LSU vs. Florida, 1997: An Oral History | Part One

Editor’s Note: Twenty years ago this month, LSU beat Florida in Tiger Stadium in 1997 in one of the most iconic victories in program history. Tiger Rag conducted hours of interviews and dug into the archives to relive that win. This is Part One, which takes readers up to the moments before kickoff. The full story will apepar in the October Issue of Tiger Rag Extra, on newsstands across Baton Rouge next week and available for purchase here

LSU vs. Florida, 1997: An Oral History | Part Two

By JAMES MORAN & CODY WORSHAM

HIGH HOPES

LSU entered the 1997 season with high hopes. In the second year of his quest to “Bring Back the Magic” to LSU football, head coach Gerry DiNardo had led the Tigers to 10-2 record in 1996, claiming an SEC West co-division title and a Peach Bowl victory over Clemson to finish the season ranked No. 12 in the AP Poll. With eight starters back on offense and seven returning on defense, the 1997 preseason polls saw LSU ranked as high as No. 10. Suddenly, national championship hopes began to emerge among a fanbase and a program still reeling from six straight losing seasons between 1989 and 1994.

Herb Tyler, Quarterback: “Going into ’97, we were coming off a really good year, 10-2 in ’96, co-champs of the West. We did not go to the championship game, which I was a little bitter about.”

Gerry DiNardo, Head Coach: “We were positioned to have a good year. We had a lot of momentum on the field. We had a lot of momentum in recruiting. Our staff was solid and stable.”

Herb Tyler, Quarterback: “We’re on this really big high. If you remember, a few years prior to that, the teams didn’t do as well, but we still had a lot of players from those years. Those guys were the leaders of the team. Myself, Kevin Faulk, Todd McClure, Kendall Cleveland, Rondell Mealey, Booger McFarland, Alan Faneca.”

Booger McFarland, Defensive Lineman: “LSU back to ’92-’94 hadn’t really had a winning team or a winning record…The Class of ’95 laid the foundation. Obviously Nick (Saban) took it to another level when he got there. But recruiting and how we were able to get that class together was definitely the starting point.”

Cedric Donaldson, Defensive Back: “When the season started, we were as high as high could be. We knew we had weapons. We had Kevin, we had Herb. We were riding high.”

Herb Tyler, Quarterback: “We were thinking, ‘Hey, we went 10-2 last year. Let’s go 11-1 this year, if not 12-0.’”

Gerry DiNardo, Head Coach: “I just remember having a good feeling about the year. It was our third year. It felt like home. Things were going well.”

Cedric Donaldson, Defensive Back: “You could feel that we were building something. But we knew we weren’t quite there. The ‘96 season, we played Florida, and they beat us 56-13, and we were ranked. They just showed us how far we were behind.”

Booger McFarland, Defensive Lineman: “We didn’t play well in Gainesville in ’96, but my first year we played them very well. It was like a 12-14 point game (in ’95). The second year we got embarrassed.”

Herb Tyler, Quarterback: “I don’t think there’s anybody in the world who would have beaten that team in ‘96 that Florida had on the field, especially that day. Danny Wuerffel was perfect that day. All the receivers caught every pass. The defense was allowed only 11 men on the field, but it seemed as though they had 11 hundred men on the field. They played a phenomenal game. They were better than us that particular day. That game itself left a bitter taste in our mouth. We didn’t like the way they handled us. We didn’t like the way we played when we went there.”

Carl Reese, Defensive Coordinator: “I’ll tell you what Spurrier was doing. Son of a gun, we were a man coverage football team. We played bump and run, we’d get all up in your face. What he did the year before (in ’96), how they hurt us, is he would put every guy he had at receiver, and run a corner or a deep route. Then he’d come back and do it again. And on third down, he’d put a good guy in there. And our corners were basically about out of breath, sucking wind.”

Cedric Donaldson, Defensive Back: “I had never suffered a loss like that before. Especially playing corner: when I went back and looked at the film, I had great coverage. Just everything went wrong. If it could go wrong, it did. But at the end of the day, I also knew that I could play with them. I knew if the same teams had a chance to play again, that same thing wouldn’t happen. That’s why I was so confident the next year.”

