On December 1, 1986, Bill Arnsparger resigned as the head coach of LSU football, kicking off perhaps the most dramatic head coaching search in LSU history. Even now, over thirty years later, most of the process is obscured by legend.
What is beyond dispute is that three weeks after Arnsparger officially resigned, LSU hired Mike Archer as the head coach. What happened during those three weeks is very much in dispute, but let’s try and put together the pieces.
Arnsparger immediately recommended his defensive coordinator, Mike Archer, to fill the vacancy. He was not alone. Acting LSU AD Larry Jones also recommended Archer. The Board of Supervisors decided to do their own search.
The first public candidates for the job other than Archer were Tulane’s Mack Brown and former LSU quarterback Nelson Stokely. Honestly, given their future success at Texas and Louisiana-Lafayette, respectively, either would have been a good hire.
The Chancellor sided with Arnsparger and his athletic director. The Board wanted a bigger name and interviewed former Browns coach Sam Rutigliano and Lynn Amedee. I can think of no greater warning sign regarding Beware the Hot Name than that previous sentence.
I didn’t find a reference to Steve Spurrier in 1986, but he was mentioned as a candidate for the job in an article from 1988. If nothing else, at that point, LSU passing over Spurrier was already part of the legend, and he was still the coach at Duke.
The players took matters into their own hands. Over 30 players testified to the Board for three and a half hours on Archer’s behalf. Furthermore, there was the threat of a mass transfer of players if Archer didn’t get the job. Erik Andolsek spoke for the team when he told SI, ““We wanted to keep it in the family.”
The Board succumbed to the pressure and voted 17-0 in favor of Archer. The boosters may not have gotten their man at head coach, but they contented themselves to controlling the new AD hire. Joe Dean’s name moved to the top of the shortlist, a popular choice among the boosters. Dean was a longtime Baton Rouge resident, steeped in the politics of LSU, and friends to just about everyone in town.
The Board didn’t need Bill Arnsparger’s help to botch a hire.
At age 33, Mike Archer was the youngest head football coach in the country. But he wasn’t taking over a rebuild. He had a loaded roster coming off a Sugar Bowl appearance and an SEC title. He quipped, “I’d much rather break in at LSU now than some school that finished 2-8-1.”
He was a new breed of coach and probably a little too far ahead of his time. In the wake of the era of dictators like Bear Bryant or even seemingly eternal father figures like Cholly Mac, Archer believed in letting his players be themselves. He ran a looser program, removed a lot of the restrictions, and even encouraged players to run their mouths to the press, which Harvey Williams especially took full advantage of. Archer was young, brash, and talented. It was a new era, and he was taking the attitude from his tenure in Miami.
Right away, Mike Archer promised a team that would compete for a national title. He delivered on that promise. In his first game as coach, LSU travelled to College Station and beat Texas A&M 17-3. After two blowouts over outmatched teams, LSU played one of its more famous games, a 13-13 tie against Ohio St. on national TV.
By mid-October, LSU was an SEC title favorite, ranking seventh in the country. LSU had its early road test, but now it had to travel to an unfamiliar locale, between the hedges in Athens to face the legendary Vince Dooley and his Georgia Bulldogs. The winner would have the inside track to the Sugar Bowl.
1980’s ESPN for the win! Mike Patrick! Lee Corso with a full head of hair! Tim Brando in the studio! Terrible graphics! Neck rolls!
Georgia opened the game with the football with James Jackson under center. Being a Vince Dooley coached team, they came out running the football right into the teeth of the LSU defense. The mix of Jackson’s speed with the battering ram of Lars Tate churned up yardage with the big play being a 34-yard rush by Jackson to the LSU 21. Jackson was a spectacular runner, but he wasn’t that great of a thrower, and he threw a sure pick six right into the gut of Chris Carrier, who dropped the ball. Georgia gladly settled for a field goal.
LSU responded with a long drive of their own, but based theirs on their aerial attack of Tommy Hodson and eventual SEC Player of the Year Wendell Davis. Davis, in what will be a theme of the game, made two first down catches to keep the drive alive. However, on 3rd and 3 just inside Georgia territory, Hodson’s pass was tipped incomplete and LSU had to punt.
Georgia would go three and out, and punt the ball right back. LSU took over with great field position. Sammy Martin came in for Harvey Williams at tailback and started getting big chunks of yardage. But on 3rd and 10 from the 17, Hodson’s completion to Davis came up a few yards short, and David Browndyke kicked a short 27 yarder to tie the game at three.
