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History Class: Irving Pray Era (1911-21)

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The three-time part-time LSU football coach and full-time chemist gets his due

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Tad Gormley and the Gormley Games

After the drama of the Wingard years, LSU contented itself to fall back into the middle of the pack of the SIAA. It wasn’t worth the headache to compete for titles. There weren’t as many parades, but there were less affidavits and disparaging articles in the rival press. 1911 also marked the return of Tulane to the SIAA and a resumption of the Battle for the Rag rivalry.

James Dwyer took over as football coach in 1911, and LSU finally separated the football job from the other programs. F.M. Long inherited the basketball and track programs while Bob Pender got the baseball job. None of them would last long.

The football program would continue to churn through coaches at an alarming rate, living up to the maxim that at LSU there were two seasons: 1908 and Next Year. LSU hired Tad Gormley from Tulane to coach the track team in 1916, a job he would hold until 1927. C.C. Stroud took the baseball and basketball coaching jobs in 1914, and would stay at the school until 1924, when he would take the Athletic Director job at Northwestern State.

Gormley would return to New Orleans in 1927 to become the track coach at Loyola. He was also named an Associate Coach of the 1932 US Olympic team. In 1912, he started his own “Gormley Games” in City Park, an unofficial track meet open to local kids every Sunday. Upon his death, the city named City Park Stadium after him in 1965. Tad Gormley Stadium is now home to the UNO Privateers. A well-deserved honor for a great career of a genuinely good person.

E.T. MacDonnell lasted two and half seasons in Baton Rouge, too short for anyone to agree on how to spell his name.* His roster included Phil Cooper, “a full-blooded Indian” on his roster. At the time, this was usually code for a light-skinned African-American to get around segregation laws, though I can’t find a photo or news story to verify. So we’ll go with the official story that LSU’s captain in 1916 was an Indian from Amite.

*Seriously. It’s all over the place. I’m going with the official LSU Media Guide spelling, but it could also be McDonald or any variation between the two.

MacDonnell’s first season included the worst loss in LSU history, a 63-9 shellacking in Dallas to Texas A&M. Somehow, LSU held a 9-7 halftime lead before the roof caved in. The 54-point margin of defeat would stand as an LSU record until Curley Hallman lost to Florida in 1993, 58-3. However, the most embarrassing game in 1914 was a tie in the season finale against Tulane. Not for the game, but for a riot which broke out when Tulane fans pulled down an LSU banner during the half. Fans from both teams fought on the field in a steady downpour for five minutes before order was restored due to fatigue and sogginess.

Tulane-LSU delivered back in the day.

Football Team 1915
LSU University Archives

By 1916 though, MacDonnell had righted the ship. The 1915 team was unbeaten in SIAA play, though John Heisman’s Georgia Tech team pummeled the Tigers, 36-7. The only solace was that Heisman was ejected for arguing with the game officials to the jeers of the New Orleans crowd. However, LSU’s secret weapon sat out the entire season, halfback Mike Flanagan, a transfer from Colgate. The Tigers threatened “another 1908” by winning its first four games in 1916 by a combined tally of 146-7, including a 13-0 win over Texas A&M. But Sewanee again ruined a promising LSU season with a 7-0 win.

Just as LSU fired Joe Pritchard for losing to Sewanee in 1909, T.W. Atkinson demanded MacDonnell’s resignation for the same result in 1916. MacDonnell publicly voiced his displeasure and the team threatened open revolt. Irving Pray, a chemist, agreed to coach the team for two weeks until he headed to Cuba for the sugar grinding season, giving Atkinson time to find another coach.

He found a great one in Dana Bible. The problem was, he was under contract with Texas A&M and was only on staff as a loan. Next season, Bible would guide Texas A&M to an undefeated record while outscoring opponents 270-0. LSU just missed out on a College Football Hall of Fame coach who won two national titles and posted a 198-72-23 career record. In 1916, he would help finish up the year for the LSU “Coachless Wonders,” who finished 7-1-2 after such a great start, only managing a 14-14 tie with Tulane in its final game.

The Silent Season and Irving Pray Returns and Returns

Wayne Sutton came from University of Washington to coach the 1917 team, but by 1918, LSU and the nation had bigger concerns than the football team. The US entered into War World I and, lacking a standing army, recruited heavily from the ranks of college able-bodied young men.

The few schools which had enough players to form teams proved unable to play a full season. The army sponsored local football teams as a training and recruitment for the army, and LSU was no exception. Too many players volunteered to fight in the Great War to field a team, leading to what is now known as the Silent Season. LSU cancelled the 1918 season.

LSU students placed service to the nation ahead of themselves and athletic glory. This selfless sacrifice was honored at LSU by the planting of the Memorial Oak Grove in 1926, honoring the 30 LSU students who died in the War.