Herb Tyler, Quarterback: “We wanted to avenge that loss.”

Cedric Donaldson, Defensive Back: “The ‘97 season, I made it a point: I had to beat Florida. Had to. If that was the only win we had, that’s what I wanted.”

 

BRINGING BACK THE BANDITS

 After two wins to start the season, including a 24-9 win at Mississippi State fueled by 172 yards in a breakout performance from tailback Cecil Collins, the tenth-ranked Tigers dropped a 31-28 heartbreaker to No. 12 Auburn, despite more than 300 all-purpose yards from Collins. Two games later, they barely snuck past Vanderbilt, 7-6, a game that saw “Cecil the Diesel” go down with a season-ending leg injury.

Off the heels of near-disaster in Nashville, LSU welcomed No. 1 Florida, the defending national champions, to town. In addition to the previous season’s blowout win for the Gators, Steve Spurrier’s team had won 25 straight SEC games by an average of 28.6 points per game, including nine straight against LSU by a combined score of 297-94. LSU, meanwhile, had never beaten a number one team, losing seven times and tying once in its eight previous attempts to knock off the nation’s best.

Cedric Donaldson, Defensive Back: “We just knew: this is our year. We’re about to run through everybody. Then Cecil got hurt against Vanderbilt. That put a hole in the team. Even though we had Kevin, we knew we would still be good, but we knew we had lost something.”

Herb Tyler, Quarterback: “Going into (the Florida) game, we were 4-1. We lost to Auburn. And that particular game, I played horrible in the first quarter. I’ll admit it. I’ll tell you right now. I threw a couple interceptions. I felt worse than anybody in that whole stadium in the first quarter.”

Gerry DiNardo, Head Coach: “I remember not playing very well at Vanderbilt. That was disturbing…We were coming off a win, but it was a disappointing win. Cecil got hurt.”

Herb Vincent, Sports Information Director: “We came off that Vanderbilt game where we barely won, so there wasn’t a lot of belief LSU was going to win (the Florida) game.”

Herb Tyler, Quarterback: “We knew as a team we had to stick together. Even though we had a close win to Vanderbilt, guess what? Vanderbilt is in the SEC. They’re an SEC caliber team. It doesn’t matter whether or not people on the outside think they are not on the level of an LSU. It doesn’t matter. Anybody can win on any given day. Those guys practice just as hard as we do. As a team, we internalized everything instead of dealing with any of the external noise. We just came together and tried to focus on whatever team was in front of us and play the very best we could possibly play.”

Gerry DiNardo, Head Coach: “I can remember being at the press conference before the Florida game saying, ‘Florida’s biggest decision will be which open receiver the throw the ball to.’ Twitter wasn’t around then, so I rushed over to the facility – well, I didn’t rush over, but we were having a team meeting – and I told the players what I said. And I told them, ‘I’m just saying that to set up Florida. I’m not saying that about our secondary.’ I thought if Florida came in fat, that would help us.”

Jim Engster, Tiger Rag Columnist [mfn]“Florida Now Over-Confident,” by Jim Engster, Tiger Rag, Oct. 6, 1997, [/mfn]: “Gerry DiNardo gets credit for setting up Florida. What better way to make the Gators over-confident for Saturday’s tilt at Tiger Stadium than for LSU to survive a 7-6 verdict against lowly Vanderbilt?”

Booger McFarland, Defensive Lineman: “Nobody gave us a chance to win.”

Greg LaRose, Tiger Rag Editor, 1997 [mfn]“Giant Killers,” by Greg LaRose, Tiger Rag, Oct. 13, 1997[/mfn]: “The 1997 Gators gave everyone, this reporter included, reason to believe they were too much for LSU to handle.”

Carl Reese, Defensive Coordinator: “There was a lot of incentive to play well, because they had won the national championship the year before. Shoot, we just wanted to do all we could to beat them.”

Cedric Donaldson, Defensive Back: “I had been telling people for a full year by this time that we were going to beat them. The week before the game, I invited all the DBs to my house after practice. We had pizza, we had some beers, and we would watch film. All the things they tried to do, we had it all down.”

