You don’t see the calamity coming. It’s only in retrospect that the signs were all so obvious and you can’t believe how you missed them. But when you’re actually living it, those momentous events just seem like another thing that happened.
LSU entered the 1989 season No. 7 in the AP poll. The Tigers shared the SEC title thanks to thrilling victories over Alabama and Auburn. The team returned its leading passer (Tommy Hodson), leading rusher (Eddie Fuller), its leading receiver (Tony Moss), and its leading tackler (Verne Ausberry). This was a loaded squad ready to build off of last year’s success to even greater heights.
And then the bottom fell out.
LSU would lose its first two games (to Texas A&M and Florida State) before stumbling to a 1-6 start and an eventual 4-7 season. Mike Archer would last one more season, but he would get the axe in 1990 thanks to back to back losing seasons, the first at LSU since 1955-56.
Curley Hallman would take the job after Archer and well, we all know how that went. LSU would go on to six straight losing seasons, the longest such stretch in the school’s history, before coming back out on the other side in the Dinardo Era and the Bring Back the Magic Game.
How did it all go so bad so fast? The team won 10 games in 1987 and an SEC title in 1988. LSU had won at least eight games in each of the past five seasons, and had at least spent time in the top ten in each year.
The simplest explanation is that the classic charge against Arnsparger was correct: terrific coach, lousy recruiter. When he had Jerry Stovall’s talent, he won. The last of the Stovall classes left the team by the end of 1988, five years after his last season.
While this seems like the easiest explanation, it does not account for all of the talent coming back in 1989. This was a veteran team with a lot of the key contributors returning. Though there were key losses from the 1988 team which would haunt the 1989 squad. Eric Hill and Ron Sancho departed from the linebacking corps and the secondary lost three starters, most notably Greg Jackson.
Another issue was a guy who missed the 1988 season: Harvey Williams. Williams was a Freshman All-American in 1986 and then topped 1,000 yards in 1987. But a knee surgery caused him to miss all of 1988. He returned back to the starting lineup, expecting to be the same player he had been as an underclassmen. He wasn’t.
Williams would gain just 32 yards on 13 carries against A&M, then he would suffer another injury against FSU, hampering his ability to play for the rest of the season. Williams did not take his demotion to the bench well, pouted, and eventually got suspended for violation of team rules. It was a circus that hung over the team as the season spiraled out of control.
It’s hard to pin down the moment the Dark Ages at LSU began. There were certainly signs in 1988, as Miami pasted LSU 44-3. There was also the uninspired performance in the Hall of Fame Bowl against Syracuse. You could also point to those opening losses of the 1989 campaign.
But if I’m trying to ascertain the exact time of death for LSU Football until its rebirth under Dinardo, I go to college football’s “first overtime game”, where Florida defied the clock an eked out a wild victory over the Tigers in Tiger Stadium.
It wasn’t that LSU lost, losing is nothing special, it was that LSU lost in seemingly impossible ways which defied the odds and nearly bent our expectations of a football game. This wasn’t just a loss, this was an emotional death. The spectre of this game haunted the program for nearly a decade.
Florida Football Coach Galen Hall would be forced to resign the next day for violations of NCAA rules. This would set the stage for former LSU coach and new Florida AD Bill Arnsparger to hire Steve Spurrier and begin his decade-long torture of LSU. But on his way out, Hall set in motion the dusk that would become the Dark Ages of LSU Football.
We’ve largely focused on the positives of LSU history in this series, even in disastrous seasons. But 1989 was the Hindenburg disaster of LSU football. It would be negligent to ignore the flaming wreckage of the blimp and pretend everything was okay. It wasn’t. This season was an utter disaster.
This is the day hope died.
A whole game in 15 minutes!
We haven’t talked a whole heck of a lot about Tommy Hodson in this series, which is odd for a guy who is LSU’s all-time passing leader with 9,115 yards. No one else is at 7,000 yards. He entered the 1989 season as the senior leader and a possible Heisman candidate, but his candidacy crashed against the rocks in the first two weeks.
