By JIM ENGSTER | President, Tiger Rag Magazine
LSU football became the focal point of Louisiana in 1958 when dazzling 34-year-old Paul Dietzel sauntered from central casting to lead a Tiger team to an improbable perfect season after struggling to eleven wins in his first three years at the helm of the state’s mother ship. Strolling the sidelines in meticulously tailored suits draping his athletic 6-foot-4 frame, Dietzel emerged as the Cary Grant of coaches.
When Tall Paul flashed his famous smile, fans melted and recruits reported in droves to join the WWII bomber pilot on his new voyage to steer LSU to the front of the pack in college football. The coach was larger than life and bigger than his heaviest player, who was 218 pounds.
Dietzel assembled the most talented team in the land by having two of the game’s great players in his backyard. In 1958, Baton Rougeans Billy Cannon and Johnny Robinson were the backbone of a fabulous collection of characters that also featured another home boy in quarterback Warren Rabb.
The championship season ushered LSU into the modern age and despite a few hiccups along the way, the Tigers have been among the nation’s best programs with nine league titles and three national crowns in the last 59 years. There were setbacks with the departures of Dietzel and Nick Saban, the tragic loss of Bo Rein and the unfortunate hiring of Curley Hallman. But the Ole War Skule has proved resilient to defections, death and despair.
For eighteen of the post-1958 seasons, the man in command was a folksy fellow from rural Arkansas who was not saturated with charisma that his predecessor was. In five of his first ten seasons, Charles McClendon fielded teams that could have won national titles with a few breaks. In the years of 1962, 1967, 1969, 1970 and 1971, LSU was capable of winning it all but was not blessed with the good fortune of the teams of 2003 and 2007.
After the SEC integrated, it took McClendon a few years to catch up with his cohorts, but by the time he was forced out in 1979, Charlie Mac had successfully made the adjustment. African-Americans who played for McClendon speak in the same glowing terms about their leader as white players who were his stalwarts in the 1960s.
LSU currently boasts 51 roster members in the NFL, six more than any other college program. The talent level under Les Miles was as impressive as any school in the country, including Alabama. Under McClendon, LSU was mostly a group of over-achieving players who would not become NFL stars. Bert Jones was the notable McClendon pupil to become the best at his position in professional football. Mac’s other greats, Tommy Casanova and Charles Alexander, were not as dominating at the next level as they were in Death Valley.
Fifty years ago, McClendon was starting his sixth season on a campus with 18,653 students in a city of 171,965 residents. In 1967, the LSU Athletic Director was Harry Rabenhorst, graduate of Wake Forest in 1921. Sports Information Director Bud Johnson noted in the team media guide that 1,500 students still lived in Tiger Stadium. ROTC was mandatory for males on campus.
The last page of Johnson’s football guide noted that the “outlook is optimistic for LSU basketball in 1967-68.” When McClendon led his troops on the field for the opener against Rice on Sept. 23, it was six days after the Saints played their first regular season game (losing to the Rams 27-13 in New Orleans on Sept. 17, 1967) and 70 days away from the varsity debut of Pete Maravich, the greatest showman in the history of collegiate hoops.
USC took the national title of 1967 with a junior transfer running back named O.J. Simpson racing 64-yards in the Los Angeles Coliseum on Nov. 18 to give the Trojans a 21-20 victory over UCLA and Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban. Simpson’s fourth-quarter gallop is remembered in L.A. much like Billy Cannon’s 1959 punt return of 89-yards to beat Ole Miss 7-3 is celebrated in LA.
LSU edged the last undefeated team in the land in 1967 at the Sugar Bowl where the Tigers topped 10-0 Wyoming 20-13. The Tigers of ’67 were ten points from perfection. The quarterback was Crowley senior Nelson Stokley, who was 5’11, 170 pounds. His backup was Mike Hillman, a 6’0, 180-pound sophomore from Lockport.
The most celebrated defenders for LSU a half-century ago were senior defensive end John Garlington, 6’1, 217 pounds, and junior linebacker George Bevan, 5’11, 190 pounds.
Only 32 players, 37-percent of the 1967 roster, were above 200 pounds. The average lineman was under 208 pounds. The heaviest player on the team was 240 pounds.
Fifty years later, the LSU roster has just 26 players under 200 pounds and 18 players who weigh at least 300 pounds, including a 380 pounder.
In a recent column from George F. Will of the Washington Post, the Pulitzer Prize winner details the rise of heft in football with just three players over 300 pounds in the NFL in 1980. Last year, there were 390 players weighing above 300 in the league writes Will with 18 players more than 350 pounds.
College football, like the NFL, is battling an epidemic of former player in the throes of dementia from too many head shots attributed to primitive equipment a couple of generations ago as defensive players were exhorted to lead with their heads when making tackles.
Helmets are safer, techniques are better and concussions are taken seriously, but athletes are faster, stronger and heavier, much heavier. A 20-year-old who is 350 pounds is not likely to be a healthy 50-year old man. Obesity is as much of a health risk as smoking, but girth control is discouraged in football.
In 1967, fans were smoking up a storm in Tiger Stadium. Today, lighting up is officially banned on campus. One challenge has supplanted another as the student body balloons along with the gladiators who represent LSU on Saturday nights.
Orgeron took care of himself, toiled in anonymity for years and ultimately landed his dream job at 55. If he were 100 pounds heavier, Coach O would not be the master of the Tiger kingdom. Keeping fit primed him for an opportunity at an age when coaches once retired or relocated to a cemetery.
LSU President King Alexander trumpets the value of a degree as graduates enter the work force. The salary numbers for LSU grads are impressive, but the highest earning power often comes at the close of a career, not at the beginning. Staying in shape will promote longevity and increase lifetime earnings of alumni.
Alexander regularly plays basketball, and at 53 looks a decade younger than his birth certificate reveals. It would be wise for students to heed the examples of King and Coach O.
How about requiring college football players to play on both sides of the ball and restoring ROTC requirements for students?
Dramatic changes are necessary for the college experience to serve as an exercise for the mind and the body.