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History Class: Mike Donahue Era (1922-27)

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LSU enters the big time

Great at Auburn, not so great at LSU
Encyclopedia of Alabama Football

The SIAA had grown unwieldy by 1920. Most schools only played a four or five game conference schedule, yet the league had expanded to 30 members, resulting in a seemingly random process to select a champion between contenders that did not play one another.

Worse yet, the big schools and the small schools sharply divided from each other over the issues of compensation and freshmen eligibility. The big schools wanted players to be able to play summer baseball, receive compensation, and retain their eligibility. Furthermore, the big schools wanted to keep freshmen ineligible. Both of these rules would shrink an already shallow talent pool for the smaller schools, so naturally they opposed it.

The issues came to a head at the SIAA meetings in 1920 where, by a 19-9 vote, the SIAA voted against a proposal to eliminate freshmen eligibility. On February 26, 1921, fourteen schools broke away from the SIAA and formed the Southern Conference. The first order of business? Eliminating eligibility for freshmen and first year transfers. The Southern Conference didn’t allow for professionalism, but it would allow its players to play summer baseball for money.

At the first meeting of the Southern Conference in 1922, the conference extended invitations to six more schools, including LSU and Tulane. LSU was swooped up with the big schools in the Southern Conference in time for its inaugural season in 1922.

Tiger Stadium

Accepting the bid to join the new Southern Conference is the decision point for LSU when it decided to play big-time college football. Everything that comes after is a result of that decision, which was no sure thing at the time. LSU was still a small school with a reputation as a “third-rate school” according the Association of State Universities, but it was about to experience explosive growth. LSU planned to leave its original downtown home and move to its current campus home. Construction began in 1922 and the new campus would open in 1926.

Memorial Tower architectural drawing by Theodore Link, 1922
LSU University Archives

Part of that expansion was leaving old State Field and building a big-time stadium to house the football team playing big-time football. As LSU accepted the bid to the Southern Conference, construction began on LSU football’s new home: Tiger Stadium.

Tiger Stadium c. 1924-1930, These first two sections of the stadium are what all of the current stadium were built around. You can just barley make out the exterior ramps, which today are now deep in the heart of the East and West sides of the stadium.
Collegiate Images/Getty Images

LSU would rush to complete the work in time for its first game in the stadium, the 1924 season home finale against — who else? — Tulane. Official capacity for the new Tiger Stadium was just 12,000, tiny by today’s standards, but a huge step up over State Field. Somehow, 18,000 people managed to fit into the stands. The Green Wave, as they were now called, having ditched the Goats moniker, came in as heavy favorites, boasting a 7-1 record.

Just as in 1893, LSU’s first game on its home field was a loss to the Greenies. Tulane won 13-0. So, progress, I guess.

Less heralded, but just as important for a school moving to a new locale, LSU opened up its first exclusive baseball field, the LSU Diamond. No longer would the team have to share facilities at State Field. The basketball team also finally got to move indoors with the opening of the Gym/Armory. To much less fanfare, both teams would win their openers.

The Big Name Hire

Ready to compete in the big-time, LSU entered into the market for a big-name coach. The school found their man in Mike Donahue, the Auburn legend, who had two undefeated seasons (1913 and 1914) and claimed six SIAA titles (including 1908, but… you know). Donahue still boasts the second-best winning percentage in Auburn history and his 1922 team was considered one of the greatest Auburn teams of all-time.

At Auburn, Mike Donahue served not only as the football coach, but as the athletic director and the coach of the baseball, basketball, track, and soccer teams. In order to lure him away, LSU offered him $10,000 per year and the same title as Athletic Director.

Hiring Donahue was a coup for LSU. Here was a famed coach still operating at the peak of his game. Surely, he would guide LSU into the new era of the Southern Conference and establish LSU as one of the pre-eminent teams of the South.

I think you know where I’m going with this. While his football coaching tenure would not work out the way anyone thought it would, he did bring on an exceptional staff, including Harry Rabenhorst, Bernie Moore, and a young grad assistant named T.P. Heard. He even brought on Doc Fenton as an assistant.

But football is what moves the needle in the South, and Mike Donahue did not deliver on his reputation. In his five years as LSU’s coach, the football team never finished above tenth place in the Southern Conference.