When the students came back from war, LSU resumed the football program in 1919 again under the guidance of Irving Pray, who again was called away from the sugar plantations of Cuba. Due to its high-profile part in preparation for the war effort, college football experienced a national bump in popularity, and a local one, too. LSU football was no longer the recreational game it had been at the turn of the century, it was in the big time.

The one thing about football Irving Pray truly understood was the value of beating Tulane. LSU entered the final game as heavy underdogs to the Goats, as they were then called. Tulane fans, sure of victory, prepared a mock funeral of a Tiger. Pray’s pregame speech to his team became the stuff of legend. He walked to a blackboard and wrote the number “21” on it. He then told his team, “That’s how many points better than Tulane you are.”

LSU won 27-6.

LSU fans, delirious with victory of their hated rival, stole the Tulane fans’ casket, and held a funeral of their own. The fans placed a mock goat in the casket, paraded it around New Orleans, then held a funeral procession and ultimately a funeral for the goat when they returned to Baton Rouge. That’s some creative hate, y’all.

Pray, anxious to return to Cuba, turned the team over to Branch Bocock. Bocock had two good seasons at LSU, but he had the temerity to lose to Tulane not just once, but twice, each time by a 21-0 score. The 1921 loss cost LSU an undefeated season (though they did tie Alabama) and Bocock his job. Bocock has the ignoble distinction of being the first LSU coach to lose to Tulane more than once. So, of course, LSU went back to Cuba and hired the old chemist again. At least Irving Pray knew how to beat Tulane.

Papier-mache tiger mounted on automobile at the LSU-Arkansas football game played in Shreveport in 1921
State Library of Louisiana Historic Photograph Collection

The 1922 season marked Irving Pray’s third stint as the LSU coach, and the magic started to dry up. LSU stumbled to a dismal 2-7 mark, the worst in school history to that point, with only 4-3 Tulane left to play. Excitement was still at a fever pitch, as over 10,000 fans would descend upon State Field for the Thanksgiving weekend game. LSU football was now an Event.

Pray, master motivator, bet his entire salary on the outcome of the game. The Tigers were a 10 to 1 underdog and he told his charges that if he won, he was buying the biggest car he could find, but if he lost, he was riding out of town on a freight train. The Tulane team walked through the LSU team before they walked out to the game, causing Pray to remark, “Go on ahead. We’ll be out soon to give you a licking.”

He was as good as his word. LSU won again, 25-14. Pray retired again to the sugar fields of Cuba, but this time for good. College football had now become a big enough business that teams like LSU could no longer afford to hire chemists as part-time coaches whenever the need struck. Pray retired with a 2-0 record against Tulane (both wins as an underdog), 9-9 against everyone else. LSU football was going to enter the big-time, and needed a big-time coach.

Program Overview 1911-1921

Athletic Director: Still none. T.W. Atkinson headed the Athletic Council.

National Titles: None

Conference Titles: Basketball (1917, 1918) (sort of)

Programs Added: None

Facilities Added: None

Stability everywhere but the football program. C.C. Stroud managed the baseball and basketball teams while Tad Gormley got the track program off the ground. He would coach LSU’s first Olympian, triple jumper Sid Bowman (1928, 1932). But this was a period when the rest of LSU sports found their foundations.

Basketball, honestly, was sort of awesome. CC Stroud would coach hoops from 1913-18 to a 63-19 overall record. Stroud managed a 20-2 (11-0) team in 1917 and 12-1 (3-0) in 1918. The SIAA, due to its unwieldly size, rarely crowned a champ, and there is no official champ in 1917 and 18, a time during which LSU went 32-3 overall and 14-0 in conference. Screw it, I’m claiming them.

The team would play just one game in the 1918-19 Silent Season, but Stroud would return for his final season in in 1920, a 19-2 (8-2) campaign. The SIAA crowned Vanderbilt the champion by virtue of its 14-4 (6-0) record. To be fair, they did share a common opponent, LSU lost to a Georgia team on the road 32-15 that Vanderbilt beat 40-18. Additionally, the SIAA did not sponsor a basketball tournament until 1921, making it the first inter-collegiate post-season tournament.

Baseball wasn’t quite as successful, but Stroud did put up consistent winning teams, and peaked with a 12-4 season in 1919.

Football, on the other hand, was still a white knuckle ride. No football coach lasted longer than three years, and the longest tenure was James Dwyer’s undistinguished 25 games from 1911-13. Nine coaches had career tenures under 10 games, and a tenth, Irving Pray, had three different stints, none longer than 10 games. All in all, LSU employed 16 different coaches to make it through the program’s first thirty years. LSU would only need 17 coaches for the next century. LSU planned a big name hire for the 1923, the 20th different coaching hire in school history.

But first, we have to step back and look at some big decisions being made in 1922.