ENGSTER: Columnist starts 40th year of reporting on LSU Football

This time of year evokes reflection for many of us who have followed the travails of the Tigers for decades. This year marks the 42nd season since I enrolled at LSU in August of 1977. It is the 40th football season since I made my broadcast debut at campus station WLSU, then a few feet from the visitor’s locker room at Death Valley.

The Bengals of 1979 opened on the road and pounded Colorado 44-0, then routed Rice 47-3, setting up an epic match with defending national champion USC, a team with eleven first round NFL picks and two Heisman winners in the same backfield in Charles White (1979) and Marcus Allen (1981).

The Trojans were more talented than any NFL team. The Southern Cal roster featured four future Pro Football Hall of Famers in Allen, Ronnie Lott, Anthony Munoz and Bruce Matthews. The storied LSU program has produced three Pro Football Hall of Famers in 124 years of football in Steve Van Buren, Y.A. Tittle and Jimmy Taylor.

Charlie McClendon’s final team was devoid of any first round NFL selections, yet would have upset the Trojans if not for a controversial face mask penalty against Benjy Thibodeaux. The call kept a final USC drive alive and enabled the men from Troy to survive the most raucous of nights in TigerTown.

“Tiger Stadium makes Notre Dame look like Romper Room,” muttered battered Trojan Brad Budde as he left the field on Sept. 29, 1979.

The LSU quarterbacks were David Wooley and Steve Ensminger. Woodley didn’t complete a pass, so it was Ensminger who was zipping bullets in the waning seconds into the North end zone. One fastball just missed the grasp of Willie Turner with Ensminger hurling missiles from the USC 30-yard line in a contest fought at fever pitch from start to finish.

It was a defeat that resonates to this day as LSU All-SEC center John Ed Bradley recalled in his remarkable book, “It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium.” Charlie Mac was fuming about the face mask call on his death bed in 2001. If LSU had won, the Tigers might have fared better against 1979 champion Alabama, a 3-0 winner over LSU in November, and 11-1 Florida State, a 24-19 victor over LSU on Homecoming four weeks after the USC disappointment. It was a setback with legs.

What I recall most was what happened on Friday night when several hundred students greeted USC as the Trojans were busing into Tiger Stadium for a pre-game run through. As I peered from the window of WLSU and saw the Trojans entering their locker room, I grabbed a tape recorder and naively walked  into a sea of mammoth players, who were jeered with vigor by the LSU mob.

I didn’t last long in the Trojan quarters as Coach John Robinson acted swiftly when I stuck a microphone in his face as he was addressing his team. The normally cherubic Robinson barked out “You’re not supposed to be in here” as he summoned security to remove me from the premises.

A few minutes later, Robinson, one of the game’s really fine fellows, just shook his head and smiled as he observed the same snot-nosed kid watching his team run through the motions inside Tiger Stadium.  He had to know I was too clumsy to have been a spy for LSU. I saw enough in 15 minutes to determine it was the most impressive group of athletes I’ve witnessed in one place in four decades of reporting.

The USC team was off balance as it took the field in close proximity to a growling Mike the Tiger. It took most of the evening for Robinson’s crew to get its bearings, but Charles White was brilliant with 31 rushes for 185 yards. In the 12 games of his senior season, White cruised for 2,050 yards on 332 carries, an amazing total for a 5-10, 185-pound back.

The next most prolific team to invade Tiger Stadium was the 1988 Miami Hurricanes coached by Jimmy Johnson with a 27-year-old defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. The ‘Canes survived a spectacular rain storm to whip the Tigers 44-3. It was a significant accomplishment against a Tiger team that won the SEC championship, but most importantly Coach Johnson’s perfectly coiffed hair never moved during the torrential downpour.

Miami boasted eight NFL first-round choices as Johnson was a few months short of taking the job as head coach for the Dallas Cowboys. A 31-30 loss at South Bend prevented Miami from capturing a second consecutive national title.

Ed Orgeron has been part of four teams to claim national titles with Miami in 1989 and 1991 and USC in 2003 and 2004. Coach O starts this season ranked 17 slots behind opening night foe, No. 8 Miami. A win over the Hurricanes would make LSU a national contender while a loss will have the restless Tiger Nation fearing a lackluster season, quite reminiscent of the stakes against USC in ’79.

Much is in the balance Sunday at Dallas.

Salute to Fraser Landreneau is appropriate tribute

A live oak endowment positioned in the shadows of the LSU Journalism School honors the gifted surgeon Fraser Landreneau, who died seven years ago at age 43. Landreneau adroitly performed an operation on this writer 14 years ago after I broke my neck in a car accident.

The C2 fracture was similar to the Hangman’s fracture that paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve. Landreneau asked me to pray with him as I was being rolled into surgery. And I did.

An operation termed the trans-oral odontoid screw placement enabled me to shed a halo that I had worn for 95 days with four bolts inserted in my head and a vest tied tightly to my torso. Landreneau’s skill provided me with range of motion that fusion would not have allowed.

I owe recovery to Dr. Landreneau and Dr. Allen Joseph, who was the quarterback of the surgery team. Landreneau succumbed to pancreatic cancer after a gallant fight in 2011.

The inscription on his plaque reads “In Memory of Fraser E. Landreneau, MD. February 9, 1968- November 7, 2011. LSU Team Neurosurgeon, Husband, Father, Friend and Epic Tailgater.”

James Moran now the Maestro of Tiger Rag

Tiger Rag lost its editor of the last three years to LSU last week as Cody Worsham departed for a post as a writer at the University. Cody is a rare talent and will be missed. Do not be surprised if Worsham is the next Sports Information Director at his alma mater.

The good news for Tiger Rag readers is that veteran associate editor James Moran has stepped up a rung to the editor’s post and brings more than four years’ experience as the stalwart of our staff. We wish James well and are confident he will lift the publication to a new level as Tiger Rag celebrates 40 years with multiple platforms for subscribers in more than 40 states, on newsstands throughout Baton Rouge and online every day of the year.

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