By JIM ENGSTER
President, Tiger Rag Magazine
Forty-five years ago, Charles McClendon assembled a promising team to kickoff at home against Colorado as Mac began his 10th season as LSU coach. His 1971 unit featured College Football Hall of Famers Tommy Casanova and Bert Jones. The Tigers began the season as an expected national title contender after winning the SEC in 1970 and losing three games by a combined margin of 10 points, including an epic 3-0 setback to Notre Dame in South Bend and a 17-12 defeat to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, a win which gave the Cornhuskers the national championship.
The ’70 season was highlighted by wins over Alabama, a 14-9 triumph in Birmingham, and a 61-17 demolition of Ole Miss and Archie Manning at Tiger Stadium. The ’71 opener saw LSU favored by more than a touchdown over a Colorado team that had posted an 8-3 mark in 1970 and finished No. 15 nationally. Casanova was featured on the cover of the pre-season issue of Sports Illustrated with a caption hailing him as the best player in the nation.
LSU entered the campaign with a well-deserved reputation as being almost impossible to run against. The 1969 Tigers had allowed fewer than 300 yards rushing the whole season, and LSU had surrendered just two rushing touchdowns in the preceding seasons of 1969 and 1970.
On the night of Sept. 11, 1971, a sophomore running back making his varsity debut, Colorado’s Charles Davis, ripped the LSU defense for 174 yards as the Buffaloes upset the Bengals 31-21 in Tiger Stadium. Davis was one of a number of black players on the Colorado roster. This is notable because the 1971 Tigers were the last All-White varsity football team at LSU. It was a superb LSU team that finished 9-3, but national title dreams ended on opening night.
LSU pounded an integrated Notre Dame team 28-8 late in the season as the Irish took the field with the first black quarterback to play at Tiger Stadium, Cliff Ellis. The Bengals dominated the visitors from South Bend but were no match for the men from Boulder. Colorado finished third in the final polls of 1971 behind Big 8 brothers Nebraska and Oklahoma, whose top players were also African-Americans in Rich Glover of the Cornhuskers and Greg Pruitt of the Sooners.
Nebraska won its second straight national crown with a pulverizing 38-6 win over previously unbeaten Alabama in the Orange Bowl, while Oklahoma finished second after whipping Auburn 40-22 in the Sugar Bowl. The SEC got the message loud and clear that it was time to include black players to be competitive with the best schools in the country.
LSU integrated its football roster the following year with sophomores Mike Williams and Lora Hinton joining the varsity. Since that moment in time, LSU teams have fielded more African-American athletes year after year.
The integration of the LSU football program is an amazing accomplishment in a state with vestiges of the Jim Crow South. LSU football is the top brand name in the state of Louisiana and retains an overwhelmingly white season ticket clientele. A walk through the suites in Tiger Stadium on any given Saturday will find only a handful of black fans cheering a team that is largely black in composition.
As LSU was welcoming its first black football players to campus as freshmen in 1971, the University of Michigan squad coached by Bo Schembechler had been integrated for decades. His roster in the early 70s included an offensive lineman who had competed with blacks on an undefeated team while in high school. Les Miles was one of two big stars on the Elyria, Ohio team of 1971. The other was running back “Dynamite” Ike Maxwell, a black standout who enrolled at the University of Miami.
While LSU was segregated in 1971, a prep team 1,084 miles away in Ohio had 15 African-Americans on its roster and outscored the opposition 336-44. This is a significant factoid because the current LSU head coach has been enormously successful in part because of his comfort with black athletes, a feeling that has been reciprocated by the players’ interaction with Coach Miles.
When Nick Saban arrived in TigerTown in November of 1999, he inherited a program that had posted eight losing campaigns in the previous eleven seasons. His first squad in 2000 produced an 8-4 record with a roster that was at long last majority African-American.
LSU has boasted a record of 160-48 since 2000 with four SEC titles and two national titles. Those accomplishments would not have been possible without an array of superb black athletes.
Ten years after Mike Williams became the first black football starter for LSU, Jerry Stovall led a team that came within eight points of being undefeated. The 1982 LSU squad featured a plethora of outstanding African Americans, including Leonard Marshall, Albert Richardson, James Britt, Ramsey Dardar, Dalton Hilliard, Garry James, Malcom Scott and Eric Martin. But Stovall’s ’82 roster was nearly two-thirds white overall.
Saban’s first year of 2000 featured a team that was 53-percent black. In 2006, Miles had a roster that was 63-percent black in his second season at LSU. The 2016 roster, based on photographs in the media guide, is 84-percent African-American.
LSU Football Rosters in 2000, 2006 and 2016
Year Blacks Whites Pct. of Black Athletes
2000 48 43 53-percent
2006 52 31 63-percent
2016 74 14 84-percent
Miles has not actively sought to be a trailblazer, but the 62-year-old LSU boss has been an agent of social change through the contributions of black athletes. The predominately white fan base has exhibited class by accepting this evolution at a place where there were no black players or students when Miles was a youngster in Ohio.
Hats off to The Hat for winning at a clip like no LSU coach before him, and for adjusting with the times and tweaking the racial composition of Tiger football in the process. Based on his adroit recruitment of outstanding African-American athletes into the LSU family, it is appropriate that the stellar prep team of which Miles was a member was named the Pioneers.
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