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History Class: Bernie Moore Between the Wars

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The best LSU teams that you’ve never heard of: 1935-1937

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Bernie Moore, looking dapper
LSU Photograph Collection, RG #A5000, LSU Libraries,

Bernie Moore took over as head football coach of one of the deepest and most talented rosters in LSU history. He also had the pressure to win right away. There could be no excuses.

Of course, there was no one to make excuses to. Huey Long died in a hail of gunfire on September 10, 1935. He would not live to see the opening of the 1935 season.

Washington “Wash” Randall
1936 LSU Gumbo Yearbook

Death would shake the program again when Washington “Wash” Randall, the team’s athletic trainer since 1909, died of heart problems at the age of 61. The 6’5” 270-pound man had the size and skill to have played in any era, even now, but could not in his own time due to the color of his skin.

As the team’s athletic trainer, he tended to every player who came through the program, and up to his death could name every single player to don the purple and gold in every sport. He put in long hours for terrible pay, but he kept the players and the facilities healthy.

The SEC wasn’t just segregated, African-Americans were denied any seating at all in most stadiums in the south when he died. Randall needed to stay in separate hotels on the road due to Jim Crow laws, but he was an essential part of the LSU program during its period of growth into a major football power. His successor, Herman Lang, would be posthumously inducted into the LSU Hall of Fame in 2015.

I’m begging whoever makes these decisions at LSU. You can’t right a historic wrong and go back in time and let Wash play. The least you can do is honor his name and induct him into the LSU Hall of Fame. He deserves it, and he was a key figure in establishing the program. As The Reveille reported in 1935, ““He seemed to be as much a fixture here as the team itself, attending every game and practice session, caring for the field, lining it off for games, rubbing kinks out of sore muscles, sponging off the hot faces of athletes as they came off the field.”

The LSU program was built with his labor. Honor him.

The 1935 SEC Title

The 1935 LSU Football Team. Note the vertically striped uniforms, a style LSU wore throughout the 30’s
The 1936 LSU Gumbo

LSU opened the season with two home games against the twin powers from our westerly neighbors, Rice and Texas. LSU dropped the opener, 10-7 to Rice, and seemed to be on pace to do the same to Longhorns, falling behind 6-0. LSU tied the game up before the fourth quarter, and then scored 12 unanswered points to bring home a critical 18-6 win.

Huey Long had planned for a repeat of the Vandy Express, as Heard scheduled a road trip to New York to play Manhattan at famed Ebbets Field. Without the Kingfish, the cheap fares and Louisiana invasion of Broadway never happened, but the team went and destroyed the Jaspers, 32-0.

LSU would tear through the SEC, making another trip to Vanderbilt and dealing the Commodores their only conference loss of the season. The Tigers would follow it up with a win over Auburn, a team that finished third in the SEC and beat Southern champion Duke on the road the prior week.

The Tigers would then exact revenge for the prior year’s upset, as LSU absolutely destroyed Tulane 41-0 to close out a nine-game win streak and secure an undisputed SEC title. LSU had gone undefeated in SEC play and beaten the next top two teams in the standings. Long didn’t live to see the best team he ever had a hand in building, but he most likely would have enjoyed the blowout win over the Greenies. LSU ended the regular season 9-1 and the undisputed champions of the South. Additionally, Gaynell Tinsley would be named a consensus All-American. The team’s best player, Abe Mickal, was not so honored.

As a reward, LSU earned a bid to the Sugar Bowl. The bowl games were still a new concept. The Rose Bowl had been in continuous operation since 1915, but the Sugar and Orange Bowl got their start in the 1934 season. In the 1935, there were just four bowl games: the Rose, the Sugar and Orange (both in their second year), and the brand new Sun Bowl in El Paso as sort of proto-FCS championship. The only undefeated team in the nation, Minnesota, stayed at home as the Big Ten opted out of the bowls at this point.

Two of the most prolific passers in the nation, Slingin’ Sammy Baugh of TCU and Miracle Abe Mickal of LSU, were poised to put on a show in New Orleans. The problem? It rained. And rained. And rained. For four days, it rained, leaving the field a soggy mess. The skies cleared for kickoff, only for heavy rains to soak the field for the entire second half.

