After the untimely death of Bo Rein, LSU found itself scrambling for a football coach. Forced on to a tight time scheduled, LSU reached into its own history books and pulled out former Tiger great, Jerry Stovall, who had served as an assistant under Cholly Mac.
It wasn’t a total disaster, but it wasn’t a success either. Among LSU coaches who coached for at least four seasons, he has the third worst winning percentage only ahead of Gaynell Tinsley (.507) and Curley Hallman (.364).
He went 22-21-2 over four years, alternating good years with bad ones. He did an admirable job as an emergency hire in 1980, winning seven games on short notice, and LSU decided to keep him around for 1981 instead of restarting the search. Rumor has it that Paul Dietzel, the AD since 1978, wanted Stovall the whole time.
The classic line amongst LSU fans of the era is that Stovall could recruit but couldn’t coach, Arnsparger could coach but couldn’t recruit, and we finally settled on Curley, a man who could do neither. Some of that overstates the case, but damn… the 1981 roster was loaded for a team that would win just three games.
Al Richardson, the LSU all-time leader in tackles, was a junior. The LSU all-time leader in sacks, Rydell Malancon, was a sophomore. And junior Al Risher still holds the LSU career record for passing efficiency. Eric Martin and Lance Smith highlighted a talented freshman class. And a good thing, too. The team only had five returning senior lettermen.
Still, with that many career LSU leaders, this team should have been better. Youth was an excuse not to win the SEC, not to faceplant on the season.
To be fair, LSU faced consecutive top five teams in the country to start the season, losing to both Alabama and Notre Dame. But the team rebounded with wins over Oregon St and Rice, so LSU sat at 2-2 going into the SEC season. LSU lost to Florida in Gainesville the next weekend and never recovered. By the time Kentucky came to town, LSU was 0-3 in the SEC and LSU was en route to its worst season since 1956.
There’s really no good options for 1981, but we’ll make do with the lone SEC win of the season. At least the team avoided total disaster, and there is a bright spot we’ll get into, which actually makes this game still historically significant to the program.
LSU got the ball first in front of the home crowd, and immediately drove down the field 80 yards for a touchdown. After an opening touchback, 14 plays later, Al Risher pitched the ball to Jude Hernandez for a three-yard score on third and goal.
Kentucky responded by promptly fumbling the ensuing kickoff. LSU recovered in great field position and though they couldn’t manage a first down, David Johnston managed a 30 yard field goal. LSU was up 10-0 and Kentucky hadn’t even taken an offensive snap yet.
At the end of the first, Kentucky was threatening to score, holding the ball just outside the red zone. As the second quarter opened, Kentucky would get the ball down to 3rd and 1 at the 13, but Al Richardson took QB Terry Henry down for a five yard loss, forcing a field goal. Kentucky would miss the attempt.
LSU would punt the ball right back, and Kentucky would march the ball down inside the five, setting up first and goal. Then, the defense showed their talent. Rydell Malancon and Ramsey Dardar combined to stop Pete Venable on first down. Al Richardson stopped Henry just shy of the goal line on second. On third down, Henry’s pass fell incomplete. The Wildcats were forced to settle for a 19-yard field goal.
Eric Martin would return the kick for 45 yards, giving LSU great field position. The LSU offense would quickly cash in, and Al Risher would score on 3rd and goal from the 1 on a QB sneak. LSU would go into the half up 17-3.
Kentucky would make it a game early in the second half when Henry Parks broke off a 62-yard touchdown run to bring Kentucky within a score. Kentucky booted the ball into the end zone where Eric Martin received the kick, cut to the left, found daylight, and was gone.
Eric Martin’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown doesn’t quite live on in lore like Billy Cannon’s 89-yard punt return against Ole Miss. Let’s face it, the stakes were decidedly lower. However, this still stands today as the last kickoff return for a touchdown by an LSU player in Tiger Stadium.
We’ve had some great return men since then. But none have managed to match Eric Martin. Skyler Green didn’t do it. Neither did Odell Beckham. Not Leonard Fournette or DJ Chark. Not even the Honey Badger or Zod. Nobody. Thirty-six years and counting, Eric Martin is the last LSU player to return a kickoff for a touchdown at home.
Kentucky would essentially come apart at the seams from this point on. The Wildcats threw three interceptions in the second half and were only saved from a further beatdown when Risher’s 24-yard touchdown run was taken off the board by a controversial clipping call.
Eric Martin would finish the game as LSU’s leading returner, rusher (100+ yards), and receiver (4 catches). Not a bad night for the freshman.
Had LSU’s young team turned the corner? Was this the game Stovall showed himself to be the right man for the job? Well, in the postgame notes when a reporter asked Kentucky coach Fran Curci if LSU did anything surprising offensively. His response?
27-27 Ole Miss
27-14 Oregon St
Yikes. Slim pickings here. The Oregon St game got LSU to 500, and the Ole Miss game featured a flurry of last minute field goals. However, this was not the 1960 Rebels, the 1981 edition struggled to avoid the SEC basement, winning just one conference game. The Rebels kicked two field goals in the final two minutes, helped along by an Alan Risher interception. Suddenly down by three, LSU would storm down the field and tie the game as time expired. Rallying for a tie against a bad Ole Miss team in game that you thought you had salted away already is an apt metaphor for the 1981 season.
The Orange Bowl season of 1982 was next, followed by another losing season in 1983, when Paul Dietzel lost his job as the AD. Without the support of the AD, Stovall’s days were numbered, and Bob Brodhead would bring down the axe in 1983.
The last years of McClendon brought the most Cholly Mac seasons possible. LSU went 8-4 twice followed by 7-5. The team went to three straight bowl games, spent time in the top 20, but eventually floundered when they played Alabama. We didn’t even help Mac pack, as he was fired for wallowing in mediocrity.
Following his termination, LSU found out what mediocre football really was. Just two years after Cholly Mac, LSU had missed the postseason in consecutive season, and now had posted the first 3-win season since 1956. Bo Rein tragically died in 1980 right after getting hired. We muddled along for a year, but the bottom fell out in 1981, finally rounding out the season by losing to Tulane. By 41 points. Nothing good had seemed to have happened in Baton Rouge in two years. The Cholly Mac era had already faded to legend, and the program moved into the hyper volatile 1980s era. LSU now lived in interesting times.
However, even now, I can’t really bring myself to blame Jerry Stovall. He was in over his head pretty much from Day One, but he did the school a solid in the wake of a tragedy. And he wasn’t a terrible steward of the program. He really could recruit, and bringing in that sort of talent would pay dividends to his successor. But Stovall’s tenure can best be summed up by this: he recruited Eric Martin to play at LSU, then used him as a running back.
But that was one hell of a kick return.
What’s the Greatest Game of 1981?
This poll is closed
ERIC MARTIN!!! (Kentucky)
We Tied? (Ole Miss)
A Win is a Win (Oregon St)
I’ve blocked 1981 from my memory