ENGSTER: Memory of 1969 is Parable for 2019

Jonathan Mailhes

The last time LSU won the SEC championship for basketball and football in the same calendar year was the year of Huey Long’s assassination. Eighty-four autumns ago, the Kingfish was killed after being shot at the State Capitol, and his legacy lingers at a university he built into an athletic and academic powerhouse with a stadium made possible by its dormitories and a campus that features a Quadrangle that was the vision of the legendary leader from Winnfield.

Long was gone in a hail of gunfire at 42. Two lifetimes of Huey have expired since he died at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital lamenting how LSU would fare without him. Until Saturday’s 37-10 triumph over Georgia, 1935 was the only year LSU earned conference titles in the two major sports. The basketball Tigers of Harry Rabenhorst went 12-0 in the league and won a national crown before the NCAA Tournament that started in 1939.

The best player on the college court in 1935 was guard Malcolm “Sparky” Wade. More than eight decades later, another Wade named Will directed LSU to SEC honors as a prelude to a historic football season that is destined to reign as the greatest year for the signature sport at the Ole War Skule.

The 1935 Bengals posted a 5-0 mark in the SEC under rookie coach Bernie Moore and were named co-national champions by the Williamson rating service despite a 3-2 loss to TCU in the Sugar Bowl. Standouts for the Tigers were Abe Mickal and Gaynell Tinsley. Halfback Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago was chosen as the first Heisman winner. Berwanger, like Joe Burrow, was also a coveted NFL prospect and holds the distinction of being the No. 1 selection in the first NFL Draft of 1936.

It is thought by more than a few LSU supporters that Billy Cannon won the Heisman Trophy during LSU’s last undefeated championship in 1958. But Cannon received the Heisman from Vice President Richard Nixon a year later when LSU was 9-2. Cannon ruined a near perfect season for Ole Miss with his epic 89-yard punt return on Oct. 31, 1959. Ten years later, the script would flip in this enduring rivalry.

Burrow has exploded on the national scene with other worldly passing numbers and will collect the first Heisman Trophy for an LSU player since Cannon emerged as a 22-year-old superhuman specimen. Burrow  looks like he came from central casting as the wholesomely handsome hero of the Tigers’ 13-0 juggernaut as Ed Orgeron prepares his squad for Oklahoma and either Clemson or Ohio State.

Three national titles in football have culminated for LSU in New Orleans where the title game will be played on Jan. 13. Even more ironic is that those championships happened at the expense of Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State in January of 1959, 2004 and 2008.

Orgeron’s crew has an aura of invincibility five weeks before the title game and is seeded first ahead of a trio of survivors in an increasingly long collegiate season. Remarkably, three of the four teams enter the playoffs undefeated including the defending national champs from Clemson. The Tigers from South Carolina would have presented a more dangerous obstacle in Atlanta on Dec. 28 than the Sooners from Oklahoma led by Jalen Hurts, who guided Alabama to a 10-0 win at Tiger Stadium three years ago.

Hurts is also a Heisman hopeful, but dominating the Big 12 is an inferior accomplishment to Burrow’s trail of touchdowns across the SEC. Oklahoma has the lone loss of the contenders to a mediocre Kansas State team. Look for LSU to pummel OU as it did 16 years ago when Nick Saban piloted LSU to its first NCAA football crown in 45 years.

LSU lost a shot at glory in New Orleans eight seasons ago to Saban and the Alabamans, but a Democrat was then president of the United States in Barack Obama. LSU wins national championships in football with Republicans in the White House; Teddy Roosevelt in 1908, Dwight Eisenhower in 1958 and George W. Bush in 2003 and 2007.

With Donald Trump in the Oval Office, LSU should be safe against either Clemson or Ohio State, although all four of the challengers are from states won by Trump in 2016. From this vantage point, there is no force capable of stopping the LSU march to the pinnacle despite occasional surprises on the road to immortality.

The 1969 Tigers of Charles McClendon outscored opponents by an average of 34.9 to 9.1, a 25.8 margin of victory that is almost as good as the current team which has outpointed 13 foes by an average of 37.8 to 21.2, a 26.6 margin.

The lone blemish on the ’69 record was a 26-23 setback at Jackson to Ole Miss on Nov. 1. McClendon blamed the defeat more on something that occurred on the eve of the game, a decision  made on the tenth anniversary of Cannon’s run to beat Johnny Vaught’s Rebels.

On Halloween night of 1969, the LSU captains chose to get primed for Ole Miss by going to a movie theatre and viewing “Easy Rider.” The independent film shot in Louisiana for $360,000 earned more than $60 million at the box office, and Coach Mac thought his team was poised to enjoy a nice Western good guy drama in the John Wayne tradition.

Tiger players were instead exposed to a glorification of the counterculture of the time with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson not riding heroically off the screen after finishing off the bad guys. The film is ranked 88th on the American Film Institute list of the 100 greatest films of all-time. It ranked No. 1 on the list of disasters for McClendon.

Former Sports Information Director Bud Johnson says Mac was livid about the impact the classic had on the mood of his boys 15 hours later. Johnson says Mac blamed Peter Fonda more than Archie Manning for the Ole Miss upset the following afternoon at Mississippi Memorial Stadium. It was too bad that “Patton” premiered three months later.

McClendon may have lost his best chance of joining Paul Dietzel as a championship coach 50 years ago because of 95 minutes of mind-altering entertainment accented by the sounds of The Jimi Hendrix Experience with “If 6 Was 9” and Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” and “Born to be Wild.”

This unfortunate experience should be a lesson for Coach O to closely monitor images and sounds that infiltrate the impressionable minds of his athletes. The Tigers of 2019 should definitely not party like it is 1969.

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Jim Engster | President, Tiger Rag

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