I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Paul Dietzel, a man whose strategies made a lasting impact upon the game of college football. It’s rare to see those types of shooting stars in Baton Rouge. Even though both Nick Saban and Les Miles served highly successful tenures at LSU, neither would really be credited as true innovators in the field. They succeeded in the way most coaches do: by doing a lot of little things well.
Dietzel brought a relentless discipline to LSU, not unlike many of his peers of the era. But what truly set him apart is the innovative use of platoon units, famously called the “Chinese Bandits.” Strategically, it played a major factor in LSU’s 1958 title. By 1961 Dietzel was a national commodity. LSU was certainly a great job, but one that was a tier below some of the true blue blood programs like Army, Notre Dame, Michigan.
LSU struggled in 1960, when Dietzel opted to rebuild by going young, playing a team featuring 18 sophomores. Now, nearly every major contributor would return in 1961, giving LSU an exceptionally deep and talented team. In the annals of great teams in LSU history, people will always talk about ‘58, ‘03, ‘06, ‘07 and ‘11. Forgotten is the 1961 team that sent 15 different players into professional football. For comparison, LSU has sent 17 players to the NFL from the 2014, 2015 and 2016 teams combined. LSU in 1961 was absolutely loaded.
The Greatest Game in 1961: Ole Miss
The season started poorly with a 16-3 loss to Rice in Houston. LSU followed that up when they returned home the next week, limping around against Texas A&M, until they trailed late 7-2. Then halfback Wendell Harris busted loose for a 62-yard score, as LSU came back in the 4th quarter to win 16-7. The next week LSU welcomed a Bobby Dodd coached Georgia Tech, then no. 3 in the nation. This game, of course, birthed one of the most famous quotes about Tiger Stadium in history. Coach Dodd remarked that playing in Tiger Stadium was tougher than South Bend. There in front of 66,000 fans, Dodd described it: “It was like the Colosseum in Rome and we were the Christians.” LSU dominated the game 10-0 and Dodd said he’d never seen a team better prepared to stop his. Georgia Tech only amassed 156 total yards while being shut out. LSU’s early season struggles were put to bed quickly.
In the next several weeks, LSU would make easy work of its opponents. First beating South Carolina 42-0, then beating Kentucky by 10 before going back on the road to take down the Gators in Gainesville, 23-0. After a season-opening loss, the Tigers rattled off 5-straight impressive wins leading into a showdown with no. 2 Ole Miss.
Deep into the Vaught era, the Rebels were still playing dominant football, at this point undefeated 6 weeks into the season. LSU crawled their way back to no. 6 nationally when they welcomed Ole Miss to town. The Magnolia Bowl looked to be the typical showdown of powerhouses and the game would not disappoint.
By this point, Ole Miss had not scored a touchdown against LSU since 1957. Though the games were decidedly competitive in this era, Dietzel seemed to hold a slight leg up on Vaught, spoiling undefeated seasons for the Rebels in both 1959 and 1960. Could the Tigers play spoilers again?
Early that afternoon, Minnesota pulled an upset over then no. 1 Michigan State, meaning Ole Miss was the default no. 1 team in the country when they entered Tiger Stadium that evening. Tensions were high as ever. Just the afternoon before, Tiger students surrounded the Ole Miss team bus and started chanting “Geaux to Hell Ole Miss, Geaux to Hell!”
It would be a tension-filled affair. The heavyweights battled it out in a low-scoring affair. Ole Miss ran more plays, gained more yards and racked up more first downs, while marching into LSU territory 6 different times that evening. Yet, LSU delivered clutch play after clutch play to keep the game tight, often relying on reserve punter Danny Neumann to flip the field.
When the Rebels scored just before the half, it seemed to break the spirit of a valiant but outmatched LSU squad. The Tigers took the ball back and suddenly Jerry Stovall found open space, busting free for a 57-yard scamper to put LSU on the Rebels 23. Still, the drive stalled out, but Dietzel uncharacteristically opted to be aggressive and go for it on 4th and 5. QB Lynn Amedee found a diving Billy Truax, who made a miracle finger-tip catch to keep the drive alive. It would be the only pass LSU completed all night. Two plays later, LSU went back to the same play that busted Stovall free earlier and again caught Ole Miss off balance as Stovall strolled into the end zone untouched.
By game’s end, the Rebels had just 7 points, despite stuffing the box score. LSU would hang on to victory when End Gene Sykes would recover a fumble on Ole Miss’ final effort. LSU 10, Ole Miss 7. After the game Dietzel remarked, “I hope the boys on the 1958 and ‘59 teams will forgive me, but this is the greatest victory I’ve ever been associated with.” High praise from the coach who delivered a national title and near follow-up.
The win propelled LSU up to no 4 nationally. While a 3rd Sugar Bowl appearance in 4 seasons looked on the horizon, Athletic Director Jim Corbett announced LSU would not accept the invitation. Corbett worked to secure votes from the Board of Supervisors to enable LSU play against a racially integrated team. The committee initially balked. After LSU struggled in a tight win against Mississippi State, the players accepted a bid to the Orange Bowl against an integrated opponent (Colorado or Kansas), despite the Board of Supervisors’ earlier vote.
Days later, Army would fire Dale Hall. After the ‘58 season Dietzel had rebuffed Army, believing he hadn’t accomplished all he set out to in Baton Rouge. By ‘61, however, Dietzel felt the challenge was gone and could resist the allure of the Army gig no more. News began to leak as LSU prepared for the Orange Bowl against Colorado. Newspapers in Miami ran the headline, “LSU to Give Coach Goodbye Win,” which Dietzel used to motivate his team, reminding them they were there to play for LSU, not him. The Tigers dominated and Dietzel was off to West Point.
W vs. No. 3 Georgia Tech 10 - 0
W vs. Tulane 62 - 0
W vs. No. 7 Colorado 25 - 7
This feels like another obvious choice. The Georgia Tech win was nice and beating the snot out of Tulane is always fun. LSU dominated Colorado in the Orange Bowl, which is also great. But it’s hard to top an upset victory over your heated rival in Tiger Stadium.
What’s the Greatest Game in 1961?
This poll is closed
Upsetting Ole Miss
Shutting out Georgia Tech
Beat down on Colorado in the Orange