The oddest quirk of Hodson’s career is how much better he was as an underclassman. He started right away as a freshman, and in his first two seasons he completed more than 60 percent of his passes and had a touchdown/interception ratio of 34/17. In his final two years, his yardage stayed about the same, but his completion rate dropped to 52.6 percent and 57.7 percent. He threw 35 TD and 24 picks. He was never bad, but he was less accurate and more careless with the football in his final two seasons.
Hodson showed off this flaw in the first drive of the game, throwing a pick to Richard Fain on the third play of the game. Florida started at the LSU 39 and brought the ball quickly inside the red zone, but the LSU defense stiffened and Florida settled for a 29-yard field goal.
LSU’s second drive might have been worse than the first. Hodson threw an incompletion in between two sacks. LSU also committed two penalties, one of them declined due to the sack. LSU moved backwards 14 yards and then punted from its own end zone to the 38 yard line. Florida ended up with better field position than after the interception.
Florida relied on its Heisman contender, running back Emmitt Smith. Smith brought the ball down to the LSU 20, but for reasons passing understanding, the Gators threw towards the end zone on third and 3 instead of giving the ball to Smith. LSU would partially block John David Francis’ attempt, keeping the score at 3-0.
LSU’s next drive wouldn’t go too much better than the first two. Jay Egloff’s third down carry fell a yard short of the first, but LSU got new life thanks to a Florida penalty on the LSU punt. However, the reprieve was short-lived, as Florida sacked Hodson on third down, the third sack of that drive and fifth of the game. The ball popped loose and Florida recovered at the LSU 41. Technically, their worst starting field position of the game.
Florida again started its steady diet of carries by Smith, adding in passes to him to mix things up, But Kyle Morris would fumble the exchange and Clint James would recover the ball for LSU.
Midway through the first, Florida had three possessions, all of which started near the LSU 40. Despite this terrific field position, Florida had just three points to show for it. Meanwhile, LSU had only one first down, as the result of the penalty, and would claw back into the game with their first sustained drive.
Calvin Windom would come in off the bench and would pair up with Eddie Fuller to finally give LSU a viable rushing game. There were the usual fits and starts, including a holding penalty, but LSU would tie the game up with a 35-yard David Browndyke field goal.
Emmitt Smith would put the ball on the ground on Florida’s next possession and LSU would take over inside Florida territory for the first time. Tommy Hodson would respond by throwing a ball directly to Florida linebacker Huey Richardson, which he somehow dropped. Given a second chance, Hodson connected with Eddie Fuller, who broke loose for a 42-yard score and a 10-3 LSU lead.
Morris would immediately respond by hooking up for 23 yards to Stacey Simmons. Florida would cross midfield again, but a holding penalty stalled out the drive and forced the punt. LSU would punt the ball right back and in the final minutes of the half, Florida would put together their best drive of the half, converting on two third downs. However, with only 19 seconds left in the half, Jimmy Young intercepted the ball on the 11 yard line to preserve the 10-3 halftime lead.
The second half opened with an exchange of punts, but LSU’s punt was blocked by Tim Paulk. Florida would recover at the LSU 24 and again, they would start the half with terrific field position. And again, they proceeded to do nothing with it, gaining a handful of yards before settling for a 34-yard field goal.
The two teams would exchange punts after the score again, and again the second punt would be blocked, this one by LSU. LSU took over at the Florida 34. A holding penalty would push LSU back and force a third-and-14, which Fuller nearly converted. Archer elected to go for it on fourth down, but Fuller was stopped for no gain and LSU turned the ball over at the 26 on downs.
The teams would exchange punts for a third time to close out the quarter, but Florida was slowly gaining yards on the trades. Florida started the fourth quarter with the ball at midfield. Morris would complete a pass to Tony Lomack to set up a 19-yard touchdown run by Emmitt smith on the very next play. Florida was back in front, 13-10.
Hodson would get the next drive going by uncharacteristically scrambling for a first down. On the next play, he would give it back by bouncing a pass of Todd Kinchen and into the arms of Richard Fain. Fain had a decent return, but a clipping pushed the ball back inside the 20, and the Gators wouldn’t be able to mount a drive.
