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History Class: World War II and the Old War Skule

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The Pershing Rifles, LSU Gumbo 1942

All of a sudden, football didn’t seem to matter so much.

December 7, 1941 transformed American society as the nation geared up for total war. The nation, shocked by the Pearl Harbor attacks, prepared to put games to the side as part of this mobilization, but FDR’s Green Light Letter, specifically written to the baseball commissioner, urged that games should continue because “that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”

That’s all well and good for professional baseball, but college football had the additional problem of drawing from the same pool of people headed to the draft. It became nearly impossible for a school to find enough able-bodied college-eligible men ineligible for the draft but able to play college football.

Colleges rapidly changed the rules to assist with the manpower shortage. Freshmen became eligible, and substitution rules liberalized. It wasn’t enough. By 1943, hundreds of colleges dropped football and the SEC cut back to just four teams: Georgia, Georgia Tech, Tulane, and LSU.

This was not because LSU was shirking its war time duties. The Ole War Skule was second to none in answering the call. 12,000 people from LSU served and nearly 5,000 former students served as officers, fourth most among all colleges behind only West Point, the Naval Academy, and Texas A&M. Sixteen LSU students achieved the rank of Brigadier General or higher.

First and foremost amongst them was not a former student, but the Vice-President of the University, Troy Middleton.

Troy Motherf’n’ Middleton

Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton, Jan. 1945

When I first planned these history classes, I wanted to focus on administrators, the anonymous men and women who built this program without ever getting to bask in the cheers of the crowd. Still, starting from the beginning of LSU history required recapping some old games and getting in to the former players because those box scores have faded and the cheers long since gone away.

Hopefully, we can start to transition our story to move the spotlight to these off the field figures, starting with Troy Middleton. Anyway, when last we left him, he was helping Huey Long negotiate with Douglas MacArthur to assign Biff Jones to LSU as a military professor so he could also coach football. But his story, of course, doesn’t start there.

Troy Middleton was born in Mississippi and attended Mississippi A&M (now State), but we shouldn’t hold that against him. He served as a battalion commander in the Second Battle of the Marne and received promotion to regimental commander, leading the attack in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. At age 29, he became the youngest colonel in the AEF due to his exceptional war record.

He arrived at LSU in 1930 just as Huey Long was getting started in his campaign to build LSU as a premier university. Middleton served as the Commandant of Cadets, eventually expanding his role to the Dean of Men in 1934. James Monroe Smith pressed Middleton to resign from the army, but Middleton declined and in 1936, requested a transfer to the Philippines.

This should have been the end of his chapter in the LSU storybook, but fate would intervene. President Smith redoubled his efforts, offering Middleton $5,400/year to be Dean of Administration. The now lieutenant colonel felt that further promotion was unlikely, so he took the offer to retire from the army, against the advice of his friend Dwight Eisenhower, who urged that war with Hitler was a near certainty.

Middleton became Dean in 1937, but would receive a sudden promotion to vice president and comptroller in the wake of The Hayride scandals. Alongside acting president and Dean of the Law School, Paul Hebert, Middleton had to dig LSU out of the financial troubles caused by Smith’s fraud and embezzlement.

He would successfully save the university’s credit and finances, and then immediately return to active duty on January 20, 1942. He would rise to the rank of Lieutenant General, and would earn his greatest renown for his decision to hold Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, contrary to Patton’s advice. By war’s end, Middleton logged 480 days of combat, the most of any American officer.

Middleton would return to LSU after the war as the comptroller. In 1947, Dr. William Hatcher stepped down as university president due to ill health, and the board of supervisors offered Middleton the job. He declined, and the school hired Harold Stoke, who could not work with the board’s interference, resulting in his resignation in 1950.* On February 1, 1951, Troy Middleton finally took the job and became president of the university. But that is a story for another day.

Poseur’s Note: Showing that times never change, one of the primary sources of friction was building more academic facilities or expanding the football stadium again. The issue would not go away, and things will come to a head in our next installment.

A New Rival?

After achieving such heights from 1935-37, LSU settled back to a .500 team from 1938-41. Bernie Moore would guide LSU to a 20-17-2 record. He would split the four games with primary rival Tulane during this span, but he would also see the rise of a new rival: Ole Miss.

To this point in history, any LSU-Ole Miss rivalry, as it existed, was pretty one-sided. LSU won eight straight games from 1928-37, and had a 14-1 edge dating back to 1915. LSU had even negotiated the game to be a near perpetual home game, from 1928-51, the game only left the state of Louisiana twice, and that was for neutral site games in Jackson on 1931 and 1934. LSU won those, too.

Harry Mehre took over a middle of the pack program and immediately started winning big. While LSU took a step backwards, Ole Miss built a 31-8-1 record over the same time period, losing two games in each season. The Rebels would beat LSU four consecutive times, the longest winning streak over LSU in school history. Unfortunately for Ole Miss, what Mehre started to build came crashing in during the war years.

LSU would exact some measure of revenge with a 21-7 victory, as Ole Miss fell to 2-7 overall. A winless conference campaign dropped them to last place in the SEC. LSU wasn’t exactly back, they would finish 7-3 in 1942, losing to Tennessee 26-0 and Auburn 25-7. It would be the last “normal” season with relatively full rosters. LSU even travelled north to beat Fordham in 1942. Travel restrictions made such cross-regional games all but impossible the next season.

Bernie Moore Finally Wins a Bowl Game

#17 Steve Van Buren against Georgia Tech, LSU Gumbo 1944

Simply fielding a team for the 1943 season was a win for LSU. Travel restrictions and roster shortages forced the SEC to play an abbreviated schedule with only the four teams which managed to scrounge up enough players.

