The 1980’s opened up not just a new decade, bit a new era for LSU football. Charles McClendon finally coached his last game at LSU in 1979, 18 seasons after he first took the job in 1962. As we’ve detailed before, the school had been trying to fire McClendon for four years, and the deed finally took.
In his place, AD Paul Dietzel hired a bright, up and coming coach in Bo Rein out of NC State. An assistant under Lou Holtz, he moved up to the head job when Holtz went to the NFL. After a rocky first year, his teams had gone 24-11 and won an ACC title. This was a terrific hire which promised to take LSU into the modern era of college football.
Of course, things didn’t work out that way. Bo Rein’s plane tragically went off course and went missing off the Atlantic. LSU was left scrambling to fill its now vacant position, and just two days after, they hired former playing great, Jerry Stovall.
This was the most difficult of situations, and not the way you want to get your dream job. When Dietzel initially made the hire, he refused to consider anyone on the current staff for a promotion, which meant Stovall had seemingly missed out on the job. He took a job as a fundraiser for the Varsity Club, but now was in the job he had wanted all along, head football coach at LSU. And now he wasn’t sure if he wanted it like this.
“There’s only one thing to do,’’ Manasseh said to Dietzel, who coached LSU to a national championship 22 years before. “You’ll have to take over the team.’’ Dietzel blanched and said, “There’s no way in the world I am going to do that. You know that there are knuckleheads out there who would jump on that, saying I was looking for an opportunity to get back in coaching. No way.’’
The solution hit Dietzel like a lightning bolt: Stovall. He was a coach, he was familiar with LSU, and he’d be willing to work with the staff Rein had assembled.
“What a tragedy.” Stovall reflected. “It changed the lives of so many people. If LSU needed me, I was ready to help in any way I could. And it wouldn’t have been fair to those men on Bo Rein’s staff to take the job, then insist on my own choices.’’
Dietzel recommended Stovall, and the LSU Board of Supervisors hastily called for a meeting for 10 a.m. two days later, on Saturday. After he was named, Stovall admitted he was standing there by an act of God, and added softly, “I would give up any job, I would give up my right arm if it meant Bo Rein could come back. I love LSU, but the loss of Coach Rein makes the conditions sorrowful.’’
It’s no surprise the 1980 season was a struggle. LSU opened up the year getting blown out by a team coached by their first choice for the job, Bobby Bowden’s Florida St. Seminoles. LSU beat two Big 8 teams before dropping a road game to Rice. RICE!
The next two weeks were huge for the team, as they upset #19 Florida on the road to start the SEC season, then came home to face Auburn at 3-2. It was their first SEC home game without Cholly Mac as the coach since 1961. It would be won with heart and effort.
Auburn’s star running back, James Brooks, would get the game off to rollicking start when he fumbled the opening kickoff, recovered by Tommy Boudreaux.* Jesse Myles would then break off a 36 yard run to the one yard line, and Alan Risher would keep for the short touchdown. Less than two minutes in, and LSU had a 7-0 lead.
* There should be a rule that LSU always have at least one player named Boudreaux or Thibodeaux on the team. 1980 had one of each. It is perhaps the best collection of names in LSU’s history: Robby Mahfouz, Efrem Coley, George Atiyeh, Ramsey Dardar, Rydell Melancon, and of course, the immortal Hokie Gajan.
Auburn with respond with a long drive, relying on a healthy dose of James Brooks and George Peoples. However, Al Richardson would make the stop on third down to force a 44-yard field goal attempt. Al Del Greco would push it wide right.
The teams would spend the rest of the first quarter trading punts, but as the quarter wound down, Auburn was putting together another long drive. Again, it was based on a healthy dose of the two backs, but mainly Brooks, who ended the quarter already with 73 rushing yards on 10 carries. Auburn crossed midfield as the quarter expired.
Auburn started the second by letting Joe Sullivan pass the ball a few times, which LSU was very thankful for. Two incompletions later, Auburn punted. LSU put together its best drive of the game so far, but on third and one, the Auburn defense held Mike Montz short of the sticks. David Johnston came into the game and missed a 45 yard attempt.
Brooks would carry Auburn down the field again, but once Auburn got inside the ten, the LSU defense stiffened, and Brooks could not find any more space. They would settle for a 25 yard field goal.
LSU’s offense continued to struggle, going three and out, allowing Auburn to get the ball with just over two minutes left in the half. Auburn stormed down the field, getting down to the red zone. But then disaster struck for Auburn, and Del Greco missed a 29 yard chip shot in the half’s dying seconds.
James Brooks already had 106 yards rushing and Auburn had outgained LSU 225-117 while holding on to the ball for nearly 19 of the half’s 30 minutes. But thanks to that opening fumble, LSU held a slight 7-3 lead despite being severely outplayed.
