ENGSTER: Times were good for the Tigers 30 years ago

By JIM ENGSTER | President, Tiger Rag Magazine

This summer will mark 40 years since my enrollment at LSU. I arrived on the day Elvis died, Aug. 16, 1977, and have witnessed 40 seasons at Death Valley, eleven Tiger head football coaches and seven governors come and go. The main character in our state and at the Ole War Skule when I moved into un-air conditioned Hodges Hall was Gov. Edwin Edwards, who at age 50 was a swashbuckling presence on Sorority Row. On Aug. 7, EWE will turn 90 and has a wife who looks like she could be attending classes amid broad magnolias and stately oaks.

Also making news on campus was Charles McClendon, the 53-year-old football coach, who was trying to salvage his career on the back and legs of another Charles, the Great Alexander, who led LSU to its first bowl game in four years by gaining 1,883 yards In 12 games.

And there was the charismatic 41-year-old basketball coach Dale Duward Brown in his sixth season, beaming about his splendid array of athletes that included Rudy Macklin, DeWayne Scales, Kenny Higgs, Ethan Martin, Jordy Hultberg, Lionel Green and Willie Sims. Al Green and Greg Cook were also living at Broussard Hall, but not eligible for competition.

A decade later, Edwards and Brown were still in charge at the Capitol and at the Assembly Center while Charlie Mac had moved to Orlando where he was heading the College Football Coaches Association.

In 1987, Edwards was a twice-tried never convicted three-term governor gamely seeking re-election at 60. Dale Brown had won three SEC titles and had directed his teams to a pair of Final Four appearances. He was the Big Man on campus when another basketball legend, Joe Dean, became athletic director.

In my tenure as a journalist, there was no year like 1987. The governor’s election that October featured the incumbent Cajun Prince along with three sitting congressmen in Buddy Roemer, Billy Tauzin and Bob Livingston and Secretary of State Jim Brown.

The New Orleans Saints posted their first winning season and playoff team with the most memorable game occurring on the day after the gubernatorial election. Hours after Edwards conceded the governor’s office to Roemer without a runoff a few blocks away, San Francisco nipped the Saints 24-22 on Oct. 25 at the Superdome.

Saints Coach Jim Mora raged into his iconic post-game tirade, and “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda” became his signature line. His team won nine straight games before crumbling in the first round of the playoffs to Minnesota.

For LSU, 1987 was a year of near misses and remarkable outcomes. Broadcaster and Converse executive Joe Dean was selected to run the Tiger athletic ship on Feb. 20. Mr. String Music had lost his bid for the same job to Paul Dietzel in 1978. Dean was a spry and determined man of 56 when he set up shop at East Stadium. He enjoyed a scintillating debut in several sports.

Track and Field: The Lady Tigers own the distinction of being the first women’s team to win a national championship on their own track as the 1987 NCAA Outdoor Championships were held at Bernie Moore Stadium. With the title, the Lady Tigers began one of the most dominating runs in NCAA history. LSU claimed eleven Outdoor team championships from 1987-97. It was the first of a plethora of championships in the Dean Era.

Basketball: LSU was returning from a Final Four run in 1986 and had lost John Williams, Derrick Taylor and Don Redden. The Tigers retained a strong nucleus of talent and received an NCAA Tournament invitation despite an 8-10 SEC regular season record.

As a tenth-seed, LSU opened the tourney with an overall record of 21-14 and upset seventh-seed Georgia Tech 85-76. Then the Bengals topped 31-2 Temple in a convincing 72-62 triumph over the Owls. On to the Sweet Sixteen in Cincinnati where Brown’s crew upended 26-1 DePaul 63-58 as Nikita Wilson scored 24 for the Tigers.

The win over the Blue Demons moved LSU within a victory of the Final Four in the Superdome. Indiana, 21-4, was next for LSU in a rematch of the 1981 Final Four at Philadelphia where the Hoosiers had won the NCAA crown. Indiana Coach Bob Knight had infamously stuffed LSU fan Buddy Bonnecaze in a trash can in Cherry Hill, N.J. after a 67-49 rout of the Tigers at the Spectrum.

Prospects for revenge appeared promising for a sizzling hot LSU unit. The Tigers led by eleven points with six minutes to go, but failure at the free throw line allowed Indiana to rally and lead 77-76 with seconds to go. Nikita Wilson, who scored 20 in his final game, saw his 15-foot jumper at the buzzer roll in and out of the basket as Indiana prevailed on the basis of a 21 of 24 performance at the line while the Tigers were 4 of 10. Had Knight intimidated officials on his way to his third and last NCAA title?

Indiana beat UNLV and Syracuse to capture Knight’s third national title as Baton Rouge McKinley product Keith Smart scored 21 points and hit the winning shot to beat the Orangemen 74-73. It was Brown’s best chance to win it all because it might have been impossible to stop the Tiger juggernaut if LSU had advanced to New Orleans for the Final Four.

Baseball:

Skip Bertman was fresh from directing his charges to LSU’s first College World Series appearance in 1986. LSU went 22-5 in the league in ’86 and returned the best player in the college game in outfielder Joey Belle. The Bengals struggled to a 12-10 SEC mark in ’87, but won a regional at UNO without Belle who had been suspended for chasing after a heckler in the conference tournament.

Bertman chose not to play Belle in the CWS, and LSU lost when Stanford freshman Paul Carey homered off Ben McDonald in the bottom of the tenth to give the Cardinal a 6-5 win. Stanford whipped Texas and Oklahoma State to take the championship as Carey was named the Outstanding Player in Omaha.

Bertman waited four years before capturing his first of five CWS rings, and he and Belle have not communicated since they split the sheets in 1987. It is time for a reunion for the greatest LSU coach and his most celebrated player.

Football:

LSU had won the SEC title in 1986 under Bill Arnsparger, who defected to the University of Florida to become the Gators athletic director at 56. Defensive Coordinator Mike Archer inherited the LSU job at 33 and had a spectacular rookie season.

Archer piloted the Tigers to their first ten-win season in 26 years in 1987 as LSU posted a 10-1-1 mark with the only blemish coming in a 22-10 defeat to Alabama in which star quarterback Tommy Hodson played sparingly due to injury.

It was a season to remember as the Tigers beat Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and tied Ohio State before punishing South Carolina 30-13 in the Gator Bowl. It was LSU’s first post-season win in eight years..

Archer won the SEC in year two, but was fired after losing 13 times in 22 starts in 1989-90. In 1987, he appeared to be the hottest young coach in America. Curiously, Nick Saban, who is two years older than Archer, and Bill Belichick, who is one year older than Archer, were assistant coaches at Michigan State and the New York Giants in 1987.

Archer’s demise led to eight out of eleven that were losing seasons for LSU before Saban came to the rescue at age 48 in 1999.

LSU has continued to tradition of excellence in many sports, but in the Big Three of football, basketball and baseball, the Tigers must perform well in 2017 to achieve the success of their predecessors three decades ago. Basketball has declined dramatically. The Tiger football and baseball teams are capable of surpassing the accomplishments of their 1987 forerunners.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting article. I moved into Johnston Hall in September 1965, so I share many of those same memories plus another 12 years worth. My favorite final 4 was the team Ricky Blanton was on.

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