What was billed as an offensive showcase became a sludgy mess. LSU took a 2-0 lead on a safety, but TCU answered with a 36-yard field goal late in the first half. The second half would go scoreless, as neither team could move the football in the soup. LSU would get within the two yard-line on three occasions in the game, but come away with 0 points as Moore eschewed a field goal. His players begged him to kick, but Moore refused, and his stubbornness cost LSU the game. TCU would stop LSU on fourth and goal at the six-inch line to preserve the win. Mickal closed his great career with his worst game, 2-14 for 36 yards and three interceptions.

LSU stopped short of the goal line against TCU
The 1936 LSU Gumbo

The 1936 National Title

1936 brought a new innovation to college football: the AP poll. For the first time, there would be a consensus national champion, as voted upon by the media which, let’s be clear, was primarily located in the north. This would become important. LSU would debut in the first AP poll at #13, the highest ranked team in the south despite coming off an SEC title. That’s how little regard the national media held southern football at the time.

Pinky Rohm, left, running against Auburn, 1936
The 1937 LSU Gumbo

Again, LSU would open the season with Rice and Texas, this team defeating Rice but drawing with Texas 6-6 in Austin. And from that point on, LSU got pissed and took it out on the rest of their schedule. LSU would allow just 33 points on the season, 13 of them in those first two games. LSU would score 281 points on the year, including the biggest blowout in school history, a 93-0 thrashing of Southwest Louisiana Institute. LSU would deal Auburn its only loss of the season, 19-6, on the back of Cotton Milner’s 90-yard touchdown run, still the fourth longest run in LSU history. LSU climbed from outside the top ten to finish the season ranked second in the nation, closing out the year with another blowout over Tulane, this one 33-0. After years of frustration against the Green Wave, LSU now had outscored Tulane 74-0 over the past two seasons.

LSU v Tulane 1936

Now, about that #2 ranking. LSU finished the year 9-0-1 and the final regular season poll came out before the bowls due to the Big Ten’s postseason boycott, feeding the general view that bowl games were mere exhibitions and not “real” games.

Minnesota had been the #1 team but lost to #3 Northwestern on Halloween. Northwestern took over the top spot, which they held for the rest of the year before losing to #11 Notre Dame in their final game. Minnesota was placed back in the top spot by voters despite their loss due to the bias towards Big Ten teams. 8-0-1 Alabama (tied Tennessee at home) and 9-0-1 LSU (tied Texas on the road) did not play. LSU had the highest scoring team in the nation paired with one of the stoutest defenses in the country, yet got passed over for the AP title. LSU has been retroactively recognized as the national champion by the Jeff Sagarin Ratings (as well as the much sketchier Williamson System, which recognizes LSU as the 1935 national champions as well, which we should not claim). Even 9-1-1 Pittsburgh, who finished third in the final AP poll behind LSU, recognizes its 1936 title. That’s right, a team that finished behind LSU in the AP poll, claims the national title and it is officially recognized as legitimate around college football. LSU has an even better claim to the ’36 title, and should claim it.

The problem is, LSU absolutely crapped the bed in the Sugar Bowl.

Yeah, it rained again and the field was in terrible shape. But LSU went off as 5 to 1 favorites and Moore probably made a key error in deciding to travel on the day of the game. A sluggish LSU team let up two quick touchdowns and never really recovered, losing 21-14. LSU turned the ball over TEN TIMES in the game, as LSU was forced to use its backup QB Bill Crass because starter Pat Coffee was injured on the opening kickoff.

LSU cut the lead to 14-7 despite a miserable first half in which they went nearly 25 minutes without a first down. LSU was even outsmarted at the half, when Santa Clara coach Buck Shaw sent an assistant to negotiate with Loyola coaches in attendance. Loyola, no friends to LSU, provided Santa Clara with fresh, dry shoes. The team then changed into its practice uniforms and came out dry and refreshed for the second half against the water-logged Tigers.

Santa Clara scored on two fourth down conversions, including one that might have been an illegal fake fumble. But Moore made no excuses, “We just met a better ball club today than ours, that’s all.” Santa Clara fans tore down the goalposts and brought them home with them.

