When Paul first suggested this project and we were dividing up which seasons each of us would review, there was only one season that I absolutely 100-percent knew I had to write: 1986. The 1986 season sums up the ‘80s LSU football program better than any single team, and I love them for their dazzling combination of awesome play and jaw dropping inconsistency.
You think the Les Miles years were crazy? The final year of Bill Arnsparger’s tenure at LSU was gloriously insane. And for a long time, this was one of the last good memories of LSU football any of us would have. The 1988 team would share an SEC title, but the 1986 team was the last LSU team to win an outright SEC title until 2001. That’s a generation of kids who had to cling to this one great, brilliantly flawed team.
Late in 1985, Sports Illustrated published an expose of the LSU Athletic Department under Bob Brodhead. Though primarily about Dale Brown’s war with the NCAA, it would also detail an FBI probe into Broadhead’s attempt to install surveillance equipment in the athletic offices, a charge to which he’d later plead guilty. That’s right, our AD was under federal investigation in 1985-86. And you think things are tense for Joe Alleva.
*Though unrelated to football, the Dale Brown profile is still riveting reading.
Brodhead would resign in October of 1986, closing a volatile but massively influential tenure as LSU AD. Not many AD’s rack up a criminal record while on the job.
He inherited a sports program $1 million in the red, and immediately started cutting. He fired coaches (baseball coach Jack Lamabe found out via the want ads listing for his own job) and tried to drag LSU into the modern age of college sports to limited success. He began renovations on facilities and hired both Sue Gunter and Skip Bertman.
In the year he was fired, LSU football would make a Sugar Bowl trip, the basketball team made the Final Four, and the baseball team made the College World Series. Off the field was a nightmare, but LSU was rolling on the field. And turning a profit. Brodhead invited insanity, but it was a successful crazy.
He fired LSU legend Jerry Stovall in 1983 in his first full year as AD. Brodhead brought in Bill Arnsparger to revive the football program and would later write in Sacked! The Dark Side of Sports at Louisiana State University about the hire:
I was proud of my selection, and I was confident that Arnsparger would provide the leadership necessary to turn the football program around. I had better be. The Good Old Boy Club at LSU, smarting from its first setback in decades--and at the hands of an outsider; no less--was busy tying my fate to Arnsparger’s future won-loss record. Either he won, or I lost.
Some members of the media were also less than receptive to the new coach. Ron Higgins, a local sports columnist, had written the following bit of prose in anticipation that Arnsparger would be hired: “Brodhead, who once had a job promoting nails, would have an easier time selling thumb tacks than Arnsparger.
”The four problems with Arnsparger in a nutshell? He’s too old (almost 57 years old); he’s from Miami (fans will point to Brodhead’s so-called Miami Connection), he’s from the pros (LSU folks don’t take kindly to a pro coach stepping into a college atmosphere) and he’s not a proven major college winning head coach.”
Let’s give Higgins some credit. The Miami connection would come back to bite LSU on the ass. Arnsparger would follow Brodhead out the door and take the AD job at Florida rather than stay the unpopular head coach for a bunch of locals who hated his guts despite the SEC title.
And we haven’t even gotten to the on the field stuff yet!
LSU entered the season ranked 15th in the country and climbed into the top ten by virtue of an opening week blowout of No. 7 Texas A&M. The following week is one of the most infamous losses in LSU lore: Miami of Ohio. LSU would fall behind 14-0 and, despite out-gaining Miami 407-209, could not come back thanks to five fumbles and two interceptions. LSU inexplicably lost 21-12.
LSU would then rebound to win its next four games to get back to the cusp of the top ten (including a win over favored Florida in Gainesville), only to drop a game to Ole Miss in Tiger Stadium. LSU would stake the Rebels to a 21-9 halftime lead, but couldn’t quite close the gap, primarily due to losing yards on a goal to go situation from the one, settling for a 21-yard field goal instead of a touchdown. Then, David Browndyke would miss a 52 yarder and a 30-yard attempt in the final seconds. LSU lost 21-19 in a game they absolutely should have won. Again.
At 5-2, LSU travelled to Legion Field in Birmingham to play the Tide, having seemingly squandered a great team with a roster dotted with such stars as Tommy Hodson, Wendell Davis, Eric Andolsek, Ron Sancho, and Michael Brooks (who would suffer a near career ending injury against Florida). But #6 Alabama was undefeated in the SEC and sat atop the conference standings, giving LSU a chance to tie the race.
On the opening drive of the game, Tommy Hodson wouldn’t even face a third down, confidently guiding the Tigers into Alabama territory. But on first down from the 35, he threw an interception to Freddie Robinson. The Tide, guided by senior signal caller Mike Shula (yup, the same one), would respond with their own long drive on a heavy diet of runs by Bobby Humphrey. But a crucial stop on third and short set up a missed 44-yard field goal attempt.
A series of penalties would force LSU to punt in the shadow of their own end zone, gifting the Tide the ball inside the 50. Bama would quickly drive the ball inside the 10, and on 3rd and goal from the 3, Shula found Angelo Stafford for a touchdown and the first score of the game.
Arnsparger would bench his freshman phenom in the second quarter and put sophomore Mickey Guidry in the game to calm things down. Guidry responded by successfully handing the ball off on seven consecutive plays, then calling his own number from three yards out and scoring a TD on the scramble.
Bama responded with another terrific drive, thwarted by a Greg Jackson interception in the end zone. Guidry would start the next LSU drive as well before finally coming out so LSU could throw the ball downfield again. Immediately, Hodson hit Brian Kinchen and then drew a late hit when scrambling out of bounds. With under a minute remaining in the half, Hodson finally found Wendell Davis for a six-yard touchdown pass.
