If the first few years of the Kingfish’s dominance of LSU was exciting, that was nothing compared to what would happen over the last years of his life. The brief tenure of Biff Jones can arguably be described as the most exciting and impactful four years in LSU athletics history.
LSU would join the newly formed SEC in 1933, and proceed to go on an eighteen game unbeaten streak. The football team would make a high profile hire and then come back home to a loyal son of Louisiana. All the while Huey Long plotted and schemed, while his Athletic Director conjured Long’s visions into reality.
Biff Jones Takes the Job
After Russ Cohen took his buyout, Huey Long promised LSU fans he could deliver them a big name head coach. He would shoot for the stars and inquire about Tennessee’ Bob Neyland, who had compiled a 52-2-4 record at Tennessee. He was quickly and politely told no, but Troy Middleton and the departing Cohen did recommend another Army man, Biff Jones. Jones was interested, but concerned about the influence of Huey Long. Middleton did what any good subordinate would do… he lied. He told Jones that Huey was more of a booster and that he cared more about the band than football.
The next issue was that Jones would only take the job if he could keep his military appointment. So this required LSU President James Smith and athletics chairman James Broussard to visit General Douglas MacArthur to ask for Jones to be transferred to teach military sciences at the Old War Skule. MacArthur agreed and told Broussard not to ask for any more favors.
Perhaps even more important than a new coach, in 1932 TP Heard rolled out perhaps his greatest innovation: the athletic scholarship. The Great Depression had started to take its toll on the state, and above the board jobs were drying up, even for players. So Heard guaranteed all athletes making a varsity squad would receive free tuition, room, board, books, and ten dollars a month for laundry. LSU was one of the first schools in the nation to offer scholarships purely for athletic performance.
It also created epic competition. LSU recruited the state and surrounding area hard, and as former end Bernie Dumas explained, “We suited out eleven teams. It was the custom to bring in around 125 freshmen each fall. The boys who made the squad got a free ride, those who didn’t either had to pay their own way or drop out.”
Jones was a taskmasker, but a gentlemen. He demanded precision performance, but he also required LSU players to help opposing players up after tackles and shake hands with substitutes. LSU tried to shed its rough and ready rep, from a coach who sat on his elevated chair at the 50-yard-line.
LSU would struggle in its opening two games of 1932, tying TCU 3-3 at home and then dropping a road trip to Rice 10-8 on a field goal in the dying minutes. It was during this game that Huey Long would lead 150 LSU cadets through the streets of Houston while dressed as a drum major. But the team would hit their stride quickly thereafter. LSU would not only roll off five straight wins, the Tigers would not allow a single point in any of those games. LSU wouldn’t allow a score until the third quarter of the Centenary game in Shreveport, losing 6-0.
LSU entered its annual rivalry game with Tulane needing a win to secure a share of the Southern Conference title. Unfortunately for the Greenies, a case of influenza swept through the team, including its best player, Don Zimmerman. Tulane asked for a delay, which Huey, being Huey, refused. LSU easily won 14-0 for its first win over Tulane since 1926, in a game dubbed the “Influenza Game.”
The SEC Forms
LSU was one of three teams to claim the Southern Conference title, which had now swelled to 23 teams. Like the SIAA before it, the league had simply become too unwieldy, so Dr. Sanford of Georgia convinced 13 schools, all west and south of the Appalachian Mountains, to form a new conference. Unlike the SIAA, the split was amicable and was due to geography not a rules dispute.
Jones would start a sophomore in his first year of eligibility at quarterback, Abe Mickal, a Lebanese-born future doctor who would earn the nickname Miracle Mickal. He was a star right away, throwing a 40-yard pass on his very first play from scrimmage, He would manage touchdown throws of 48 and 57 yards on the season, a far more difficult feat than today, as the ball was rounder and more difficult to grip and throw.
His 27-yard touchdown pass and extra point would be enough for LSU to eke out a tie against Vanderbilt, and he scored all seven points in a win against Tennessee on the season’s final day. Tennessee’s Beattie Feathers won the first SEC player of the year award, but it was the second teamer Mickal who outplayed him and secured the win, 7-0. It was the first time in Neyland’s career that the Vols were held scoreless.
LSU would finish the 1933 season undefeated, 7-0-3, but those ties would cost them the SEC title to Alabama, who went 5-0-1 in conference play. A tie to hated Tulane cost LSU the title.
LSU was dubbed “Champions of Three Conferences With No Crown to Wear.” LSU defeated the Southern champion, South Carolina, by 23 and the Southwest champion, Arkansas, by 20. Alabama had just one tie, to an Ole Miss team LSU beat 31-0, but LSU and Alabama did not play that season.
The Kingfish Takes Center Stage Again
For the first two years of Biff Jones’ tenure, Huey Long was relatively true to Middleton’s word. He toned down his act and contented himself to being the chief cheerleader and top recruiter for LSU, rather than getting into outright interference.
But the successes of 1932-33 went straight to his head, and Huey wanted some of the credit. LSU won a conference title and then had an undefeated season, not a bad start to the Biff Jones Era. Yet there was also the sense that part of the success was due to a bevvy of talent, supplied by Long’s extraordinary efforts.