Is there video? Oh yeah, there’s video.

The Rag

Two-time consensus All-American Gaynell Tinsley graduated and left school for the NFL. He wasn’t the only one. Over half of LSU’s two-deep roster graduated, including Moose Stewart (Helms All-American at center) and All-SEC players Bill Crass and Wardell Liesk.

Ken Kavanaugh, 1940 LSU Gumbo Yearbook

Ken Kavanaugh would emerge as one of the team’s best players and an elite receiver. But senior Pinky Rohm had a season for the ages in 1937, scoring five special teams touchdowns, two on kickoffs and three on punt returns. His 539 punt return yards in one season still stands as the school record, and his teammate, Young Bussey, stands third all-time with 465. Together, they combined for 1,004 punt return yards in one single season. Rohm would score two return touchdowns against Loyola, maybe revenge for the dry shoes, and his 60-yard punt return touchdown against Texas was the game’s only touchdown.

Not to be outdone, Ken Kavanaugh picked up a fumble on the goal line the next week against Rice, and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown. It is by far the longest fumble return in LSU history.

Rohm’s largest legacy wasn’t his returning ability, but a silly pregame bet he made with Norman Hall, the Tulane captain. The two bet each other the seat of each other’s pants over the result of the 1937 Tulane game. Sure enough, after the 20-7 LSU victory, he invaded the Tulane locker room with a pair of shears and created the first LSU-Tulane Rag out of the rump of Hall’s pants.

While Rohm made sure his bet got paid, LSU students invaded the field and tore down the Tulane goalposts in celebration. Tulane fans objected, and the usual fighting and scrapping ensued, broken up by the police. To avoid a repeat of the near-riot postgame, the two student councils declared the field a “neutral zone” and created a more formal flag bearing the seals of the two schools to become the official Rag. I’m kind of bummed we don’t trade Norman Hall’s pants.

The Rag, 1940 LSU Gumbo Yearbook

1937 and Beyond

Despite losing so much talent, LSU wouldn’t allow a point in its first four games, beating Florida, Texas, Rice, and Ole Miss (not a bad combo of teams) by a combined score of 54-0. LSU had not lost an SEC game in three years under Moore, and travelled again to Vanderbilt for a showdown of nationally ranked teams.

Coach Ray Morrison did not believe Vanderbilt could score a point straight up against LSU. No one had yet, so why keep trying. So assistant Henry Frnka spent the week devising a trick play, installing it at a secret practice attended by just the first team offense. Vandy snapped the ball to Dutch Reinscmidt, who ran to the outside with the LSU defense in pursuit. The only problem was that he didn’t have the ball. He left it on the ground for the lineman Ricketson, who waited three seconds, and ran fifty yards for a score without a single player within 20 yards.

LSU would come back and score a touchdown with a minute left in the game, only to snap the ball over the holder’s head, allowing Vanderbilt to squeak out a 7-6 victory for LSU’s first SEC loss under Bernie Moore.

LSU would end the regular season 9-1, losing out in the SEC title thanks to Vanderbilt falling to Alabama, who went undefeated in SEC play. LSU would go down the road again to play in the Sugar Bowl to again play Santa Clara. And once again, a sluggish LSU team lost in the rain, this time 6-0. LSU would fail to score on two different fourth and goal to go situations.

LSU wouldn’t have the chance to be disappointed by a Sugar Bowl bid going forward. After three straight Sugar Bowl losses, capping two SEC titles and a disputed national championship, the well dried up. Moore went 27-5-1 in his first three years, losing only two regular season games. It would take him five years to win his next 27, going 27-20-2 over the next five seasons.

The creation of the Rag would lead to perhaps the last competitive era of the LSU-Tulane rivalry. Tulane would exact revenge for the LSU title seasons by winning the first two Battles for the Rag, followed up by a three-game LSU winning streak.

In the SEC’s first five seasons, LSU’s worst finish was a 4-2 campaign in 1934. LSU won the SEC title in 1935 and 1936, and finished second in 1937 and 1933. In 1938, LSU would go 2-4 in SEC play, their first second division finish. The following year, LSU would slip to 4-5 overall, going just 1-5 in conference play, the only win over Vanderbilt, who was transitioning from SEC power into perennial doormat.