LSU took a 14-7 lead into the half and while they didn’t now it yet, they were done scoring for the day. The rest of the evening would be a white knuckle ride of trying to keep Bama out of the end zone and stealing the victory.
Disaster struck early, as LSU was flagged for offensive pass interference on third down, resulting in a punt from their own 12-yard line. Again. Bama started on LSU’s side of the 50 and drove down to the five, primarily due to the runs of Humphrey. But Shula overthrew the ball out of the end zone of third down and Bama had to settle for a field goal attempt, this time connecting on a 22 yarder.
After a series of punts, including one by LSU from the Bama 36-yard line, Bama took over on its own six-yard line. Arnsparger was channeling Cholly Mac and playing positional football. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Bobby Humphrey appeared to break free and was headed for daylight when the ball was stripped and recovered by Jackson. LSU recovered on their own 17, moved backwards, and punted again.
Bama cost themselves great field position with a personal foul penalty, but LSU had no answer for Bobby Humphrey. The Tide drove down the field… again… and Humphrey converted a huge third and one from the eight to set up first and goal. On the next play Humphrey was headed for the end zone, only to have Eric Hill strip the ball at the goal-line. Kevin Guidry recovered in the end zone, and LSU had dodged yet another bullet.
Hodson would soon throw his second pick of the game, this one to Kermit Kendrick at the LSU 41 with 5:48 to play. For the third time, Bama started on LSU’s side of the field. This is about when Ray Perkins lost his damn mind. Yes, Humphrey had fumbled twice in the fourth quarter, but he was still gashing the LSU defense. After the last fumble, Perkins decided to rely on the arm of Mike Shula and the legs of Gene Jelks. Jelks was a fine player, but he wasn’t Bobby Humphrey. On fourth and five from the LSU 36, Bama attempted a reverse. Albert Bell wouldn’t even cross the line of scrimmage and again, LSU’s defense had held despite disastrous field position.
For the fourth time in the fourth quarter, LSU’s offense took the field. For the first time, they actually gained a first down. However, the Tigers couldn’t move the ball any further, and were forced to punt with 2:19 on the clock, clinging to their 14-10 lead.
On the first play from scrimmage, Mike Shula promptly threw an interception to Eric Hill. But being the horror movie villain they are, the Tide weren’t dead yet. LSU would convert on fourth and two from the 19, when Garland Jean Baptiste plunged ahead for the two yards LSU needed for the first and the game.
LSU’s longest drive of the second half was a mere 2:32. The offense gained just 46 yards on 36 plays, providing little to no help to the defense. Hodson threw two interceptions, and LSU punted on six of its seven possessions in the second half until finally running out the clock.
Bama spent almost the entire second half in LSU territory, but ended up with only a field goal to show for it. Alabama made four trips inside the 10 yard line, and came away with 10 points. It was a heroic defensive effort, keyed primarily by Hill and Greg Jackson. Hill forced a fumble and had an interception, while Jackson had an interception, forced a fumble, AND recovered one. It was a monster performance made more remarkable because star Michael Brooks had suffered a knee injury against Florida and didn’t play.
This was the defining defensive performance of the era, and the standard to which LSU defenses were held until recently. Eric Hill’s strip of Bobby Humphrey was the defining play of the Arnsparger era and one of the great what-if’s of LSU sports.
Once Arnsparger bolted for Florida after the 1986 season, LSU turned down applicants Steve Spurrier and Mike Shanahan for the head coaching gig. Instead, favoring continuity, LSU promoted defensive coordinator and players’ choice Mike Archer to head coach. If Eric Hill doesn’t make that strip, LSU doesn’t win the SEC and the desire for continuity would be a lot less. Instead of an SEC champ, LSU would have been an 8-3 team, probably headed for the Sun Bowl in Bama’s place. Would LSU even consider promoting Mike Archer from a team that lost to Miami of Ohio?
LSU won the SEC title and earned another trip to the Sugar Bowl. But the good times crashed almost immediately as LSU would lose to Nebraska. Both the AD and coach were gone, replaced by disastrous hires, and within a few years, LSU would be in the throes of its Dark Age. Two years later, Bill Arnsparger hired Spurrier at Florida.
It was worth it. That game, and that season, was beyond awesome.
35-17 Texas A&M
47-0 Mississippi St.
21-19 Notre Dame
The story of 1986 didn’t end there on the field either. LSU had merely tied Bama for the SEC lead and we knew with absolute certainty that the SEC and Sugar Bowl would absolutely screw us over in favor in Bama. LSU needed not only to win all of its SEC games, the Tigers needed to win some critical non-conference games, AND pray for Bama to lose again.
LSU would close the season on a four game win streak. First, blasting State 47-0 in Starkville, followed by a tense 21-19 win over Notre Dame in Lou Holtz’s first season in South Bend. Tim Brown returned a kickoff for a score and Hodson threw two back breaking interceptions, but came through in the clutch. LSU stopped a two point conversion late, and Hodson converted two 3rd and longs to Wendell f’n Davis to keep possession and then run out the clock.
LSU would win the outright SEC title when Bama dropped the Iron Bowl to Auburn, 21-17. LSU celebrated by beating Tulane and on the same night, Bill Arnsparger resigned as head football coach. The crazy still reigned. But never again as crazy as 1986.
What’s the Greatest Game in 1986?
This poll is closed
The Defensive Perfect Game (Bama)
The Opening Statement (Texas A&M)
The Pyrrhic Victory (Florida)
The Blowout for the Title (Mississippi St)
The National Coming Out Party (Notre Dame)