,” as LSU sat on the ball at the Rice goal line to close the night. Carlos Carson snared five touchdown passes and Alexander cruised for 155 yards before calling it a night in the first half. Alexander would have likely surged for 400 yards if he remained in the backfield for four quarters.
The Tigers were in contention for the SEC championship until falling to Alabama 24-3 at Death Valley on November 5. The Tide was led by 64-year-old Bear Bryant, who had won four national titles at Alabama 40 years ago. Curiously, Alabama is now directed by 65-year-old Nick Saban, winner of four NCAA crowns at Tuscaloosa.
Unfortunately for McClendon and for LSU, Bryant still had two more championships to come in 1978 and 1979, the last one achieved as McClendon closed a 2-14 record against his mentor with a tenacious 3-0 slugfest against ‘Bama on Nov. 10, 1979. It was the closest call for the Bear in a 12-0 season.
Ed Orgeron will be 55 when LSU opens this season, and like Mac, his stock will rise or fall on his performance against Alabama. McClendon’s winning percentage against the Tide was 12.5 percent. Against everybody else, Mac boasted a winning clip of 75 percent, winning 135 of 180 games.
The program is in superb shape, but LSU is a decade removed from its last national title in 2007. Forty years ago, LSU was 19 years past the perfect season of 1958, and the remnants of Billy Cannon and the Chinese Bandits lingered over Death Valley for 45 years.
In the summer of ’77, LSU was on the brink of its greatest success on the basketball court. Forty-one-year-old Dale Duward Brown was starting his sixth season with a remarkable collection of talent. His stable of athletes included Kenny Higgs and Rudy Macklin from Kentucky; DeWayne Scales from Texas; Lionel Green, Ethan Martin and Jordy Hultberg from Louisiana; Willie Sims and Al Green from New York and Greg Cook from New Jersey.
Green and Cook were ineligible for the 1977-78 season, but LSU started to soar and was one of only two teams to defeat national champion Kentucky. The Tigers nipped Joe B. Hall’s Wildcats 95-94 with all five starters on the bench because of fouls. LSU finished second to Kentucky in the SEC and won the league title the following season, starting a streak of 15 straight post-season appearances that included four SEC banners and two Final Four journeys.
Current Tigers Coach Will Wade is 34 years old and was born more than a year after Brown and Co. posted a 31-5 mark on the way to the 1981 Final Four, highlighted by a school record 26-game winning streak. LSU was 17-1 in the conference in the 1980-81 season. Since its last conference basketball title, LSU is 54-84 in the league (12-36 under Trent Johnson and 42-28 under Johnny Jones). The program is nowhere close to where it was positioned 40 years ago. Wade has some work to do.
It is on the baseball diamond where LSU is light years ahead of the Tigers of four decades ago. LSU had captured the 1975 SEC Championship under Jim Smith, and the program steadily declined after that campaign. Smith doubled as the equipment manager for the football team, and his program would post its worst season in 1978, going 12-34.
After Smith departed, Jack Lamabe was selected and did the best he could with limited resources. He converted the terrible Tigers of 1978 into a 34-20 club in his debut season, but was unceremoniously canned in a newspaper classified listing by Athletic Director Bob Brodhead in 1983. Under the primitive conditions he toiled under, Lamabe’s record of 134-115 was just short of heroic.
The neglect of baseball stopped when Miami assistant Skip Bertman answered Brodhead’s ad and took the job in 1984. Bertman presided over the most successful 18-year period in SEC history. His teams made eleven College World Series appearances, won seven SEC crowns and five CWS championships.
Paul Mainieri coaches in a more competitive league today, but he is on his way to a fifth CWS. Mainieri has the thankless chore of being compared to Bertman, but LSU remains the envy of the nation by dominating the country in attendance figures and producing consistent national contenders.
Eight years have passed since Mainieri won in Omaha. The 2017 unit has the look of a champion, and it’s time for LSU to return to the winner’s circle. The Tigers have produced only one team championship in any sport since the 2009 CWS triumph. The LSU Golf team won national honors in 2015.
When this writer rolled into campus 40 years ago in a 1973 Dodge Duster, LSU boasted a grand total of eight national titles—1933 track and field; 1935 men’s basketball; 1940, ’42, ’47 and ’55 men’s golf; 1949 boxing and 1958 football.
Twenty-nine years passed between Dietzel’s NCAA football crown of 1958 and Loren Seagrave’s 1987 national titles for women’s indoor and outdoor track and field. Now LSU administrators are forever judged by the 37 national titles won by LSU athletes from 1987-2008. Mainieri is primed to hoist another CWS trophy at Rosenblatt Stadium.