After winning three consecutive home games to kick off his first season, the 1923 team would lose its final home game to Texas A&M 28-0, and then embark on an 0-4-1 road trip. The 1924 team would show more promise, particularly in a 20-14 win on the road at Indiana, the first time LSU travelled up North. But LSU would again fail to win a single conference game, finishing the year 5-4.

LSU would not win a conference game under Mike Donahue until 1926, a 10-0 win on the road against Auburn. To that point, LSU had gone 0-9-1 in Southern Conference play under his guidance. The Auburn win seemed like it might be a turnaround for the program, as the 1926 team closed the season with three consecutive wins, including a win over Tulane, ending a three-game losing streak to the Greenies.

1927 promised to be the year Mike Donahue delivered on his promise. LSU won its first two games by blowout, and then forced a 0-0 tie against Wallace Wade’s Alabama team. It would turn out to be the final game of their 24-game unbeaten streak, as the Tide would stumble to a 5-4-1 record. But no one knew that at the time, so it was heralded as a huge win in the moment. LSU actually gave him a SIX-YEAR extension at $7,500 a year after the Bama tie. Not even a win.

LSU would follow the tie up with narrow wins over Auburn and Mississippi A&M, both on the road. Finally, it was 1908 again. LSU stood at 4-0-1, 2-0-1 in conference play. LSU football was back… until reality struck next week with a 28-0 loss to Arkansas. LSU would lose its final four games and would fail to post a winning season by losing to 1-5-1 Tulane in Tiger Stadium.

Collegiate Images/Getty Images

Enter the Kingfish

LSU had never had a coach last more than three seasons, and now Mike Donahue was allowed to stay on as coach for five years at an exorbitant salary, despite a 23-19-3 overall record, 5-14-1 in conference. The team was never awful under Donahue, but it certainly wasn’t competitive in the new conference of Big Schools. And now LSU was facing six more years of this.

By 1928, Huey Long won election as governor of Louisiana and one thing he was not going to accept was LSU being a “third-rate” school. That didn’t just mean improving the school’s academic reputation, that meant a winning football team. Huey Long made it his personal mission to build a winner at LSU, so he could bask in its reflected glory.

He would make his mark right away, but he’d start by tearing up Donahue’s contract. To his inordinate credit, Donahue accepted his firing and did not demand payment for the full term of the contract, as was his right. He hadn’t performed, and he walked away from football but not LSU. He served as the school Intramural Director and would, in his later years, serve as both the golf and tennis coach.

Huey Long, seeing that hiring the big-name coach didn’t work, now tried a different tact, he was going to hire the up and comer. Wallace Wade, a Vanderbilt assistant, had taken the Alabama job in 1923 and quickly won conference titles in 1924, 25, and 26. Those last two teams went to the Rose Bowl, and the 1925 went undefeated and won the national title. His chief scout, Russ Cohen, had also played for Dan McGugin at Vanderbilt. Huey Long stole the 31-year-old Cohen from Wade, on the recommendation of his former coach.

Things were just getting started.

Program Overview 1922-1927

Athletic Director: T.W. Atkinson headed the Athletic Council but still no AD

National Titles: None

Conference Titles: None

Programs Added: Tennis (1925)

Facilities Added: Tiger Stadium (1924), LSU Diamond (1925), Gym/Armory (1925)

Harry Rabenhorst served as an assistant coach, but his real impact was felt as the school’s baseball and basketball coaches. He would serve as the basketball coach from 1926-1957 and baseball from 1927-1956, only taking three years off from both jobs from 1943-45 so he could fight in World War II. He would have a career 340-264 record in basketball and 220-226-3 in baseball. We’ll get more into his accomplishments later, but in the 1920s, he learned on the job, as he was still a football player at Wake Forest as late as 1919, where he set the NCAA record for longest punt, which still stands today and will never be broken (110 yards).

After the success of Stroud, basketball quickly fell on hard times. LSU didn’t win a single conference game in 1923 or 1924, and went just 1-4 in 1925. Rabenhorst going 9-9 (4-5) and 7-9 (3-5) in his first two seasons looks a lot better in that context. He would take over for the baseball team in 1927 from Mike Donahue, going 8-6 by winning the season’s final two games against Tulane. Priorities.

Tennis debuted under Coach Paul Young in 1925. They would go 3-0. Young would continue to coach at LSU for eight seasons, amassing a 12-12-1 career record. I don’t have a record of their facilities, so if anyone knows, drop it in the comments.

LSU had not had success in big-time college athletics, and the new governor was not going to accept mediocrity. Everything was about to change.