The Bulldogs came close to breaking the kickoff return, but instead closed the first quarter with terrific field position. Which they would promptly squander, but David Dukes would punt the ball down to the LSU 5, pinning the Tigers against their own end zone.
The battle for field position didn’t work. LSU did punt after a three and out, but a Georgia penalty on the return pushed the ball back and the Bulldogs didn’t threaten. LSU took over at their own 24, but with Mickey Guidry under center for no particular reason. The move worked. Guidry spread the ball out to Brian Kinchen and Tony Moss as well as Davis, who made his fourth first down catch of the game. On third and long, Tony Moss eluded his defenders and broke down the field for a 36-yard touchdown.
The swing in momentum continued on defense, as LSU forced Alphonso Ellis to fumble on a play that certainly would have been overturned if we had replay in 1987. Ron Sancho recovered at the Georgia 33. Hodson immediately found Wendell Davis for a first down at the 10. But on third and goal from the one, Harvey Williams went backwards, and LSU settled for another short field goal. LSU happily took its 13-3 lead.
Georgia couldn’t do anything on its next possession and punted the ball away with only 1:12 left in the half. But instead of running out the clock, Archer opted for a two-minute drill. Hodson found Martin for two big gains to get inside the red zone, and LSU added a Browndyke 35-yard field goal to close out the first half with a 16-3 lead.
The second half got off to a less than ideal start when Harvey Williams fumbled the ball on his own 33 yard line. Georgia pounced on the ball and on 3rd and 8, Jackson hit John Thomas for a 31-yard touchdown on a perfect over the shoulder catch. Georgia, and the crowd, were suddenly back in the game. Steve Crumley missed the PAT, so the score was 16-9.
LSU would only convert one first down (guess who?), and was forced to punt. Georgia responded with a three and out of their own. LSU would drive to the Georgia 39, but the first down catch to Davis this time was slightly out of bounds. Archer toyed with the idea of a 56-yard field goal, but settled on another punt.
As the quarter wound down, the biggest play of the game to this point occurred, but it was a missed opportunity rather than a big play. Georgia ran a flea flicker which baffled the LSU secondary. Jackson found a receiver wide open in the end zone, and Thomas simply dropped it. Instead of a tie game, Georgia trailed by a touchdown as the quarter came to an end, punting the ball back to LSU.
A huge run by Sammy Martin put LSU in Georgia territory. On third down, again Wendell Davis made a huge catch to get LSU a first down inside the red zone. Martin would get another first down at the two yard line. Eddie Fuller would cross the goalline on the next play, only to have the play called back for delay of game. LSU could not pick up the yards in the heavy formation and on third down, Rogie Magee dropped the ball in the end zone. Again, David Browndyke kicked a short field goal to push the lead to 19-9. It extended the lead, but it was a wasted opportunity.
That wasted opportunity loomed large about a minute later, when the usually plodding Bulldog offense came through with a big play on third down at their own 25: Jackson hit Cassius Osbourne at the 35, who spun out of a tackle and saw nothing but open field. It was a 74-yard touchdown pass, more than doubling their passing yards on the game so far. And now the game was 19-16.
Things got even worse on the next possession, as Tommy Hodson threw an interception on third and short, which Vince Guthrie returned to the LSU 17. Just two plays later Rodney Hampton ran through what seemed like the entire LSU defense for a 14-yard touchdown run. LSU had been leading throughout the entire game, primarily by double digits, and now with about six minutes to play, Georgia had an unlikely 23-19 lead.
In a game of wild momentum swings, the next swing would come on the very next play. Eddie Fuller would see daylight on the return and almost broke one. LSU would start at its own 40. Hodson would be chased out of bounds on the first play of the drive, when he would be absolutely leveled out of bounds by Ben Smith in a hit that, if it happened today, we would call for Congressional hearings. The first man on the scene was none other than Mike Archer. LSU was now across midfield.
Mickey Guidry would take a few snaps while Hodson cleared his head, handing the ball off twice. Hodson came in on third and three, and what followed was seemingly inevitable, but Georgia could do nothing to stop it. Hodson to Martin: First down. Hodson to Davis: First down. Hodson to Davis again: First down. OK, Davis did just miss a touchdown catch on a low throw through double coverage for an incompletion. But Davis brought the Tigers down to the eight yard line.
