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History Class: Russ Cohen and The Kingfish

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No matter what your opinion of Huey Long is, there’s one thing you cannot deny… the man loved LSU football. 

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Huey Long became Louisiana’s governor in 1928 and one of his first orders of business was improving everything about LSU. He viewed the university as a reflection of himself, and by God, the football team would demonstrate the glories of the Kingfish.

We have already covered one of his first acts, wiggling out of a contract extension with Mike Donahue and then stealing Wallace Wade’s chief scout from Alabama, Russ Cohen. Cohen was also formerly a captain of the famed 1915 Vanderbilt “point-a-minute” team. He came in to Baton Rouge with bona fides.

This didn’t stop Huey Long from forcing Cohen to sign his letter of resignation in advance, a practice Long used with all of his subordinates and now football coaches. At any time, the Kingfish could call a press conference and tell the media that he accepted Cohen’s resignation. It’s kind of brilliant, actually. No one did corruption like Huey.

Tiger Band

Huey Long’s largess extended well past football. He instituted a massive building program at LSU in 1930, and by 1936, he had transformed the “third-rate school” into one of the finest universities in the South, boasting 394 professors, 6,000 students, and an annual operating budget of $2.8 million. The “Chief Thief of LSU” diverted $9 million in public funds to pay for the expansion.

LSU campus aerial survey, 1929

His influence even extended to the band. When Long took over, Tiger Band was a shambles. He increased the size of the band from 28 to 125. He would double the band size again in the 1930’s to 250, replacing the military theme with a show band. He hired Castro Carazo, composer of “Every Man a King,” to be the bandleader, and the two co-wrote “Touchdown for LSU,” still a part of every LSU pregame. Even if LSU didn’t win, they would have the best halftime show in the South.

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After Long’s assassination, the university would purge the show band elements from the halftime, but the changes never took. After World War II, the band moved back to Long and Carazo’s vision, and still reflects their vision to this day. The Golden Band from Tigerland is very much the brainchild of the Kingfish.

Huey Long, Offensive Coordinator

Cohen inherited some talented players from Donahue, most notably captain Jess Tinsley. But that didn’t stop Huey Long from hitting the recruiting trail himself, luring high school star Joe Almokary to LSU by essentially forcing him to be an engineer and promising him a job. In 1931, Long heard about a junior college player named Art Foley, and sent TP Heard by limousine to recruit him. Neither player became a star, and Foley would only play one game due to a lung infection. But the Kingfish established he would do just about anything to deliver blue chip talent to LSU.

By this point, the best players on the LSU team were living at the governor’s mansion, feasting on a meal plan of steak and pineapple upside down cake. Long would also draw up plays using the dining room furniture, to which the players conceded he had gotten pretty good at doing.

The price of Huey Long’s devotion of time, resources, and of course money was that occasionally, you’d have to let him do crazy things. This included letting him draw up a play, called “1099.” Cohen told his team that if he took his hat off, call the play, but for some reason, fullback Tom Smith never saw the signal, prompting Long to run down on to the field, screaming, “Call 1099! Call 1099!” They did, and scored a touchdown against Sewanee. Take that, Richard Nixon.

The Team

Starting in 1913, LSU played Arkansas every season in Shreveport. Arkansas joined the SWC in 1915, but it had no impact on the game. It really wasn’t much of a rivalry until 1922, when the Razorbacks had the temerity to get good and start winning the game on the regular. Long took a special interest in the game, claiming that “everybody in Shreveport hates me and I hate everybody in Shreveport.”

LSU entered the 1928 game at 4-0, but lost to the Hogs 7-0, the only score an interception returned for a touchdown. Huey was unhappy, but satisfied with his coach, as he would run the record to 6-1 before forcing a 0-0 tie with Tulane, secured by an apparent Tulane touchdown late in the fourth ruled out of bounds at the one. LSU would limp to the finish with a 13-0 loss in Birmingham to the Tide, finishing the year out at 6-2-1. Jess Tinsley would be a unanimous All-Southern selection. The year was a bit of a disappointment, though it seemed to promise great years ahead.

Jess Tinsley

It was not to be.

Cohen ran afoul of Huey Long with a series of embarrassing losses in 1929. Again, the team started strong, running its record to 5-0 before getting absolutely steamrolled by Arkansas 32-0. Duke would earn its first victory in its new stadium over LSU the following week, a 32-6 thrashing to a team that finished 4-6 overall. LSU would salvage a 13-6 win over Ole Miss before become Tulane’s final victim during their undefeated campaign, a 21-0 loss in Tiger Stadium. Tulane would earn an invite to the Rose Bowl, which they would decline.

Long fumed that those players were too good to be playing at Tulane and swore he would get them to transfer to LSU. They didn’t. 1930 was more of the same for Cohen, another six-win season, though he did take a more curious route to get there. LSU dominated the line of scrimmage against South Carolina but could not cross the end line. When Johnny Hendrix finally scored a touchdown, Almokary missed the PAT, and LSU lost by a single point, 7-6. The following week against Mississippi A&M, Billy Butler scored on an 80-yard run, but again LSU could not convert the point after. Dobie Reeves would add to the special teams blunders by stepping out of the back of the end zone on a punt, costing LSU a safety and an 8-6 defeat.