Time was beginning to become LSU’s enemy as the Tigers started their next drive down three with 8:35 to play. Hodson strung a few completions together to get the ball to midfield before the drive went squirrelly. On second down, Jay Egloff would fumble, but it was recovered by an LSU lineman. Hodson would throw incomplete on third down, but a facemask penalty kept the drive alive. Two plays later, Eddie Fuller would find himself wide open behind the Florida secondary and Hodson would flat out miss the throw. On third down, a frustrated Hodson underthrew an interception at the 13-yard line. Chances were slipping away.
With 3:20 left, LSU would mount one last drive, starting from their own 40, the great field position thanks to a defensive stand. Hodson completed it to Moss for 15. He completed it to Fuller for 20 more. He found Moss again for five. On second down, Fuller was open in the end zone, but the pressure forced Hodson to throw it out of bounds. LSU would fail to convert a first down and would roll the clock down to 1:24 before David Browndyke kicked the game tying field goal from 36 yards.
Florida’s offense had trouble moving the ball all night, and even when it was successful, it was due to the legs of Smith. Given the way the LSU defense was playing, a tie seemed secure.
Kyle Morris would get the drive going with two short completions to Smith. Then came the painful blow, an 18-yard completion to Ernie Mills, crossing midfield and getting the ball to the 44. However, on the next snap Karl Dunbar sacked Morris, forcing Florida to call its last timeout with 37 seconds left. Morris would connect with Mills for another 18-yard gain to the LSU 27.
Smith took a handoff with 18 seconds left, and the aggressive LSU defense clogged the middle and hauled Smith down in bounds. The clock was draining down and Florida had no timeouts. The Florida offense frantically tried to lineup to spike the ball. Morris took the snap with two seconds on the clock and threw the ball out of bounds.
When the ball landed, the clock showed double zeroes and the Tiger Stadium crowd burst forth with cheers. The school set off fireworks to celebrate the last ditch effort to salvage the tie. The game was over.
Except it wasn’t. This was before instant replay, so the referees huddled at midfield during the pandemonium and decided that Morris’ pass took only one second to go out of bounds. The refs put a second back on the clock, giving Arden Czyzewski the chance to barely sneak a 41-yard field goal attempt inside the post as time expired for a second time.
LSU turned the ball over four times, three on Hodson interceptions. They committed 11 penalties for 98 yards. Tiger players were tackled for a loss eight times. Still, LSU had somehow salvaged a tie, only for the officials to put one second back on the clock and grab defeat from the jaws of victory.
Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Harvey ranked LSU No. 1 in his weekly Bottom Ten column, dubbing the game “College Football’s First Overtime Game.” It was an ignoble honor.
35-30 Ole Miss
The Florida loss would kick off a four-game losing streak, every game decided by less than a touchdown on the scoreboard. The season spiraled out of control as LSU marched down an almost comical road of heartbreaking losses. After the first overtime game, LSU would lose to Auburn 10-6 by giving up the game’s only touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Down 21-14 against Kentucky, Hodson threw an interception and Rawls would score from 73 yards out on the next play from scrimmage. LSU would lose by six. A Carl Pickens kickoff return on the final play of the second quarter proved the margin against Tennessee, another 6-point loss.
Ole Miss entered the LSU game as a team in mourning. Chucky Mullins suffered a debilitating spinal cord injury the week before and the two teams used the game as a way to raise several hundred thousand dollars to support Mullins. LSU built a 35-10 lead, only to watch it slowly erode over the second half. Ole Miss made one final drive in the game’s final two minutes, only to have the ball intercepted in the end zone on the game’s penultimate play. There would be no emotional feel good story for Ole Miss even in a lost season for LSU. The one time it probably would have been morally acceptable to lose to the Rebels. Mullins would suffer an embolism, and die in hospital in 1991.
1989 was a season so terrible that I halfway rooted for Ole Miss to win a game because, let’s be honest, that game meant more to them than it did to us. And it was for a genuinely decent cause. LSU would instead wrap up the season with wins over Mississippi State and Tulane, going 4-7, the first of six losing season. I’d argue this was the worst of the six. This was the one that started with hope, and ended in desolation.
Things got ugly. And they got ugly fast. Let’s not sugarcoat it, nothing good happened in the 1989 season, the worst season in LSU football history.