By JIM ENGSTER | President, Tiger Rag Magazine
With the sacking of Les Miles four games into his 13th season at LSU, Charles McClendon is secure as the winningest coach in the annals of LSU football. McClendon, who died in 2001 at 78, won 137 games in 18 seasons in the day when 10 or 11 game seasons were common and bowl game appearances actually meant something. Miles left the profession with 114 wins at LSU, 23 victories short of Coach Mac’s total.
McClendon won only one SEC title in 1970, and this team was the squad that should have landed Mac a national title. The year started with a 20-18 upset loss to Texas A&M days after the death of Tiger quarterback Butch Duhe. LSU was also without its top player, Tommy Casanova, who was injured and missed severely in the defensive backfield as A&M completed an improbable 79-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds remaining.
For the next ten games, LSU boasted the best defense in America and an improving offense with Buddy Lee and Bert Jones sharing quarterbacking duties and Art Cantrelle pounding out some hard fought yards. The only blemish was a 3-0 loss at South Bend to powerful Notre Dame led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Joe Theismann.
LSU missed what would have been a game-tying field goal and also allowed a winning drive by Notre Dame to continue when Casanova dropped an easy interception. If the Bengals had prevailed on Nov. 21, 1970 at No. 2 Notre Dame, LSU would have been playing for the national title on New Year’s night in the Orange Bowl vs. Nebraska.
Instead, the 10-0-1 Cornhuskers enjoyed an unfair advantage over the 9-2 Tigers. Nebraska’s juggernaut directed by Bob Devaney was playing for a national championship while LSU was playing for pride. The Tigers lost Cantrelle early in the game to a leg injury and struggled offensively, but came alive to erase a 10-0 Nebraska lead and take a 12-10 advantage in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska quarterback Jerry Tagge marched his team down the field to take a 17-12 lead when Tagge lunged over LSU All-American middle linebacker Mike Anderson for the winning score. It was the first rushing down on LSU in two seasons.
If LSU had not lost to Notre Dame, it is the belief here that Mac would have captured his elusive national championship six weeks later. The emotional swing was too dramatic an edge for Nebraska, which became the national champion only after No. 1 Texas lost to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl and No. 2 Ohio State bowed to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
This brings us to the saga of Ara Raoul Parseghian, the charismatic Notre Dame leader who won three national crowns in eleven seasons at South Bend. Ara, who died on Aug. 2 at 94, posted a 95-17-4 record from 1964 to 1974 with the Irish. Six of the 17 losses and two of the four ties were against USC, but the most dominating defeat suffered by Parseghian came on the night of Nov. 14, 1971 at Tiger Stadium. In a grudge match, McClendon crushed Parseghian and the Irish 28-8 before a national television audience on ABC.
In those years, the Saturday night game on ABC was rare and the only place for fans to quench their thirst for college football. LSU fans stormed the field, tore down the goal posts and ripped tear away jerseys from Andy Hamilton, who caught three touchdown passes, and Casanova, who was closing a glorious chapter that featured three first-team All-American selections.
LSU had exacted revenge on the monolithic machine from Indiana, and it was noted that LSU had more Catholics on its roster than did Notre Dame, which was coached by a Protestant. The victory was sweet, but LSU had lost three games and was out of the race for a national crown. If McClendon had it to do over, he would have gladly traded the win in 1971 over Notre Dame for the loss in 1970. In two duels against the best program in America at the time, LSU had outpointed ND 28-11.
It was a heady time for McClendon who was still fielding all white teams against the integrated Irish. Notre Dame did not lose two regular season games in a row at any time under Parseghian, who was 2-0 vs. Alabama, including a 24-23 triumph over the Tide in the 1973 Sugar Bowl that featured two 11-0 teams.
LSU went without an NCAA football banner in 45 years between Paul Dietzel in 1958 and Nick Saban in 2003. The closest the Tigers came was in 1970. If the Bengals had soared to the pinnacle, it might have spelled doom for Bear Bryant, who was going through his only rough patch in his career. Bear had lost to LSU in 1969 and again in 1970 and had struggled to a pair of six-win seasons while LSU had gone 18-4 in the same two years. He responded by installing the wishbone, recruiting African-Americans and won a couple of more national titles at Tuscaloosa in the 70s.
LSU lost a great deal on the field at South Bend nearly 47 years ago. And every time there were rumors that Charlie Mac was about to be fired, they were accompanied by tales of Parseghian shopping for a home in Baton Rouge.
It is doubtful that Ara ever desired to be LSU’s coach, but it is believed that Dietzel inquired about the availability of his former college teammate at Miami of Ohio and offered him the chance to succeed Mac in 1979. Parseghian was 56 at the time, the same age as McClendon, and had been retired for five years. Dietzel and Parseghian had served in the armed forces for the U.S. in WWII and were recruited to play for the innovative Sid Gillman at Miami in 1946 and 1947.
The Redskins went 16-3-1 in those years. Gillman became an AFL legend with the San Diego Chargers while Dietzel and Parseghian won it all on the NCAA level. Parseghian played two years with the AAFC championship Cleveland Browns teams in 1948-49. A teammate was Dub Jones, father of Bert, who would throw the final pass for LSU as a 19-year-old sophomore in the setback at Notre Dame 22 years later and the uncle of receiver Andy Hamilton, who threaded the vaunted Irish defense in ‘71.
It was Woody Hayes who made Parseghian a coach in 1950. He was an assistant for one season, then succeeded Woody at Miami of Ohio in 1950 at age 27 when Hayes took the Ohio State post.
Parseghian’s back-story is part of the American tradition. His father, Michael, arrived in the country from Turkey in 1915, fleeing the Armenian Genocide during WWI, settling in Akron, Oh. There was an Armenian neighborhood there, and eight years later Ara was born.
Ninety-four-year-old men usually outlive peers who would praise them, but legions of pupils reflected on the passing of Parseghian. One of them was Gerry DiNardo, All-America guard on Parseghian’s last team at Notre Dame in 1974 and head coach of LSU from 1995 to 1999.
“We were dealing with Vietnam and race issues, and Ara was so approachable about those things in a day and age when a lot of people said we shouldn’t be talking about that,” DiNardo told the Chicago Tribune. “That didn’t mean you didn’t get yelled at when you missed a block. It was a program you could a national championship and still have an opinion.”