By MARTY MULE’
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
Editor’s Note: It was 37 years ago today LSU hired Bo Rein as the successor to Charles McClendon. This column, penned by the late, great Marty Mule’, recounts Rein’s tragically short tenure, which ended 42 days later in a fatal plane crash. It first appeared in Tiger Rag in 2010.
I can still hear that voice all these years later. It penetrated the fog of deep sleep, but not so much to make sense.
“Marty,’’ urgently said my wife, up early as usual to get the kids off to school, “they’re saying on television Bo Rein is dead.’’ I could comprehend just enough of that statement to turn it around in my still-mostly unconscious brain. “Bo Rein? Bo Rein? I don’t know any Bo Rein . . . Of course the new coach at LSU is named Bo Rein, but surely we’re not talking about him.’’
Who were they talking about? Forcing myself up and into the den, I heard someone on the 6 a.m. television news saying Rein was on a recruiting trip to Shreveport and his plane crashed in the Atlantic Ocean!
Immediately I turned, went back to bed and got under the covers again, saying to myself, “Now I know I’m dreaming.’’
But I couldn’t quite nod off. It was so unreal, but there was just enough there that even in my haze my instincts were urging me to get up and get to work.
A sportswriter at the Times-Picayune on that Jan. 10, 1980, my assignment for the previous six months was to chronicle the last season of Charlie McClendon, LSU’s longtime football coach, through the naming of his successor. Rein had one press conference after being picked, but while McClendon was preparing his last team for his last game, a Tangerine Bowl meeting with Wake Forest, Rein said he would be unavailable to the media until that game was over. He didn’t want to cause Coach Mac any distractions.
The week before the ill-fated recruiting trip, LSU’s bowl game over with, Rein agreed on the telephone that it was time for Louisiana to get to know him better, so we set up an interview, his first and my exclusive.
Again I rolled out of bed, but now things were starting to become clear: The LSU coach really was the subject of the news reports, and I was waking up to a nightmare.
* * *
Robert “Bo’’ Rein seemed to be rising coaching star 30 years ago when he was tabbed to guide the LSU Tigers. He impressed Lou Holtz so much that he was hired on three of Holtz’ staffs, William & Mary, Arkansas and North Carolina State. When Holtz left N.C. State, he recommended Rein to succeed him. In five seasons Rein coached the Wolfpack to two bowls and an ACC championship.
Former LSU coach Paul Dietzel was then the Tigers’ athletic director, and his search came down to two men: Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and, on a strong recommendation from Ohio State icon Woody Hayes, Rein. A two-sport athlete at Ohio State where he was a halfback for Hayes, Rein also started his coaching career under the Buckeyes icon. Dietzel said Hayes told him that of all his protégés Rein was the one he thought might have the most success. “Bo was one of my best assistants ever,’’ Dietzel recalled Hayes telling him. “And Woody wasn’t one to throw platitudes around easily.’’
Bowden apparently was still first choice, but told Dietzel just before the deadline that he had just signed a new contract with the Seminoles and wouldn’t be coming to Baton Rouge.
That opened the door for Rein – and slammed it shut with a clang for Jerry Lane Stovall. An All-American halfback for the Tigers in the early 1960s and an All-Pro defensive back for the St. Louis Cardinals, when Stovall left the NFL he became an assistant for his old coach Dietzel at South Carolina. Then he returned to LSU on McClendon’s staff. A lifelong ambition was to someday become the head coach of the Tigers.
That ended with the hiring of Dietzel at LSU AD. Dietzel was told nobody on the McClendon staff could be considered when he chose the next coach. Instead, Dietzel, who admired Stovall’s values and work ethic ever since he played, made Stovall head of a fund-raising arm of the athletic department, the Varsity Club (forerunner of today’s Tiger Athletic Foundation).
“If I couldn’t be the head coach at LSU,’’ Stovall said, “I wasn’t interested in coaching anywhere else. So I set about making a new career for myself.’’
* * *
To paraphrase Scottish poet Robert Burns, the best laid plans of mice, men, and LSU football can go astray. Everything went horribly wrong when Rein and Louis Benscotter, an experienced pilot, made what was to have been a routine round-trip visit to Shreveport to meet with prospects Bobby Agnor of Woodlawn High School and Alvin Burns of Fair Pair.
The return that night in a Cessna 440 Conquest was to take 40 minutes. It turned into a trip that would carry the two men to eternity.
The plane turned east to avoid a storm – and kept going, rising from 20,000 feet to more than twice that. After a brief connection with air control, there was no more communication.
Military aircraft intercepted the Cessna in the early hours of the morning, more than a thousand miles off course and at an altitude of 41,600 feet, 6,600 feet higher than its maximum certified ceiling. The Air Force pilots could see no one or any signs of life in the cockpit, just an eerie red glow from the instrument panel.
And in another bizarre twist, the ghost-ship, and its two unconscious passengers eventually flew 1,500 miles off course, and over Raleigh, N.C. where Rein’s wife and little girls were sleeping, maybe dreaming of all the glory their daddy would reap at LSU.
The plane continued on over the Atlantic Ocean where it went into a dive and crashed after running out of fuel.
* * *
By about 9 a.m. of the longest day of my life, I was in the office trying to figure out whom to call, who to track down, who can explain this to me. Aircraft accidents were not something we regularly reported on in the sports department.
But what’s that about God looking after children, drunks and sportswriters? He did it again.
The phone rang and absentmindedly I picked it up. It was a pilot who wanted to offer his theory. Sure, I’d listen. He said it all sounded like hypoxia, meaning cabin depressurization that would caused a lack of oxygen and ultimately a loss of consciousness. Basically, according to theory, Rein and Benscotter slipped into a sleep and never woke up.