Tommy Banks, Fullback: “It was a game we knew we could win. We were watching film and we knew we weren’t going to do anything fancy; we were going to go straight at them and try to use our strengths against them. That week of practice leading up to the game was business as usual. We were going in with confidence.”

Kevin Faulk, Running Back: “We’re playing the No. 1 team. That’s a big opportunity for us as a football team to make a statement. And to know that you actually can win the game, as a squad, that was the biggest thing for us.”

Booger McFarland, Defensive Lineman: “There was definitely a sense of urgency all week long.”

Herb Vincent, Sports Information Director: “As the week went on, more people put the Vanderbilt game in the rearview mirror and were focused on Florida and got excited about it.”

Gerry DiNardo, Head Coach: “We put the option in into the boundary, into the short side of the field, what we call the ‘force option.’ We hadn’t run it before. We thought we found a weakness there on their defense. And we had the Bandit package.”

Carl Reese, Defensive Coordinator: “Joe Dean, the A.D. at that time, came in that week, the first time he ever came into the defensive room. We’re getting ready to play Florida. He comes in, and he says, ‘Boys, I tell you what. This is a special place when they turn on the lights at night. You better start cooking up a brew, and we need to brew something that’s going to cause us to win.’ I said, ‘We got something cooking.’”

Herb Tyler, Quarterback: “The Bandit defense. It mimicked the Chinese Bandits of old LSU.”

Carl Reese, Defensive Coordinator: “Joe Dean talked all about the Chinese Bandits. So on third and long, we took six young guys, linebacker type guys, and we put them in the front six. Every time on third and long, we changed out what we called ‘The Bandits’ – like the ‘Chinese Bandits.’ Those six guys went in, and we substituted earlier in our secondary to try to keep them fresh.”

Booger McFarland, Defensive Lineman: “It was out of necessity because we wanted to give Florida a different look. They’re Florida, and if they knew exactly what you were going to do and how you were going to do it, they’d kill you. So part of the reason we wanted to give them a different look was because of that, and it paid homage to a defense of the past. It was a history lesson out of necessity.”

Cedric Donaldson, Defensive Back: “At first, I thought (Reese) was crazy, and he was just throwing the game away. He don’t believe we got a chance. And then we started practicing, and I realized, ‘Oh, this might be an advantage.’”

Gerry DiNardo, Head Coach: “We hadn’t done it before. It was situational. It was something we thought would give Spurrier and Florida’s offense a new look, something different. We substituted a bunch of guys, and that was fun for the guys who weren’t starting. There was a lot of enthusiasm on the defensive side about it.”

Carl Reese, Defensive Coordinator: “They really were excited about it. The six kids we had up front, it was their chance to show what they had, and that was their approach to it. I’ll be a son of a gun if they didn’t.”

BRIGHT LIGHTS, SHINY PANTS

With the top-ranked, defending national champion Gators in town, LSU’s crowd turned out ready to rock. Game Day did its broadcast from Baton Rouge, and 80,677 fans packed Tiger Stadium for a 6:07 p.m kickoff. Their favorite target for abuse: Gator head coach Steve Spurrier, who tried to get the LSU job in 1986 but was passed over for Mike Archer. By 1997, Spurrier had developed a reputation nationally for his brash demeanor and an offense with the same sort of swagger. The Ol’ Ball Coach sported a 10-0 career record against LSU – 7-0 as a coach, 3-0 as a player – but had a different nickname amongst LSU’s defensive staff.

Carl Reese, Defensive Coordinator: “Spurrier, of course, played quarterback at Florida. When I was a senior in college, I went to the University of Missouri and graduated in 1966. Our offensive line coach, Rollie Dotsch, when we were getting ready to play Florida in the Sugar Bowl in 1966, he’s the guy who coined the phrase ‘Shiny Pants.’”

Carl Reese, Defensive Coordinator [mfn]“LSU coaches out to wrinkle Spurrier’s designer plans,” by Josh Peter, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Oct. 11, 1997[/mfn]: “You know, one of those guys who wouldn’t want to get his pants dirty.”

