We often draw on the comparison of the great Cholly Mac with the legendary Les Miles.
Rose to a level of success that didn’t match that of his predecessor by the impossible standard of “didn’t build the program.”
Produced a staggering level of consistency, reaching the upper echelons of success once and never again.
Brutish physical playing style punctuated by stellar defensive play.
Aw shucks, down-home personality never aimed to please, but always well admired.
Driven out by fans bored with simple success and craving world dominance.
Here’s one more: both coaches suffered a truly poor season, by the program’s rich new standards, early in their tenures and rebounded to deliver another run of successful seasons. To make matters worse, those terrible seasons followed years of great achievement. In 1965, LSU politicked into the Cotton Bowl and then sprung a major upset on Arkansas.
Les, in many ways, never outlived the disastrous 2008 season. Every achievement remained somehow viewed through that prism. Every failure magnified through the lens of 2008. It was the year that began the “Les and his QBs” meme and remains the enduring season of comparison for failed QB play.
Would 1966 be the season that came to define McClendon?
First, let’s go back a bit. Back to 1955. LSU board member Ike Carriere is searching for a new head man. Gus Tinsley is freshly dismissed and his old staff believed promoting from within would be the best course of action. The board had different ideas and made it clear that any man elected by the staff would be in competition with Carriere’s choice and would ultimately lose out. They opted instead to promote a young defensive coach to interim head. His name was Charley McClendon.
Carriere and a few other officials convened, narrowing their sights on high profile candidates like Bear Bryant, Ara Parseghian and Frank Broyles. Also on the list was an up and coming coach, who had recently been snubbed by Kentucky: Paul Dietzel. Dietzel impressed Kentucky brass and their president recommended him to LSU’s committee. He was already on LSU’s radar due to board chairman Lewis Gottlieb reaching out to Biff Jones, a former LSU coach who now worked for Army, seeking his interest level in the also vacant LSU Athletic Director post. Jones declined, but when asked who he would hire as the new coach he recommended Dietzel. Fittingly, just a few days before this conversation, Dietzel had phoned Jones expressing his interest in the LSU coaching vacancy. Who drove Dietzel to make that phone call? None other than LSU interim coach Charley McClendon.
So here we are, 11 years later. Dietzel came and went, delivering a national title in the process. McClendon took the reigns from Dietzel as he pursued a dream job at West Point. But now 11 years later, Dietzel and and Army were on icy terms and mutually agreed to part. Dietzel moved on to his next opportunity in Columbia, South Carolina, as the Athletic Director and head football coach of the University of South Carolina. LSU’s first opponent in 1966? None other than South Carolina and their former beloved coach.
The Greatest Game of 1966: South Carolina
The back story is the lede here. It was only days after LSU’s shocking Cotton Bowl upset that Dietzel announced his next move to South Carolina, triggering LSU fans to immediately look forward to the next fall. The previous decade of LSU football all colliding together to open the 1966 season.
McClendon’s roster stared at a rebuild, despite retaining 28 lettermen. Like most LSU teams in, I don’t know, history, this was a team with a strong defensive presence and one that would need to figure things out on offense. LSU returned QB Nelson Stokley, but recovering from a shoulder injury, no one felt assured in what he brought to the table. The team also had George Bevan on defense. Dietzel probably leveled-up to a better roster, albeit at a less prestigious post. South Carolina weren’t on LSU’s level, but very could be in position to spring an upset.
AD Jim Corbett put his selling shoes on. He pushed the game as the “most dramatic and emotion-packed night in [LSU] history.” Not one for hyperbole was Corbett. Dietzel stoked the flames, writing in SI the week before “In 1962 we were going to have more than 30 lettermen back and there wasn’t any way I could them badly enough to lose.” ‘62, of course, would be McClendon’s first season as LSU’s head man. By Dietzel’s view, McClendon held a grudge against him when he didn’t plan on bringing him along with to West Point. Dietzel swears it was because he knew McClendon was destined to get the head job.
McClendon had his own axe to grind with Dietzel, though through no fault of Dietzel’s. After four seasons in Baton Rouge, McClendon still couldn’t escape the shadow of “Dietzel’s program.” Suddenly, a OOC game that normally would be treated with slightly more reverence than a spring game, became a must win.
“Maul Paul” signs began popping up around Baton Rouge. Even Tulane fans united in their desire to see Dietzel fail in his return to Louisiana. McClendon grew emotional as the game drew nigh. After wrapping a Thursday practice, McClendon intoned “I’ve never wanted to win a football game more than this one. You can’t imagine how it’s been, coaching in the shadow of that guy. I’ve had the monkey on my back for four years. I’ve tried to be realistic about this game but I can’t. I’ve never been so worked up over anything. I’ve tried to keep from overcoaching and getting the boys wound up too much.”
Now gameday, the fans didn’t react quite as viscerally as anticipated. Dietzel met with boos when taking the field, but not the cascading variety. Fans were more excited to welcome their Tigers back to the field, as the administrator’s carefully arranged for both teams to take the field at the same time.
The game itself proved anything but sensational. After LSU took a 7-0 lead, the Gamecocks stormed back with their shotgun offense, driving 76 yards to paydirt. But LSU remained in control, when DE Mike Robichaux blocked the XP attempt. LSU would score again to take a 13-6 half time lead, racking up 205 yards rushing in the process.
A blocked punt returned for a TD in the 3rd quarter gave LSU the requisite space to knock the game out of contention. Carolina would return a kick for a TD themselves, but after missing the 2-point attempt, LSU’s nine point lead at 21-12 would prove enough, though the team tacked up another score as the clock expired. Just for good measure.
Following the game, Mike Pharis, the team captain, snagged a game ball and pitched it to Cholly Man, with a quick speech “You’re our coach. We’ve forgotten all about Paul Dietzel.”
W 10-8 vs. Miami (FL)
W 21-7 @ Tulane
Slim pickins in ‘66 when LSU went just 5-4-1 and didn’t even both losing valiantly in any of their major games (21 to UF, 17 to OM, 21 to Bama). They mostly beat bad teams and lost majorly to good ones. The lone exception proved to be beating 8-2-1 Miami in Tiger Stadium (how cool would it be to see Miami in Tiger Stadium?). If you are picking on game quality and quality of win, Miami is the choice. Tulane gets a nod purely for being the last LSU/Tulane game to be considered an Southeastern Conference showdown.
But my gut says South Carolina, primarily because of the emotional importance of the game. Is ‘66 the season that would define McClendon? I think so. Utter admiration by his players and absolute disrespect by his team’s fans.
What’s the Greatest Game of 1966?
This poll is closed
Mauling Paul in his Return to Baton Rouge
Beating the Hurricanes in Tiger Stadium
Beating Tulane in the last LSU/Tulane SEC Game