ENGSTER: Expect drama as LSU decides its next football coach

By JIM ENGSTER
President, Tiger Rag Magazine

When LSU fires football coaches, the process of canning the old guy and introducing the new fellow typically takes a few weeks.

Bill Arnsparger was blessed as the new Tiger grid boss on Dec. 2, 1983, minutes after Athletic Director Bob Brodhead coaxed the LSU Board of Supervisors to vote 13-5 to fire Jerry Stovall. The same panel voted 17-1 for Arnsparger, who at age 55 brought a resume’ that included an NFL worst 7-28 record in two and one-half disastrous seasons as head coach of the New York Giants.

Seven years later, Curley Hallman was quickly summoned from Southern Mississippi when Mike Archer was sacked after four seasons at Death Valley. The 43-year-old Hallman led USM to a 23-11 mark in three years with Brett Favre as his quarterback.

Hallman was sent packing after four tortured seasons that produced a 16-28 mark, and LSU Athletic Director hired 44-year-old Pat Sullivan of TCU to replace Hallman. A buy-out clause then caused Sullivan to remove his name from the roll call of LSU coaches. Dean made 42-year-old Gerry DiNardo his second choice even though DiNardo lost his last game at Vanderbilt 65-0 to Tennessee.

DiNardo was axed in 1999 and within a month, 48-year-old Nick Saban was plucked from Michigan State. It took five years for Saban to answer the call from the NFL and move to Miami with 51-year-old Les Miles chosen as his successor on the day Saban coached his last game for the Tigers.

Charles McClendon was fired in the middle of the 1978 campaign, but given another 15 months to twist in the wind as AD Paul Dietzel went shopping for “the best young coach in America.” Dietzel offered the job to Bobby Bowden, who came close to bolting Florida State. Tall Paul settled on 34-year-old Bo Rein of North Carolina State.

Forty-two days later, Rein’s plane crashed in the Atlantic Ocean more than a thousand miles off course. Dietzel selected an LSU hero to take control amid upheaval at East Stadium. Two days later, 38-year-old Jerry Stovall was unveiled as the successor to Rein on a dark Saturday at the LSU System Building.

The mother of all coaching searches came in 1986 when Arnsparger resigned at the end of an SEC championship run to become athletic director at Florida. Arnsparger pushed for his defensive coordinator, Mike Archer, to be selected as head coach with enthusiastic support of Chancellor Jim Wharton.

The LSU Board was primed to install Archer when member Marianne Freeman recommended a two-week national search in December of 1986 to see if another candidate emerged with better credentials than LSU’s 33-year-old assistant.

Most observers thought LSU would pitch a shutout for any qualified applicants to publicly take part in a cattle call and seek a job that was a longshot at best.

Candidates were paraded before the media into the LSU System building just a few days before Christmas to make their cases on why they should be selected instead of Archer.

It was a recipe for disaster, but somehow a number of qualified coaches landed on LSU’s doorstep, begging for an opportunity to take charge of one of the top programs in the country.

The most memorable personality to make the trek down Sorority Row to appear before the LSU Athletic Council was Steve Spurrier, who had logged three years as head coach of the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL and had posted a 3-0 record as a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback at Florida against the powerful LSU teams of 1964-66.

Others making their cases to become LSU coach were veteran NFL mentor Sam Rutigliano and University of Louisiana-Lafayette coach and former LSU quarterbacking stalwart Nelson Stokley.  The man from Crowley enjoyed substantial support after leading Clemson to a national title as offensive coordinator and directing USL to a winning season in first year with the Cajuns in 1986.

Suddenly it appeared Archer was no shoo-in, and the Athletic Council was instructed to provide three finalists for the LSU Board to consider. It was speculated that Archer would be on the list with two other members from the trio of Spurrier, Rutigliano and Stokley.

Spurrier and Rutigliano were so confident they were about to be hired that on Monday night, Dec. 22, 1986, they were meeting with well-wishers in separate corners of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. The 53-year-old Rutigilano was detailing his first moves as coach at a table with Ruth’s owner Tom Moran and Tiger Rag Publisher Steve Myers.

Spurrier was commiserating across the room with friend Donald Ray Kennard. Spurrier had the look of a winner as he flashed his famous smile and informed Tiger fans that he was primed for greatness at 41 with LSU the final destination in his pursuit of excellence.

Stokley was working the phone with Board member Gordon Dore,’ expressing eagerness to return to his alma mater and direct LSU to its first national title in 29 years. A buoyant Dore’ blitzed into Baton Rouge from Acadiana a few hours later anticipating the elevation of the 42-year-old Stokley as the Tiger leader.

The afternoon of Dec. 23 proved to be an exercise in Louisiana politics that would make Huey Long proud. The Athletic Council in an obvious bid to help the cause of Archer snubbed Spurrier, Rutigliano and Stokley and chose its three finalists: Archer, Georgia Offensive Coordinator George Haffner and Denver Broncos Offensive Coordinator Mike Shanahan.

In retrospect, Shanahan would likely have been a successful coach at LSU, and Spurrier might have constructed a dynasty in TigerTown.

The LSU Board elevated Archer two days before Christmas of 1986. After two years, Archer was 18-5-1 with an SEC title and the first ten-win season in 26 years. The bottom then fell out of the program, and LSU suffered through eight losing seasons in eleven years to close the Twentieth Century.

Along came Saban, and LSU is now so potent on National Signing Day that anything short of a national title contention every year is unacceptable. That’s why Les Miles was dumped with a 114-34 record.

Ed Orgeron is striving to show that a robust 55-year-old should be the chosen one, but if the past is any indication, the next head coach will need to navigate challenging minefields to secure the most coveted position in Louisiana: head football coach at LSU.

About James Moran 1377 Articles
James Moran was Editor of Tiger Rag from August 2018 to October 2019. He previously served as the associate editor since 2014. He is a graduate of the LSU Manship School of Journalism.

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