After failing so many times inside the ten in the game, LSU finally would break through on second and goal. Hodson would roll left and hit his third of fourth read, Brian Kinchen. Kinchen bobbled the ball, but he came down with the touchdown. LSU took the lead back, 26-23. But they also left 3:36 on the clock, plenty of time even for Georgia to run a methodical drive down the field.
Passing might not have been Jackson’s first option usually, but he calmly put together a hell of a drive. He did miss an open receiver streaking down the sideline, but Georgia never faced a third down as he guided the team past midfield and down to the LSU 28 yard line with a minute left.
Jackson would find Rodney Hampton open underneath and he’d float the ball to him. The ball bounced off his outstretched fingers and into the open arms of Kevin Guidry for a game-saving interception. LSU survived a barnburner. Afterwards, Mike Archer would comment that he was now 34 going on 60. For a moment, it looked like the bright young man was going to push the legends off the stage.
Wendell Davis was easily the game’s MVP despite not finding the end zone. He caught 11 balls for 128 yards, most of those catches for first downs to preserve drives. His two catches on the final drive set up the game-winning score. It was the tenth 100-yard receiving game of Davis’ career, and it launched him to the SEC Player of the Year Award.
LSU would finish the season 10-1-1, its first 10-win season since 1961. The 1987 team was probably the best LSU team in the 1980s, though it was sandwiched in between two teams that won the SEC title. It seemed like the dawning of a new Golden Age. Instead, we had to wait a decade for it.
17-3 @#15 Texas A&M
13-13 #7 Ohio St
13-10 #19 Florida
30-13 #9 South Carolina (Gator Bowl)
There were a ton of great options, befitting one of the best teams in school history, so I want to talk about each game in a little bit of detail.
LSU would play six ranked teams in 1987 en route to a final spot in the AP poll at #5. I’ll give you one guess who LSU lost to. Yup, LSU dropped probably the most dispiriting game to Alabama prior to 2011, as a clearly superior LSU team lost at home to Bama, 22-10 in a game now called the No Sugar Tonight Game. LSU would go 30 years without beating Bama in Baton Rouge… this was the worst one, as it cost LSU a shot at the national title.
The season started with a rare trip to College Station to face rival Texas A&M. It was the first trip to College Station since 1922. A&M was a stacked team that would go on to win the SWC title. Jackie Sherrill thought he had secured the commitment of Harvey Williams, who reneged at his announcement ceremony and chose LSU instead, adding some heat to the game.
The Ohio St. game is probably the most mythic game of the season, including the Buckeyes refusing to take the field before LSU. It was an intense game, but it was more symbolic than an actual good game. LSU committed four turnovers, giving the game away at home. Let’s not romanticize it. LSU blew this one.
The Florida game was another classic. Florida carried a 10-3 lead into the final quarter, thanks to a Harvey Williams fumble on the goal line. But he redeemed himself with a touchdown run in the fourth. A late interception set up a go-ahead field goal for Browndyke. Florida would roar back, but miss a 37-yard field goal on the game’s penultimate play to preserve a narrow LSU win.
Mack Brown’s Tulane team gave LSU all it could handle, erasing a 35-24 deficit with just seven minutes to play. Tulane would score a late touchdown and then Alvin Lee fumbled the fickoff, which Tulane recovered and turned into a touchdown on a miracle scrambling pass. Fuller would score his second most famous touchdown in the game’s final minute to secure the win.
The Rose Bowl was locked into the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs, the Orange Bowl got a pair of undefeateds in Miami and Oklahoma, and the Sugar Bowl chose undefeated Syracuse as an opponent for SEC champ Auburn rather than LSU. The Cotton Bowl also passed on LSU, preferring to avoid a rematch with SWC champ A&M. So LSU fell to the Gator Bowl, where they absolutely slaughtered the Black Death defense of South Carolina. Wendell Davis scored three touchdowns, two in the first quarter, as the Gamecocks never had a chance.
It was a fitting end to a great season. Little did we know, the Dark Ages lurked right around the corner. But in 1987, hiring Mike Archer seemed like a genius move.
What’s the Greatest Game of 1987?
This poll is closed
Back and forth win over Georgia
Stomping Texas A&M
The Ohio St. tie
Florida fourth quarter comeback
Thriller against Tulane
Gator Bowl triumph over South Carolina