While there has never been an official explanation, hypoxia is generally agreed to be the most logical reason for the accident.
* * *
Arriving home late after driving home from a coaches’ convention in New Orleans, Dietzel was greeted by his unnerved wife as he reached the front door. “Get to the office fast,’’ Ann told him. “Something has happened and they need you there!’’
When Dietzel got to LSU, Paul Manasseh, the school’s sports information director, said, “Bo Rein is down.’’ “What do you mean, Bo Rein is down?’’ Dietzel asked. Manasseh said, “He’s gone down in a plane in the ocean.’’ A suddenly dazed Dietzel said, “You mean the Gulf.’’ “No,’’ Manasseh said. “I mean the Atlantic Ocean.’’
What seemed like the weight of the world was instantly placed on Dietzel’s shoulders. He had to try to console and help Rein’s young widow, Suzanne Kay, and her children; he had to reassure Rein’s coaching staff that they had jobs; and he had to almost immediately find a new head coach at a time when all coaches and schools were set.
“There’s only one thing to do,’’ Manasseh said to Dietzel, who coached LSU to a national championship 22 years before. “You’ll have to take over the team.’’ Dietzel blanched and said, “There’s no way in the world I am going to do that. You know that there are knuckleheads out there who would jump on that, saying I was looking for an opportunity to get back in coaching. No way.’’
The solution hit Dietzel like a lightning bolt: Stovall. He was a coach, he was familiar with LSU, and he’d be willing to work with the staff Rein had assembled.
“What a tragedy.” Stovall reflected. “It changed the lives of so many people. If LSU needed me, I was ready to help in any way I could. And it wouldn’t have been fair to those men on Bo Rein’s staff to take the job, then insist on my own choices.’’
Dietzel recommended Stovall, and the LSU Board of Supervisors hastily called for a meeting for 10 a.m. two days later, on Saturday. After he was named, Stovall admitted he was standing there by an act of God, and added softly, “I would give up any job, I would give up my right arm if it meant Bo Rein could come back. I love LSU, but the loss of Coach Rein makes the conditions sorrowful.’’
* * *
As it turns out, there’s no fairytale ending to this story. Dietzel was always a target for some of the LSU fan base, still resentful that he left the Tigers in 1962 after publicly announcing that he never would. When Chancellor Paul Murrill, who hired Dietzel as AD, and who worked well with him, went into private business, James Wharton assumed the throne. Wharton seemed politically motivated, and seemed determined to make Dietzel a scapegoat for whatever went wrong, to appease the vocal continent still upset with his return. The low point was the accusation of bad business practice, especially for the purple fur coats that LSU paid for but which the public never would buy.
Dietzel was forced out and Bob Brodhead brought in. There may never have been a more controversial era in LSU history, but even Brodhead in his after-the-fact book, “Sacked,’’ said that when he studied what had been done previously there was no question Dietzel had been railroaded.
But Brodhead was intent on leaving a mark on LSU athletics, and anything that was in place at the Ole War Skule before he got there was suspect. Brodhead didn’t like LSU’s uniforms, didn’t like its colors and didn’t like its broadcast agreement with WWL-AM, which has a reach to 40 states.
And he didn’t like a football coach who was not of his choosing.
Stovall was coaching with a staff he may not have been comfortable with, and with an AD determined to undermine him. After every game, Brodhead would grade Stovall’s performance, seldom giving more than a “C’’, or average, evaluation. It was a disgusting exercise, and Brodhead eventually once spat out, “If you’re so offended, why do you keep asking about it.’’ The response was “Because you keep answering.’’
The point is, it’s hard to think that coaching under those conditions wasn’t a losing proposition. In the end, Stovall had a so-so record (22-21-2) in his four years, though he was National Coach of the Year in 1982 when his Tigers went to the Orange Bowl. The next year Stovall was fired.
Eventually, Brodhead, now dead, was himself pushed out, a victim of assuming he had absolute power – and an embarrassing escapade of being caught eavesdropping on an NCAA investigator talking with Tiger athletes.
Of the two prospects Rein visited on that trip, Agnor signed with LSU but never lettered. Burns did not go with the Tigers, and, as far anyone knows, not with any other school either.
Dietzel is retired in Baton Rouge, and can usually be caught in front of his wide-screen TV whenever LSU sports are on. “Of course I’m still a Tiger fan,’’ he says. “Through the years they’ve given me some of my biggest thrills.’’
Stovall is CEO of the Baton Rouge Sports Foundation, and can be found in Tiger Stadium every time LSU is home. “LSU is my team,’’ he says simply. “Nothing ever changed about that.’’
Rein is still at LSU too, sort of. He is still listed on all lists of Tiger head coaches, along with his record: 0-0-0.
* * *
The biggest question is what Rein would have done at LSU. Not only did he seem to have the makings of an exceptional coach, but he was so charismatic that both Ohio State, where he played and coached, and N.C. State, where he was head coach, both present “Robert “Bo’’ Rein’’ awards to one of their athletes each year.
And yet, if he were that good, you have to wonder, when Earle Bruce stepped down at Ohio State in 1987, would Rein – a Buckeye through and through – have returned to his roots, just as Dietzel was lured back to the school, West Point, he so admired as a Cadet assistant, in 1962.
* * *
So the Bo Rein saga at LSU was short and turned out to be bitter. But what I personally will never forget is driving to Baton Rouge that Saturday when, with no other place to turn, LSU accepted Dietzel’s recommendation of Jerry Stovall.
Suddenly, as I turned into the LSU Systems Building parking lot trying to get to the 10 a.m. proceedings on time, the hair on my neck rose and my arms started tingling. A realization struck that this was the exact time of my scheduled interview with Rein, the one that would introduce him to Louisiana.