The good news was that LSU still churned out some great players. Ken Kavanaugh was named Co-MVP of the SEC in 1939, made the All-American team as an end, and finished seventh in the Heisman balloting. He was the first lineman to ever win the Knute Rockne Memorial Award. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1963.

Kavanaugh, like Pinky Rohm, had an outsized effect on LSU football off the field as well. It was he who scouted out zoos that might be selling a tiger, finding that Little Rock had two tigers for sale. He helped arrange the sale and the transport of the tiger back to LSU.

The 1939 season marked LSU’s first losing season since 1923, Mike Donahue’s first year (though he did guide LSU to a 4-4-1 season in 1927, his final season).

So what the hell happened?

The Hangover

It’s important to take a quick look at how much had changed at LSU in a short period of time. The new campus wasn’t even dedicated until April 30, 1926, before that, LSU was still at its downtown facilities. Tiger Stadium didn’t exist until 1924 and it wasn’t until 1931 that it resembled the modern structure and could seat 22,000 people.

The North Endzone of Tiger Stadium was completed in 1936 and would be the last major upgrade of Tiger Stadium until the early 50’s
Collegiate Images/Getty Images

Since Huey Long had become governor in 1928 and started his role as Chief Thief for LSU, the football team became a national power, the band transformed from a military marching outfit to one of the largest and most prestigious show bands in the nation, and the university itself went from an understaffed “third rate” school to one of the pre-eminent universities of the south. The Southern Review, established by Robert Penn Warren among others, began publishing from the LSU Press in 1935.

Both the school and the athletics program had been literally transformed by Huey Long’s largesse. After his assassination in 1935, leadership of the political machine fell to his trusted lieutenant, Governor Oscar K. Allen. Allen won election to the Senate in Huey’s place, but died of a brain hemorrhage before taking office.

This left the machine almost completely without leadership. Huey Long may have been corrupt, but he also made sure everyone got their cut. He built roads, hospitals, and schools (most notably LSU itself). His successors were just as dedicated to graft but not much else. Governor Richard Leche’s term descended into a parade of indictments, eventually landed Leche in federal prison for fraud.

One of the many public officials caught up in the “Hayride” scandals was LSU President Dr. James Monroe Smith. Huey Long had installed Smith as a politically pliable puppet in 1930, a guy who happily took kickbacks while Long funneled money wherever he liked. Without the Kingfish to keep him in check, Smith had signed half a million in fraudulent notes and embezzled $100,000 from the school. He was sentenced to eight years of prison time in 1940, paroled after five.

In the wake of the Hayride, there was a concerted effort to remove some of the vestiges of Kingfish rule, and to remove his more notorious cronies from office. Even Castro Carazo, the director of Tiger Band, left LSU in 1940 as the school would attempt to de-emphasisze the show band (unsuccessfully, it would be back to a show band in 1945 under new director L. Bruce Jones).

Without the Kingfish throwing lavish gifts at recruits and the SEC instituting athletic scholarships at all schools in 1936 to level the playing field, the talent edge dried up.

As The Athletic reported in its recent history series (which is also excellent and you should be reading it, too):

“The simple admission that the Southeastern Conference intended to openly flout amateur ideals shook the football establishment,” wrote historian John Sayle Watterson. The NCAA responded by passing seven resolutions condemning recruiting and subsidizing.

But for LSU, this was a step backwards, not forwards. LSU had been giving out scholarships for five years, and the SEC rule now allowed everyone to catch up. Some couldn’t keep up. Sewanee would lose every SEC game from 1932 to 1939 before bowing to the inevitable, dropping out of the SEC.

LSU settled into an era of simply keeping up with the Joneses. For the first time in the school’s history, there was relative stability. And then came the War.

