JIM ENGSTER: The Center of the Universe for College Football

Malik Nabers in the Center of the College Football Universe
Malik Nabers stepped into the Center of the College Football Universe last Saturday morning against Texas A&M for the last time and walked away victorious and LSU's all-time career receptions leader, with 186 total, breaking the record previously held by Wendell Davis. Photo by Michael Bacigalupi

Tiger Stadium ranks as the epicenter of college football with its overpowering revelry and sufficient intimidation to reduce even the victors to tremble in awe. Bear Bryant was a frequent visitor and winner at Death Valley but did not question the stature of the place where legends played and in previous generations was the home of many students and headquarters of the Reveille and of campus radio station WLSU.

Bryant never called the house that traces its roots to Huey Long home but many coaching luminaries past and present have either led the Tigers or learned their craft in the epic arena. Of the four current college coaches who have won national championships, three of them logged time in Baton Rouge.

Alabama’s Nick Saban was LSU mentor for five years; Kirby Smart of Georgia was an assistant to Saban in his final year with the Tigers in 2004 and Mack Brown of North Carolina served under Jerry Stovall in 1982. Among contemporary coaches, only Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has won a national championship and not run between the goal posts in the north end zone.

This has been a bad year for former Tiger assistants who achieved notable things elsewhere and were considered strong candidates to succeed Ed Orgeron just two years ago. Michigan State’s Mel Tucker was an assistant under Saban in 2000 and was touted by the Baton Rouge Advocate as a top choice to lead the Tigers in 2021 as he was guiding the Spartans to an 11-2 record.

Tucker went 7-7 in his next 14 games at MSU before departing East Lansing in a phone sex scandal with a victim rights advocate. He is unlikely to land a prime job and is radioactive at 51 years old. Jimbo Fisher was shoved out at Texas A&M with a 45-25 record in six seasons and is receiving more than $76 million to not coach at A&M. At 58, Jimbo won the Lottery.

The campus at College Station boasts an endowment 30 times that of LSU, so the elders in Aggie Land can reward Fisher for leaving more extravagantly than the brass on the bayou did when it was time to send Coach O to the curb. Seventeen-million smackers were drained from the relatively puny coffers in TigerTown to get Orgeron to his next destination.

Fisher is a good coach who won a national championship at Florida State ten years ago as the Seminoles ruled the world with a 14-0 record and nudged Auburn 34-31 for the BCS title. In his final four years at FSU, Fisher was 38-13 and came close to succeeding Les Miles at LSU in 2015.

Two years later, Fisher migrated to the Lone Star State and his career unraveled as his bank account exploded. He was hired by LSU’s Scott Woodward, who also talked with Jimbo in 2021 about returning to Baton Rouge where he was offensive coordinator under Saban and Miles from 2000-06.

It is obscene for a coach of Fisher’s caliber to be the highest paid state official in Texas for not working. In previous eras, big-name coaches were permitted to find their way out of bad spots.

Bear Bryant went 11-0 in 1966, then hit a low tide with a 28-15-1 record the next four seasons that produced a SEC record of 14-11. There was no thought of firing him. The Bear responded by going 122-15-1 in the next 11 campaigns and dominating the SEC with a 69-4 conference mark. His teams won three national crowns in those 11 years.

Woody Hayes won his second national title at Ohio State in 1961 with an unbeaten Buckeyes squad. In his next five seasons, Hayes was 35-18-1. Ohio State then captured two of the next three college football titles and Hayes 76-11-1 in his next eight years.

John McKay went 8-11-1 in 1960-61 at USC and 12-8-2 at Southern Cal in 1970-71. He also won national championships for the Trojans in 1962, 1967, 1972 and 1974. Patience is a sticky virtue in the high- pressure world of athletic administration, and the odds would be stacked against McKay, Hayes and Bryant surviving in today’s climate which is all about NOW. Their tough patches were worse than Fisher’s at A&M.

A&M has paid handsomely for big-name coaches in the past without much to show for it. Bear Bryant left Kentucky for College Station in 1954. He posted a 25-14-1 record and then returned to his alma mater at Tuscaloosa.

The Aggies made Jackie Sherrill the highest paid coach in the land in 1982 as Sherill departed Pitt with a 50-9-1 record and was fired after seven seasons and a 52-28-1 record. Dennis Franchione was 17-8 in two seasons at Alabama in 2001-02 and bolted Bama for A&M where he was sent packing after five years and a 32-28 record.

Kevn Sumlin was 12-1 at Houston in 2011 and moved to the Aggies. He was canned after going 51-26 in six seasons.

Counting interim coaches, LSU has featured 13 head coaches since Tiger Rag made its debut in 1978. Subtracting Bo Rein, who died before coaching a game, and interim leaders Hal Hunter (1999) and Brad Davis (2021), the average tour of duty at LSU for a head football coach in the last 45 years is 4.5 years.

Brian Kelly must collect a national championship in the next two years to keep up with Saban, Miles and Orgeron. Any accomplishment short of ultimate success is unacceptable to a rabid fan base that makes Tiger Stadium so special.

The passion of the LSU flock is a blessing and a curse. Kelly must feed the beast soon or he will face the same quandary as many of his predecessors who marvel at the awe of an arena that floats in their heads win or lose forever more. In the words of a popular band from the Charlie Mac Era, “You can check out, but you can never leave.”

Nola Gets More than Jimbo

Aaron Nola reigns as the most prolific pitcher in LSU history with a 30-6 record and 2.09 ERA from 2012-14. Nola was the seventh player selected in the 2014 draft by the Philadelphia Phillies. And now he is the wealthiest player produced by LSU.

His ninth season in Philly was almost his last, but Nola agreed to a seven-year contract that will pay him $172 million from 2024-30.

At 30, Nola is an elite pitcher who has not been under the knife despite 1422 Major League innings and 1582 career strikeouts. The Phils are counting on him continuing as one of the most durable pitchers in the game until his late 30s. Nola is among the game’s top-five hurlers in innings, starts and strikeouts since 2018.

He served up 32 homers in 193 and two-thirds innings in 2023 with a 12-9 record and 4.46 ERA. The Baton Rouge Catholic product turned down more money from other clubs to stay in Philadelphia and ranks as the highest paid LSU baseball player of all-time. Houston’s Alex Bregman finishes a five-year, $100 million dollar pact with Houston in 2024 and is likely to get a substantial boost the following season.

Nola has a way to go to become the Phillies’ best pitcher on record. Steve Carlton won 241 games in 15 seasons with the team, including four CY Young awards and 3031 strikeouts from 1972-86. His career earnings in Philadelphia were $6.6 million. Nola will earn as much in the first 40 games of the 2024 season.

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