ENGSTER: The ghost of an LSU icon lurks on the right and wrong side of history

When Coach Edward Jim Orgeron Jr. was born on the bayou at Larose in 1961, the LSU football team was embarking on a 10-1 season and No. 4 national ranking in Paul Dietzel’s final year as Tiger head coach at 37.

Tall Paul sauntered off to West Point in January of 1962 and left his mentor, President Troy Middleton, without the most prized coach in the land a month before the general’s own departure at 72, a particularly late age for retirement in those times. It was an ironic move for Dietzel because Middleton had all but shut down the Army football team a decade earlier.

Dietzel was himself a bona fide hero in WWII, flying high risk missions for the Army Air Force when he was a teenager. Lt. Gen. Troy Houston Middleton was 35 years older than Dietzel and fought gallantly in WWI and WWII. He was heralded by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower for holding the strategic city of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge against the recommendation of the Commanding General of the U.S. Third Army, a fellow named George Patton.

The Battle of the Bulge, primarily waged on frozen tundra in Belgium and France, took place from Dec. 16, 1944 to Jan. 25, 1945. In 40 days, the U.S. suffered 89,500 casualties while Germany lost an estimated 98,000 men. A strong reason why it is appalling to compare football or any other sport to warfare.

Middleton logged 480 days in combat, more than any other American general officer. The bold man left the battlefield and returned to LSU, where he had arrived in 1937 before WWII sent him back to war at age 52.

Middleton’s first tour of duty at the Ole War Skule included the good fortune of striking oil on his Highland Road property, and he took over the business management of the University when LSU President James Monroe Smith and Gov. Richard Leche went to prison in a nationally embarrassing financial scandal in 1939.

Ever the patriot, Middleton wrote a letter to Gen. George Marshall in 1940 requesting to return to the military as the U.S. was preparing for war. On Dec. 8, 1941, a day after the Pearl Harbor attack, he resigned his post at LSU and sent a telegram to the War Department, pronouncing his availability for service. Middleton reported to active duty on Jan. 20, 1942.

Middleton returned to LSU as comptroller in 1945, and along the way was appointed the chief investigator in the worst scandal in West Point history. Eighty-two cadets were dismissed for cheating, including most of the Army football team. The Times-Picayune ran a headline reading “Army Football Team Severely Penalized for Illegal Passing.”

Middleton led LSU for eleven years, and the Tigers won the 1958 NCAA football title with him at the helm. In the last few days, Asher Price, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesmen, showed that Gen. Middleton took pride in keeping LSU as desegregated as possible.

An Oct. 27, 1961 Middleton letter to University of Texas Chancellor Harry Ransom was unearthed by Price, who is researching the voyage of Earl Campbell to UT in 1974. His words paint a man embedded in the sinister side of segregation.

Though we do not like it, we accepted Negros as students, therefore, they are permitted to occupy rooms in dormitories and take their meals in University dining halls. We have had a limited number occupy rooms. At no time has a Negro occupied a room with a white student. We keep them in a given area and do not permit indiscriminate occupancy. Thus far we have had no problem.

Our Negro students have made no attempt to attend social functions, participate in athletic contests, go in the swimming pool, etc. If they did, we would, for example, discontinue the operation of the swimming pool.

Since we have not had a Negro request that he be permitted to participate in athletics, we of course, have not had to make a decision. If one should apply between now and February 1, 1962 (date of my retirement), I think I could find a good excuse why he would not participate. To be specific — LSU does not favor whites and Negros participating together on athletic teams.

In 1964, Gov. John Julian McKeithen, a fellow WWII fighting man, persuaded Middleton to chair a biracial commission of 21 blacks and 21 whites. The work lasted for five years with the panel credited for quelling racial issues in Opelousas and Ferriday and opening Louisiana State Police to qualitied black officers.

Middleton and his wife, Jerusha, are interred in the National Cemetery in downtown Baton Rouge. The general died on Oct. 9, 1976, three days before his 87th birthday.

The Middleton odyssey is notable because LSU football had no black participants in 1961 when Orgeron was born. This fall, LSU will field a team in which 17 of every 20 players are African-American.

LSU resisted change as did other universities in the South. Frank Broyles integrated the University of Missouri football team as head coach in 1956. It took the same man 13 years at Fayetteville to take the “risk” of fielding a team with a black player. The student newspaper at the University of Arkansas referred to the team as the “Razor Blacks” after running back Jon Richardson from Little Rock Horace Mann High School broke the color barrier there.

Two years later in 1972, Mike Williams became the first varsity member on the LSU football team. Coach Charles McClendon had waited for Bear Bryant to integrate Alabama’s team with John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson before signing Williams of Covington and Lora Hinton of Chesapeake, Va. a year later.

The delay was a huge missed opportunity for LSU. Future NFL Pro Bowlers Mel Blount, Ken Ellis and Isiah Robertson of Southern University might have been Tigers in 1969 when Mac lost a chance to play for the national title against Texas because his 9-1 squad lost 26-23 to Ole Miss.

Three great defenders, including one (Blount) who is a Pro Football Hall of Famer, might have made the difference against Archie Manning. Skeptics make the case that John Vaught’s Ole Miss squad was also segregated when the Rebels hosted LSU on Nov. 1, 1969 in Jackson. In 1969, Texas reigned as the last all-white NCAA football champion. Exactly one-half century later, LSU and Texas will field units populated heavily by black gladiators when the teams face off in Austin on Sept. 7.

As right and courageous as the general was about warfare, Troy Middleton was on the wrong side of history in 1961. Some argue that Middleton is receiving in death the criticism he should have endured while alive. Others make the case that it is unfair to castigate a man born in 1889 in Copiah County, Mississippi for words and actions that tragically prevailed in his time and place.

Soon LSU’s Middleton Library will be destroyed. There will be another name attached to the next LSU library, and this is appropriate under the circumstances. Judgment of most white Southern men from the Jim Crow South includes a massive asterisk for their stands on race.

In 1966, the National Conference of Christians and Jews selected Middleton for its annual brotherhood award. It is an honor the general did not deserve. Yet his immense contribution to his country and to LSU should not be forgotten.

4 Comments

  1. I think the record will reflect that the first black varsity football player at LSU was Lora Hinton in 1971. Your Middleton article claimed that Mike Williams was the first black varsity football player at LSU in 1972.

    • Hinton was the first African American signee; Williams was the first African American to play in a varsity game against Pacific in 1972.

      From Jim Engster

  2. “The delay was a huge missed opportunity for LSU. Future NFL Pro Bowlers Mel Blount, Ken Ellis and Isiah Robertson of Southern University might have been Tigers in 1969 when Mac lost a chance to play for the national title against Texas because his 9-1 squad lost 26-23 to Ole Miss”. LSU did not miss out on an opportunity to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl in 1969 because of a loss at Ole Miss. They were ready to accept a bid to play in the game, when Notre Dame decided that they would participate in post-season bowl games. The Cotton Bowl left LSU at the altar, invited Notre Dame and since most of the other major bowl games were filled, the team decided that they would not play in a “minor” bowl.

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