LSU would kick off the hotly anticipated 1934 season with a thrilling comeback draw in Houston against the eventual SWC champion Rice Owls. Down 9-0 midway through the fourth, the Tigers forced a safety and then found a spectacular punt return by Rock Reed set up a late game-tying score.
The Tigers would return home for a game under the lights against SMU, but ticket sales were sluggish. As this was early in the night game experiment, Heard promised large payouts to opposing teams to play in Tiger Stadium at night and now risked losing a lot of money on the game. The culprit? The circus had come to town.
No worries, as Huey came to the rescue. He found an obscure law requiring cattle crossing state lines to be dipped and insisted to Barnum and Bailey that he planned to enforce that law, which meant dipping tigers and elephants. Or the circus could take Saturday night off and he would ignore the law. Barnum and Bailey cancelled the Saturday night circus, and the SMU game would nearly sell out.
The game was worth the large crowd, as SMU built a 14-7 lead until LSU took over the ball deep in its own territory with three minutes left. Mickal threw a 65-yard touchdown pass, the longest recorded pass in the South at the time. Miracle Mickal would add his own extra point to secure the tie.
Mickal’s play was so amazing that Huey Long attempted to make him a state senator. Mickal declined, but said he would sponsor legislation to make Tulane crossing the goal line illegal. Unsurprisingly, Biff Jones was not amused by Huey’s antics and finally got Huey to back down by pointing out Senators drew a salary, and this would jeopardize Mickal’s amateur standing.
These two last-minute escapes propelled LSU to a six-game winning streak in which the Tigers would outscore their opponents 110-9. In the midst of this run, Huey Long would arrange for one of the most famous road trips in LSU history, a trip to Nashville to play nationally renowned Vanderbilt.
Huey Long negotiated a $6 train fare for students for the game by threatening to reassess the value of the railroads. Trains were taxed at $100,000 and it would be a shame if he had to tax them at their true value of $4 million. The Illinois Central got the point and lowered the fares.
The Kingfish wasn’t done, as he then arranged for $7 loans to students to make the trip. Those loans were then paid back by “contributors” who were never identified. Approximately 5000 LSU students descended upon Nashville to watch LSU win 29-0.
Even with the two out-of-conference ties, everything was on track for LSU to win the SEC and earn a bid to the very first Sugar Bowl. Peter Finney argued in his book that no LSU-Tulane game, before or since, matched this one for storylines. It was a contest for the SEC crown and a Sugar Bowl birth for teams helmed by star players, Little Monk Simons and “Senator” Miracle Mickal. Tulane was unbeaten and untied while LSU had not lost in eighteen consecutive contests.
Mickal missed the first quarter, nursing a knee injury suffered against Ole Miss. The effects of that injury became clear when he missed his first extra point of the season to preserve Tulane’s 7-6 halftime lead. Mickal would connect on a long bomb but miss another PAT to give LSU a 12-7 lead.
LSU clung to its 5-point lead when it failed to convert a first down from inside the Tulane 10. Tulane drove down the field in response as Mickal was hauled off the field on a stretcher. The crowd gave a standing ovation to their hero as he was carted to the locker room. Buoyed by the crowd, the defense made a goal line stand to prevent a Tulane go ahead score.
Now it was time for another team to have some late heroics, as Little Monk Simons scored a punt return touchdown with less than three minutes remaining, despite breaking his collarbone on the game-winning play. Tulane hung on 13-12 thanks to its superior special teams.
Demoralized, LSU followed the loss up with a road loss to Tennessee, 19-13. Biff Jones defied Long’s orders and played Mickal in the game. Mickal was lost to further injury as was future star Gaynell Tinsley. Tennessee won the game on a Statue of Liberty fake pass in the game’s final two minutes. The breach between Jones and Long was now gaping.
It would come to a head a week later in the season finale against Oregon. Down 13-0 at the half, Long demanded to talk to the team at the half. Jones refused.
“I’m sick and tired of losing and tying games,” said the U.S. Senator. “You’d better win this one.”
“Well, Senator, get this,’ Jones replied. “Win, lose or draw, I quit”
“That’s a bargain,” Long replied as Jones closed the door in his face.
Jones then turned to his team and begged them to win the game for him. They did, coming back to secure a 14-13 victory. Jones and Long both felt badly about the locker room encounter, but once news of it leaked the press, neither man could publicly back down and save face. Jones quit as football coach, but stayed on as a military professor.
Without a coach again, Huey Long again thought big, and tried to lure Alabama’s Frank Thomas. The two men met in secret and agreed upon a massive $15,000 salary plus two assistants at $7,500 apiece.
”If any hint of this talk gets into the papers,” Thomas told Long. “The deal is off.”
With a day to think about it, Huey Long reneged on the deal, leaked it to the press, and then signed his track coach Bernie Moore as the head football coach. Moore would instantly reward the faith placed in him.
A New Coach and a New Mascot
LSU didn’t just sign a new football coach, it acquired its first live mascot.