Gerry DiNardo, Head Coach: “I always respected him. I thought he was a great competitor, a great play caller.”

Gerry Johnson, Tiger Rag Writer, 1997[mfn]“Checkmate,” by Gerry Johnson, Tiger Rag, Oct. 13, 1997[/mfn]: “Spurrier’s last four Florida teams (held) the four highest totals in total yardage, passing yardage, passing touchdowns and points scored in SEC history.”

Carl Reese, Defensive Coordinator: “It’s always been a rivalry since I was playing at Missouri against Florida when he was quarterback at Florida…It was a natural competition any time we played Florida. Spurrier’s a good coach, and good guy, but I tell you what, we took it personal.”

Gerry DiNardo, Head Coach: “I respected Steve Spurrier, but I think the fans probably disliked him.”

Herb Tyler, Quarterback:“The fans were all over Steve Spurrier that night.”

Tommy Banks, Fullback: “There was definitely a different atmosphere with the No. 1 team coming in…We were stretching and I looked over, and about 10 yards from me was Steve Spurrier. Of course at that time he was the big name in college football, and that’s kind of when it hit me. Okay, this is for real. This is big time college football.”

Booger McFarland, Defensive Lineman: “All we talked about inside the building was we needed to find a way to, number one, get the crowd into the game.”

Kevin Faulk, Running Back: “The atmosphere was electrifying.”

Herb Vincent, Sports Information Director: “There was a lot of realization that LSU had never beaten the No. 1 team in the nation. So it was one of the loudest and most raucous nights in Tiger Stadium history.”

Booger McFarland, Defensive Lineman: “There was a sense of calm about us because we knew we were prepared. It was a home game. It was a night game. The place was going to be electric. So we just wanted to make sure we did our part and prepare and be on the details, which we did all week.”

Gerry DiNardo, Head Coach: “I hope we were prepared for all the games at the same level, but it was the number one team in the country and all that. There were emotions involved. More emotions for this game than other games.”

Booger McFarland, Defensive Lineman: “Everybody in the crowd realized that we had the No. 1 team in the country in, and I think they also realized that the game could’ve really been a blowout because Florida really was that good.”

Herb Tyler, Quarterback: “I’ve always had this super calm, overcoming of calmness inside of me before the games. There’s a little bitty teeny tiny butterfly that flies in my stomach only because I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s very small. I was pretty calm.”

Kevin Faulk, Running Back: “If you want your team to be successful at any point in time, your quarterback has to play. Your quarterback play has to be superb in every aspect: focus, decision making – you’ve got to make the right decisions.”

Herb Tyler, Quarterback: “Everybody else was listening to music, getting themselves up, but I like to keep myself calm so I can continue to be in the frame of mind to make the right decisions, making sure I’m putting everyone in the right situations.”

Tommy Banks, Fullback: “I never really got nervous before games. It was just one of those things where I knew that I had to go out there and play as hard as I could. Try to do my job, make all the correct assignments and all that. I never got nervous playing ball. Of course I was a true freshman, so I was probably a little bit naïve.”

Cedric Donaldson, Defensive Back: “It was calm. There wasn’t a whole lot of chatter going on. We knew we (were) going to win. I felt it.”

Booger McFarland, Defensive Lineman: “As kickoff got closer, it felt like we were building up and so did the crowd. By the time kickoff came, that place was deafening. The emotion we fed off of was unlike anything I’d ever seen.”

Herb Tyler, Quarterback: “Once you get to that bar, with Coach DiNardo standing at the door, everybody’s packed in like sardines in that little hallway…that’s when it becomes real. Now the time is here. Everybody runs through the door, you jump up and tap the ‘Win’ bar, once you get through those goal posts, it’s time to play. You look up and you see every seat full, as many people as can fit in the stadium are there standing up, yelling, screaming. It’s a truly magical night.”

Tommy Banks, Fullback: “By the time the game started, the crowd was full and they were into it. I can’t imagine a better setting for that game.”

Carl Reese, Defensive Coordinator: “I think there is something special that goes on over there, when you turn the lights on. Kids play different. It’s a special place.”


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