On a cold, blustery day in November of 1893, LSU played its first football game. They lost to Tulane 34-0.
For fifty cents, spectators could witness something that was similar to but definitely unlike modern football in scoring (five points for a touchdown, four for a field goal), the field (110 yards long), the players (only one player weighed over 200 pounds), and strategy (the flying wedge).
Honestly, it wasn’t really Tulane. Charles Coates, the school’s chemistry professor, wanted to expand the athletic offerings on LSU’s campus, and brought down the idea of a football team from his time at Johns Hopkins. He rounded up LSU’s team primarily from the student ROTC corps, but the Tulane team was largely composed of alumni and members of the Southern Athletic Club.
From the very first moment, LSU sports had issues with commerce and eligibility.
LSU had no uniforms, and players from both teams showed up in mismatched clothing of every type, so Coates sent his quarterback and future governor of Louisiana, Ruff Pleasant to the store to purchase ribbons. No one knew what LSU’s colors were, but the store stocked purple and gold ribbons for the upcoming Carnival season. By a happy accident, the green ribbons had not yet arrived. Col. David Boyd remarked years later that he chose blue and white as the school colors long before, but by that point, purple and gold had become the school standard.
The football team was far more of a recreational club than the competitive athletic team we have today. It is hard to pin down when the team went from frivolity to something more. LSU claimed its first conference title in 1896, when Allen Jeardeau helmed a 6-0 team to the top of the very loosely organized SIAA. The Tigers shared the title with a 4-0 Georgia team coached by some guy named Pop Warner.
Still, at this time, southern football lagged far behind the rest of the nation. LSU had a rotating cadre of coaches, usually pulled from the faculty. The SIAA itself didn’t hand out a championship trophy and did nothing to regulate schedules or travel. Its constitution banned professionals, required players be students with a maximum eligibility of five years, and tried to create some uniform playing rules.
Tulane, Professionalism, and Protest
LSU wouldn’t have a coach for three consecutive seasons until W.S. Borland coached from 1901-03. He also took over the fledgling baseball program, which played its first game in 1893. From 1902-03, he would be the sole coach of both LSU sports programs, making him the de facto athletic director.
The biggest issue facing college football at the time was that of professionalism. The eastern powers shamelessly hired players. Walter Camp made openly violating the amateurism rules an essential part of his Yale dynasty. Football “tramps” would jump from school to school, looking for a better paycheck or more eligibility by changing their names.
In the SIAA, however, the league cracked down a bit harder on professionalism, probably because the teams weren’t as good. A pro athlete could run roughshod over the fledgling league. Which is how Georgia Tech and Nashville found themselves blacklisted. The loss of Nashville was particularly great, as they were the only team good enough to compete with Vanderbilt at the time (yes, Vanderbilt). Vanderbilt saved the honor of amateurism by defeating Nashville 10-0, despite rumors of professionalism themselves.
This set the stage for the 1901 Battle for the Rag between LSU and Tulane, both 3-1 teams. After its initial loss to Tulane, LSU had reeled off four straight wins over Tulane, only to drop the 1900 edition. Tulane crushed LSU 22-0, but Borland petitioned the SIAA over Tulane’s use of a professional player. The SIAA agreed, stripped Tulane of the win, ruling the game an 11-0 LSU forfeit victory. Tulane still lists it as a victory in their media guide. In 1893, the teams were openly using non-students and no one cared, but by 1901, they were ratting each other out to the governing authorities. Oh, college football, never change.
However, the bad blood between the two schools only intensified, bubbling up into LSU’s first bona fide rivalry. Dan Killian replaced WS Borland in 1904 as both football and baseball coach, but added track coach to his duties, as LSU debuted its third varsity sport in 1905. Killian, a Michigan Man, brought two brothers with him from Michigan, Clarence and Bob Smith, to play on the football squad. Let’s be honest, it’s probably why he was hired, to recruit what proved to be the team’s two best players.
LSU played just three games in 1905, all shutout victories. But the charges of professionalism dogged the Smith brothers and after a 5-0 defeat to their rivals, Tulane returned the favor of 1901 and lodged their own complaint with the SIAA against LSU. The complaint was properly referred to the SIAA vice-president in charge of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas… Col. Thomas Boyd, President of LSU.
Boyd denied the protest, ruling in favor of his own school. In response, Tulane boycotted LSU in 1906 and 1907 and quit the SIAA (they would return in 1912), as the dispute wore on. The Smith brothers dropped out of school, missing the 1907 season, but would return the following year, but no longer as the star players. The series would resume in 1908, just in time to face the greatest team in the first half century of LSU football, but that is a story for another day.
Program Overview 1893-1906
Athletic Director: None
National Titles: None
Conference Titles: Football 1896, 1902 (SIAA)
Programs Added: Football (1893), Baseball (1893, 1897), Track (1905)
Facilities Added: State Field
State Field at the turn of the last century was exactly what it sounds like, a field owned by the state. It was located at the old downtown campus and while the school eventually got around to building some bleachers, the crowds primarily stood around the sideline and were expected to not trample onto the field. The early days of LSU sports more closely resembled club sports of today than the big-time college programs they would become.
The title of Athletic Director did not exist yet, but it would be fair to call WS Borland (1901-03) and Dan Killian (1904-06) as our first two AD’s. Borland’s obituary claimed the title. However, given that LSU sports hadn’t yet hit the big time, only twice playing what could be considered a full slate of games, I’ll reserve that honorific for someone else. LSU itself does not recognize an AD from this period.