In 1934, LSU set up a fund to purchase a live mascot by charging each student a 25 cent fee. The fees raised $750 which a committee, led by trainer Mike Chambers, TP Heard, intramural swimming coach William Higginbotham, and law student Ed Laborde, used to purchase a tiger from the Little Rock Zoo.
On October 10, 1935, Sheik was born. On October 21, 1936, Sheik arrived on the LSU campus and was rechristened Mike the Tiger by unanimous acclaim of the student body, knowing of Mike Chambers’ efforts to bring the tiger to the school.
Mike would serve as LSU’s mascot for the next twenty years, attending home games and even traveling with the team. Upon his death on June 29, 1956, LSU created a fund to mount his pelt in a lifelike matter. You can still visit the original Mike at the Museum of Natural History, located in Foster Hall. You can even press a button to hear a recording of his roar.
As for the new football coach, we’ll get into that next time, but first, let’s look at what he did as the track coach…
Program Overview 1932-35
Athletic Director: T.P. Heard officially gets the job
National Titles: Track (1933), Basketball (1935)
Conference Titles: Track (1933-35), Football (1932), Basketball (1935), Boxing (1934)
Programs Added: None
Facilities Added: None
As he had since 1926, Harry Rabenhorst pulled double duty as the basketball and baseball coach. The baseball team went 0-4 in its first SEC season, but righted the ship in the second half of 1934 after losing his first nine conference games. They would sweep Ole Miss and win the final four games of 1934, before posting a 8-7 (4-6) record in 1935.
On the other hand, his basketball teams excelled. LSU would go 15-8 (13-7) in the first SEC season of 1932-33, improving to 13-4 (13-3) the following season. This would set the stage for the 1935 team, which would go 14-1 overall and 12-0 in conference play to win its first SEC title (shared with Kentucky, who LSU did not play that season). LSU’s only loss on the season was to Rice in “an old auditorium with one chandelier with twenty-five watt bulbs. You could not see your feet or the color of uniforms. Even the floor was unwaxed.” (According to Sparky Wade).
Sparky Wade was LSU’s first All-American in basketball. He led the SEC in scoring in both 1933 and 1934 with a whopping 9.7 and 12.4 PPG, respectively. He was a 5’9” guard, short even for the time, earning the moniker the “Little Giant from Jena.” He was the floor general not just known for a scoring touch, but his passing and especially his ability to trash talk.
The 1935 team, by virtue of its undefeated SEC record, earned an invite to the American Legion Bowl, an exhibition game in Atlantic City against the Eastern Intercollegiate Conference champion Pittsburgh Panthers. Pitt built up a huge 18-4 lead in the game’s early going, thanks to its figure eight offense confusing the Tigers. LSU would manage to cut the lead to 26-17 by the half.
At this point, Rabenhorst attempted to let his team’s fast break offense do its work. Pitt concentrated on shutting down Wade, so Buddy Blair emerged as the go-to option with Wade comfortably facilitating. Blair claimed “we ran them crazy” as LSU outlasted Pitt for a 41-37 win and a mythical national championship, as the game predated both the NCAA tournament and the NIT.
The First NCAA Title
Biff Jones allowed one of Russ Cohen’s assistants to stay on not only as an assistant, but as the track coach. Bernie Moore took over the track program in 1930 after two years of turmoil after Tad Gormley left. He immediately put his stamp on the program, and by the time the SEC formed, LSU had an elite track program.
The key to the program was Glenn “Slats” Hanson, a sprinter and hurdler who won the silver medal in the 400m hurdles at the 1932 Olympic Games and would later win gold in the same event in 1936. He would helm Moore’s “five-man track team,” which would win LSU’s first NCAA sanctioned national championship in any sport, the 1933 men’s outdoor track title.
Slats dominated the field at the NCAA championships. He broke two world records, in the 400m and 220-yard high hurdles, and score 20 of the team’s final 58 points. The 400m performance is even more impressive due to the fact he was set back a yard, as was the rule at the time, for a false start.
Bernie Moore loaded up ten people and all of their equipment into two cars, personally decorated with a gaudy Bengal tiger. It took four days to travel 950 miles over mostly gravel roads while USC’s vaunted team came via a private railway car. Buddy Blair, of 1935 basketball fame and a member of the ‘33 track team, claimed that USC “could second, third, and fourth you to death.”
“Baby Jack” Torrance, who also labored for the football team, also picked up important points by winning the shot put and finishing third in the discus. Blair would fourth the Trojans to death with his javelin performance. Al Moreau would add a single point with a sixth place finish in the low hurdles, and then would tie for the win in the high hurdles. This gave Matt Gordy a chance to shock USC, owner of three titles in seven years, if he could best the Trojans’ Bill Graber at the pole vault.
The problem for the 125-pound Gordy was that his personal best was 13’4”. Bill Graber owned the world record at 14’4 3/8”. Graber had cleared 14 feet, and Gordy was down to his last jump, having faulted twice. Gordy would clear 14 feet for the first time in his career, securing a tie for the vault title and winning the national title over the heavily favored Trojans.
LSU were now national champions in both track and basketball. Huey Long hoped Bernie Moore could work the same magic on the football team.