Cohen did finally beat Arkansas, earning a 27-12 win thanks to Snaky Bowman’s open field running exploits. During the half, Long assaulted the officials, telling them they could call penalties at midfield, but not when we got near the goalline. The refs got the message, and after a first half in which they made several key calls against LSU, they didn’t whistle LSU for an infraction the entire second half.

Huey promised to sit on each sideline for half for the annual LSU-Tulane game, a promise he kept for about a half dozen plays until LSU’s Billy Butler advanced a fake punt to the seven. Long immediately rushed to the LSU sideline to cajole the football gods to no avail. Tulane’s defense held LSU out of the end zone.

Tulane built a 12-0 lead before Roy Wilson blocked a punt in the fourth, and his scoop and score made the game 12-7. LSU kept the pressure up in the final minutes, but couldn’t manage another score. In the excitement, Huey announced he was extending Cohen’s contract for three years. Cohen said he needed time to think about it.

Reading the quote in the paper the next day, an enraged Kingfish told Cohen he had 30 seconds. Cohen said get another coach then. Admiring this display, Huey gave Cohen two days to consider a $7,500 contract with no resignation letter.

It Falls Apart for Cohen

Russell Cohen
LSU Gumbo 1932

Outsmarting and outbluffing the Kingfish is a cool story, but it was a dangerous game. Armed with his new contract, Cohen knew six wins wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Most of the 1930 team returned in 1931, and it was supposed to be supplemented with the new recruits like Art Foley.

LSU lost its season opener on the road at TCU, 3-0. The team would rally to 4-1 thanks to a 13-6 win over Arkansas, but LSU would drop games to Sewanee and Army.

Still, Cohen had a chance to salvage the season with a win against rival Tulane, again riding an undefeated record. On the game’s opening drive, Joe Almokary found Tom Smith for a long score and an early 7-0 LSU lead. It was the first time LSU held a lead over Tulane since 1926. It didn’t last. Tulane took that as an insult and blew out LSU, 34-7.

The axe came for Russ Cohen, who already had a job offer to return to Vanderbilt as Dan McGugin’s assistant. He took a full year’s salary to buy out the contract, and took the $7,500 as a down payment on Chrysler stock. He would eventually sell the stock for half a million dollars. So… good on Cohen.

Enter TP Heard

As you could probably tell, Huey Long was a bit of a micromanager. While Huey Long would throw himself whole hog into the band or recruiting, he still didn’t know how to maneuver big picture ideas into practical existence. For that, he needed a right hand man.

Mike Donahue hired TP “Skipper” Heard to assist him in his duties as the Athletics Director, a job that traditionally went to the head football coach. Donahue at least attempted to take those duties seriously, but Cohen almost completely punted the job to his graduate advisor. Instead of getting drowned by the job, Heard instead made LSU athletics in his own image.

Tiger Stadium after first dormitory expansion. While now mostly concealed by the East and West upperdeck support structures, these sections remain largely unchanged today from their original construction.
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He wanted to expand Tiger Stadium, as did Huey Long, but lacked the funds to do so. It was Heard who came up with the famous idea of making Tiger Stadium dorms, securing funding for building dorms from LSU President James Smith, and then only needed to build the bleachers. For $250,000 in reserved funds, LSU got both its dormitories and its football stadium. This expanded the stadium capacity from twelve to twenty two thousand seats in 1931.

More importantly, he would fill those seats by playing games at night. Heard spent an additional $7,500 on lights. At the time, LSU kept running into scheduling conflicts with Tulane and Loyola, so they removed that issue by moving games to Saturday night. This had the added benefit of allowing field day laborers and refinery workers to attend the games during their time off, Saturday night.

On October 3, 1931, LSU debuted its lights against Spring Hill. LSU won 35-0, and Saturday Night in Tiger Stadium was born. LSU outdrew an undefeated Tulane squad playing Texas A&M down the road. When Huey Long sent Cohen packing, he made the unofficial, official. He named TP Heard the school’s Athletic Director, officially its first, though Donahue and Cohen both had held the title.

TP Heard, more than any other man, would become the Father of LSU Football.

LSU vs Spring Hill 1931
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Program Overview 1928-1931

Athletic Director: Mike Donahue, but really T.P. Heard

National Titles: None

Conference Titles: None

Programs Added: Boxing (1930)

Facilities Added: Tiger Stadium expands to 22,000 (1931), Gym/Armory (1930)

Other than buying that Chrysler stock, Ross Cohen’s best idea was hiring Bernie Moore in 1929. Moore took the job as LSU’s track coach in 1930 and quickly would build the team into a national power. Moore would stay on as an assistant football coach while also building the track program.

TP Heard didn’t just find the money for Tiger Stadium expansion and lights, but he found an indoor home for the basketball team in 1930, opening the Gym/Armory, which also would house the brand new boxing team which featured football players Joe Almokary and Ed Khoury . Moving to the main campus hurt the baseball team, as they had to play their home games on the Parade Grounds. Harry Rabenhorst would post losing seasons in baseball from 1928-1934. He fared slightly better in hoops, hovering around .500 for this time period.

Southern Conference Boxing Tournament
LSU Gumbo 1932

It was an active period off of the field, but the results hadn’t yet translated to the field. Huey Long’s immense investment in LSU sports, and LSU athletics, was about to pay off. The TP Heard Era was about to begin.