Alan Risher would guide LSU down to the Auburn 28 on the first possession of the second half, only to have Johnston miss another long field goal. But Auburn kept up their them of their first possession of the half being an utter disaster, and Charles Thomas, coming in relief at QB, threw an interception to Marcus Quinn at their own 39.
Risher’s third down pass to Hokie Gajan would be complete, but Gajan came up shy of the first down by inches. Stovall elected to go for it, and Risher would not just pick up the first, but he went around the end, found daylight, and didn’t stop until he was in the end zone. LSU opened the lead up to 14-3.
Sullivan would come back into the game at quarterback for Auburn, but he still had the good sense to hand the ball to Brooks a lot. Brooks would come up short on 3rd and 2 at the 37, but now it was Auburn’s turn to go for it. Brooks wouldn’t score a touchdown on the play like Risher, but he did convert the first down. The long touchdown run would come two players latter, when Brooks would get to the outside and beat everyone to the end zone.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, it was LSU’s turn to face disaster. Hokie Gajan fumbled on his own 24 yard line, and Auburn recovered. It would only take Auburn two plays to score, with Willie Huntley pushing the ball across for a 17-14 Auburn lead.
Risher sprung the LSU offense into action, getting the team to midfield in just four plays. The fifth play of the drive, however, he went deep and the Auburn defender came up with it. Auburn now had the ball and the lead.
Brooks picked up the yardage for the first down, only to lose the ball when tackled by Chris Williams. George Atiyeh recovered, so that the net result of the two turnovers was that LSU picked up about ten yards of field position. Still, LSU couldn’t move the ball and was forced to punt. Auburn’s next drive was torpedoed by a holding penalty, but they were in range for a long field goal attempt. For the third time in the game, Del Greco missed.
Sure, Auburn missed the kick, but they were still up by three and the clock was winding down. LSU took over with under seven minutes on the clock. Risher would barely convert a first down on 3rd and 5, but then would really start getting going. A pass interference call moved the ball down the field, followed up by a 34 yard pass reception by Hokie. After two running plays setting up 3rd and 3 and the 15, Risher would find his tight end, Malcolm Scott in the middle of the field, and he would run it in for a touchdown. LSU was back up, 21-17 with 3:05 to play.
Auburn couldn’t move the ball after the kickoff, and on fourth and 7 from their own 34, they elected to punt. LSU took over on their own 26, needing only to drain the last 1:39 from the clock to secure victory. Mike Montz would carry it for six and then three yards, but on third and one, he was held for no gain. Looking at fourth and one with under a minute to play, Stovall elected to punt.
Clifford Toney would break through the line and block the punt, which Johnny Green would then recover at the 11 yard line. Auburn had 49 seconds, no timeouts, and four downs to score a touchdown to pull off a miraculous victory.
Jerry Stovall would call a timeout and gather his defense around him. I’m not sure what he said in that defensive huddle, but it worked. But for a moment, it nearly didn’t.
On first down, Sullivan found Byron Franklin wide open in the end zone. The pass hit him right in the numbers for an easy touchdown. But he dropped it, and with it, the sure victory. Sullivan’s next two passes fell incomplete, and on fourth down, Marcus Quinn earned his second interception of the night at the one yard line. Quinn would almost return it all the way for a touchdown the other way, but he was hauled down at the 26. Besides, flags flew all over the place. LSU fans waited with baited breath for the call… clipping. The penalty erased most of the return, but the interception held up.
Risher would walk on to the field and successfully kneeled the ball out of the victory formation for one of the sweetest and most emotional wins in Tiger Stadium history. Auburn coach Doug Barfield would complain about the crowd, giving them the credit for the win. Even Stovall admitted that had the game been played any place else, Auburn would have won.
James Brooks rushed for 210 yards, a Tiger Stadium record at the time, but his two fumbles both lead to LSU touchdowns. The kickers went a combined 1 for 6, but no miss loomed as large as Del Greco’s 25 yarder, which prevented Auburn from simply kicking a short field goal to win in the game’s final minute. LSU was outgained, outpossessed, and largely outplayed. But LSU had Tiger Stadium and the greatest fans on earth, and that was enough. They also had the extraordinary hops of Marcus Quinn to make the pick and the cool composure of Alan Risher throughout. And I can’t prove it, but maybe a little help from Bo Rein.
38-16 Ole Miss
LSU would win its next two games, including a blowout win over Ole Miss, to run its SEC record to 4-0 before reality came a-calling. LSU would go on the road for consecutive weeks, losing to Bama 28-7 and then Mississippi St 55-31. Heart can only get you so far. But it did get the team some hard-earned wins other than the Auburn game. LSU blew a 20-0 lead against Colorado, only to come down the field on the final possession to kick a game winning field goal from 17 yards out, set up by an interception return by Williams. Florida was ranked in the top 20 and LSU went into Gainesville and simply blew them out without much fuss.
What’s the Greatest Game of 1980?
This poll is closed
Emotional win over Auburn
Blowing out ranked Florida
Crushing Ole Miss
Thriller against Colorado