This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Golden Age of LSU football. After stumbling around in the darkness for over half a decade, LSU football slowly began its climb up the football mountain with the aptly named Bring Back the Magic Game.
My favorite fact about this game is that Gerry Dinardo called it the Bring Back the Magic Game before it was even played which, looking back on it, makes him the first Delusional Optimist. I mean, there was no rational reason to think LSU was going to beat Auburn.
Auburn came into the game ranked 6th in the country. LSU had not appeared in the AP poll since September 16, 1989. Auburn was coming off of a 9-1-1 season, and was only two years removed from going undefeated. LSU had not had a winning season in six years. LSU hadn't beaten Auburn since the Earthquake Game in 1988, and Auburn's last visit to Baton Rouge ended in a 34-10 thrashing.
Sure, getting white jerseys back was cool, but uniforms can only make up for so much. Dinardo inherited an LSU program that hadn't just hit an iceberg, it had already sunk to the bottom of the ocean. The Tigers kicked off the season by losing to Texas A&M 33-17, and our annual win over Mississippi State didn't alleviate anyone's concerns that this new coach was just bringing more of the same.
This was Dinardo's first home game, and he did everything right in the leadup. He brought back the white jerseys, and made an effort to connect with the program's past. He wanted fans to think of LSU as the power it once was, not the team that had endured six straight losing seasons. He talked about rebuilding, but he also talked about winning, right now. This wasn't another Five Year Plan.
Of course, step one of the rebuilding project was "Get Kevin Faulk on campus." Dinardo bought himself some goodwill by attracting the Parade All American to play for the purple and gold, the exact kind of Louisiana high school superstar that bolted out of state during the Hallman era.
I'd like to tell you Kevin Faulk showed up and carried us to an unlikely victory over Auburn. It's a better story that way. But alas, Faulk only rushed for 29 yards on 20 attempts, largely outmatched by the Auburn defense. Kendall Cleveland kept the running game going by gaining 53 yards on 13 attempts.
This game was nothing short of a miracle for the program. LSU jumped out to 12-3 lead in the first quarter, and then just hung on for dear life for the last 45 minutes. The last points LSU would score in the game came with two seconds left in the opening frame, when James Gillyard tossed Patrick Nix out of the back of the end zone in front of a wild student section.
Nix claimed he heard a whistle, and pulled up. Looking at the video, you can clearly see him give up on the play, so it is a reasonable excuse. But I'm not sure how he heard anything. That is the loudest I have ever heard Tiger Stadium. Okay, maybe it has gotten louder for a specific play here or there, but the sustained noise in that game was absolutely insane. You literally could not hear the person next to you, it was so loud. And not just for the scoring plays, I'm talking the whole game. Maybe there was a whistle, but I'm amazed Nix could pick it up out of the din.
And really, this was a win for Tiger Stadium and a long-suffering fanbase. Just one year prior, LSU couldn't hang on to a huge lead on the Plains, as Jamie Howard threw six interceptions in a 30-26 loss that hinged on four defensive touchdowns, including three in the fourth quarter. Let's just say no one in 1995 was unaware of that fact, so we weren't comfortable clinging to a small lead for three quarters.
LSU won the game, finally, on a defensive stand as time expired. Troy Twillie sealed the win with an interception in the end zone, thereby insuring that he would never have to pay for a drink within city limits ever again. It was a huge win for the program, and one that began the long climb back to becoming an SEC power.
However, at that exact moment, it was simply a cathartic relief. This was the kind of game that LSU lost over the past six years. LSU didn't just protect an early lead in their own stadium, the crowd made a measurable impact on the game. The box score credits the safety to Gillyard, but it really belongs to the student section.
LSU finally won a big game, and it was the first of many to come. LSU would build off the win to end the losing skid, and qualify for a bowl game for the first time in the decade. LSU's program was at such a point that students camped out to buy tickets to the Independence Bowl (where LSU would beat a Sparty team coached by Nick Saban). Yes, we were so starved for a winner that we slept outside in order to buy tickets to a meaningless game in Shreveport.
And it was awesome. This was the first taste of winning for a generation of LSU fans, and it tasted so, so sweet. It turned out to be a false spring, as Lou Tepper would crash the ship into another iceberg, ending Dinardo's tenure with a 3-8 season in 1999.
However, a foundation had been built. The talent Dinardo brought in would win LSU's 1st SEC title since 1988 in 2001. The fans started to expect good things to happen instead of disaster. LSU's Golden Age was born, and the program was about a decade away from winning two national titles, one more than anyone at the Bring Back the Magic game thought LSU would ever win in their lifetimes.
Winning is fun. Competing for titles is terrific. However, I'll always miss the excitement of those very first steps to respectability. It was the most fun I've ever had as a sports fan. I wouldn't trade LSU's success under Miles, but I'll treasure the awkward first steps of the Dinardo era.
This was the best game I have ever attended. And certainly the most fun I've ever had getting hit in the head with a whiskey bottle.
Sorry, it's an Auburn feed.
-- Sheddrick f'n Wilson. Shed versus Kennison was the mid-90's answer to the great ODB-Jarvis debate. Kennison was the more talented player and he went on to a better NFL career. He returned kicks and was just generally amazing. But Shed... man, Shed. Wilson would catch a game-tying touchdown in the dying seconds against South Carolina later in the season, and he would have to be carried off the field because he couldn't walk. That man gave every ounce of himself to the program. The Bring Back the Magic Game was his masterpiece. He caught 8 balls for 117 yards, and his early long reception set up the only touchdown of the game.
-- Nicky Savoie scored that touchdown. You can't get a more Louisiana name than that.
-- Except maybe Andre LaFleur, who had a miserable night. LSU's normally reliable kicker missed a 36 and a 39 yarder, either of which would have put the game out of reach.
-- Chad Kessler averaged over 50 yards a punt in 1997, but he flashed his talent in this game. He booted a 64 yarder in this one, and his four punts averaged 55.5 yards. He's the guy who started LSU's weird tradition of having amazing punters.
-- Jamie Howard deserved this one. He had one of the more up and down careers in LSU history, going from savior to pariah and then to veteran leader. He threw a bad pick in this one as well, but we don't like to talk about it because of 1994 and besides, we won. But when it happened, I remember the collective eye roll and murmuring of "here we go again." Auburn returned the pick 66 yards, but not to the end zone, and would have to settle for a field goal. Huge series which kept the crowd in the game.
-- The defense had ten tackles for a loss in that game. For years, the defense played well, only to watch the offense give games away. This was their game, and the offense managed to keep up. Pat Rogers was the unsung hero of the game, making 3 TFL and 9 total tackles. The man took up residence in the Auburn backfield.
-- This was not the game in which Gabe Northern popped Stephen Davis' helmet off. That was 1996. Still, I wanted to mention it because Gabe was awesome.
-- The non-call on the safety was a bad call. Nix pulled up, and the play should've been ruled dead. However, even without those points, LSU wins 10-6. It was the first quarter. Get over it. Whistle Game, my left foot.