Program Overview 1935-1941

Athletic Director: T.P. Heard

National Titles: Football (1936, sort of), Golf (1940)

Conference Titles: Track (1936, 1938-1941), Football (1935-36), Boxing (1939-40), Golf (1937-41)

Programs Added: Swimming (1936-39)

Facilities Added: 2nd LSU Diamond (1936 & 1938), renamed Alex Box Stadium (1943); John Parker Agricultural Coliseum (1937); LSU Golf Course (1936); Tiger Stadium expands to 46,000 (1936)

TP Heard, the school’s first dedicated Athletic Director, had built Tiger Stadium by using funds earmarked for dorms, invented night football, pioneered athletic scholarships, helped found the SEC, bought a damn live tiger as the school mascot, built the Gym Armory, and then expanded his building in 1936 to the Ag Center and the 2nd LSU Diamond which would eventually become Alex Box, added a successful boxing program, won national titles in track and basketball, and oversaw the rise of a dominant football program through a revolving door of coaches.

Let’s just say he was going to survive the post-Huey Long purge. He even transformed travel. In 1939, LSU became one of the first teams to travel to an away game by airplane. Heard got two DC-3’s to fly 11 hours and four stops to take the team to Boston to play Holy Cross. Holy Cross had gone 40-5-3 over the past five years and LSU was starting its downturn, but LSU beat the Crusaders 26-7 behind a great performance from Ken Kavanaugh.

Tiger Stadium closed its North End, becoming a horseshoe by adding 24,000 seats. Basketball finally got a permanent home, the infamous Cow Palace, which would also occasionally host boxing. The Cow Palace opened up in 1937 and LSU celebrated by hosting the SEC basketball tournament in 1938.

Ag Center, 1940 LSU Gumbo Yearbook

Baseball was not a big deal at LSU and wouldn’t be for another half century, but Heard did arrange for there to be a permanent metal grandstand, replacing the temporary wood structure that had previously existed as the 2nd LSU Diamond. The 2500-seat Alex Box Stadium was funded by the WPA, and served as the spring training home for the New York Giants for its first two years.

Alex Box himself had to give up football after a shoulder injury against Holy Cross during that trip to Boston. He would switch to baseball and hit cleanup and play right field. He enlisted in the army after college, fighting in World War II, earning the Distinguished Service Cross. He was killed in Tunisia in February 1943 and the school moved to rename the baseball facility after him in May, as Box was a “perfect example of an athlete, a Christian gentleman, a scholar and a soldier ... His beautiful life may be compared to a great piece of music which ends on a high note.”

More SEC Titles

Bernie Moore won a bunch of SEC titles in the two sports he coached. From 1933-43, he would win every SEC track title save one, and we’ve just covered his early football success. Boxing continued to be a major power. LSU won its first SEC baseball title in 1939 by sweeping Tulane. Ken Kavanaugh starred on the baseball team as well, leading the team to 22-6 (10-2) record.

The school briefly experimented with a swimming program in 1936, but the pool in the Huey Long Fieldhouse was longer than Olympic size, due to Huey’s desire to have the largest swimming pool. This made the pool virtually worthless for actual competition, and the team never really got off the ground, folding in 1940. But Huey got his large pool.

Let’s talk golf! Heard hired Major J Perry Cole in 1933, his first coaching hire as the AD. His first hire worked out pretty well, and by 1937, Cole won his first SEC title, the first of six consecutive titles.

LSU broke through nationally in 1940, tying Princeton for the national title, and becoming the first southern school to win the national title. The Ivies had won every title prior to 1934, when Michigan won consecutive titles, followed by Stanford winning in 1938-39. LSU suddenly showing up on the list sticks out like a sore thumb.

Henry Castillo won three consecutive individual SEC titles (1938-1940), and anchored an upstart Tiger team on its trip to Manchester, Vermont. Fred Haas had won the individual title in 1937, so it wasn’t LSU’s first breakthrough. The team would continue its success with Earl Stewart winning an individual title in 1941, and the team winning another title in 1942, this one in South Bend.

Major J Perry Cole already had a profound impact at LSU before winning national titles. Prior to taking the job as golf coach, he was charged with organizing the Memorial Oak Grove and identifying all of the alumni dead from the Great War. The thirty-one oaks honor the thirty dead Cole identified plus the Unknown Soldier.

In his spare time, Cole not only coached the team, but arranged for the purchase of the LSU golf course. But his greatest legacy is not those titles, but the Memorial Oak Grove.