LSU was at a disadvantage when it came to recruiting players due to the lack of a Navy V-12 training program, which helped fill out the rosters of other schools with able-bodied young men. LSU was forced to rely on players too young for the draft in their freshman year before entering the service or players rejected by the draft board.

Luckily for LSU, one of those players rejected for military service included Steve van Buren, who failed an army physical due to his defective vision. It turns out, you don’t need to see to play football. Van Buren would lead the SEC in rushing and points scored, changing position from blocking back to a featured halfback in his senior year. Moore would joke that people never let him forget he had the best running back in the SEC block for three years.

Steve Van Buren

Steve van Buren would get drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, not the US Army. He would go on to a superb eight-year career that would earn him election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He won four NFL rushing titles, two NFL titles, and retired and as the NFL’s leading all-time rusher.

LSU would play Georgia twice in conference play, winning both, and drop games to Tulane and Georgia Tech. LSU would play a local army base team to fill out the schedule, plus four games against SWC opponents from Texas. The fourth of these games was a trip to Miami to play in the Orange Bowl.

LSU received an Orange Bowl bid largely because they could make the trip. The 4-3 Tigers were no one’s idea of a powerhouse that season, but none of the northern schools, who dominated college football during the war years, could make the trip south. So 6-1-1 Texas A&M got a rematch with a team they beat in the regular season due to a lack of options. LSU entered the game as 15-to-1 underdogs.

Texas A&M, not being stupid, decided to base their entire game plan on stopping LSU’s best weapon, Steve van Buren. It wouldn’t work. Moore moved Joe Nagata to fullback to take direct snaps and either handoff to van Buren or run a keeper himself. This bought the runners a half second, and LSU scored two touchdowns before A&M knew what hit them.

Let’s watch and enjoy LSU beating the hell out of A&M, a tradition like no other. And is anyone else surprised it is in color? That’s because it was a film reel, not a television broadcast.

The Aggies eventually adjusted, but van Buren busted a 62-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to put this game away. LSU won 19-14 with van Buren accounting for 172 of LSU’s 201 rushing yards on offense. After four tries, Bernie Moore finally had his bowl victory, with easily his weakest team. Van Buren would go on to NFL fame while Nagata, a Japanese-American, would fight in an all-Nisei regiment, earning himself eight medals, including the Bronze Star.

Joe Nagata, LSU Gumbo 1948

Another Hall of Famer Arrives

Just as Steve van Buren left for the NFL, Bernie Moore restocked his roster with one of his greatest recruiting classes ever, headlined by halfbacks Dan Sandifer, Ray Coates, and Jim Cason. Oh yeah, and a quarterback named Y.A. Tittle.

His full name was Yelberton Abraham Tittle, but when school publicist Jim Corbett* discovered the full name by digging through his hometown records, YA begged him not to reveal it. He was simply YA. Corbett instead marketed it as college football’s most exciting name.

Poseur’s Note: Our first Corbett sighting! He’ll play a big role in the future, so keep an eye on that guy, he might have a future with LSU.

Tittle’s older brother, Jack, had played for Tulane and the Marshall, Texas native showed up to Austin to play for the Longhorns. LSU assistant Red Swanson showed up on campus and told Tittle to start packing, whisking him away to Baton Rouge. YA agreed because he thought the tiger was cool. And you thought recruiting was corrupt and weird now.

LSU, leaning primarily on the freshmen recruits, wasn’t terribly good in 1944, but they showed signs of the team they would become by defeating Tulane 25-7. During the game, Tittle completed 12 passes in a row, a Tiger record which would stand for nearly fifty years.

In 1945, the promise started to pay off. Built around the quartet of now sophomore talents, Moore supplemented the roster with guys returning from the war, eager to resume their college educations. Nagata, Gene Knight, and Bill Montgomery returned to the team to give the Tigers outstanding depth. LSU boasted six players who rushed for at least 200 plus two quarterbacks who threw for multiple touchdowns in Tittle and Wayne Kingery.

Y.A. Tittle punting against Tulane, LSU Gumbo 1946

LSU dropped an early game to Alabama, but rebounded with two blowout wins over ranked teams: 31-12 versus #17 Texas A&M and 32-0 at #12 Georgia. LSU would get upset at home by Mississippi St before closing out the season with road wins over Georgia Tech and Tulane. LSU finished the year 7-2 and ranked 15th in the AP.

The Ice Bowl

The ten-year anniversary of the great 1936 team promised a potential repeat. YA Tittle upheld his part of the bargain, passing for 780 yards and 13 touchdowns which were eye-popping numbers back in 1946.

LSU opened the season with a hard-fought 7-6 win over eventual SWC co-champion Rice in Houston. Rice scored an apparent game-tying touchdown in the game’s final minute, but Jim Cason and Chuck Schroll blocked the Rice point after attempt, securing the one-point victory.

The Tigers followed it up with wins over Mississippi State and A&M, keyed by star Piggy Barnes. LSU then allowed late turnovers to doom a comeback effort against Georgia Tech, turning a late 12-7 score into a 26-7 loss. It would be the regular season’s only blemish. LSU beat its traditional rivals Ole Miss and Tulane. It even added a 20-7 road win over 8-2 Miami, who staked its first claim at relevance by knocking off both Florida and TCU.

The big win for LSU that season was the “Beat Bama for Bernie!” game. LSU spotted Bama a 7-0 lead. LSU scored the apparent game-tying touchdown, but now it was LSU’s turn to miss an extra point. Jim Loftin picked off a pass in the dying seconds of the first half, lateraled the ball to Dan Sandifer, who galloped 82 yards for a touchdown. LSU would build a massive 31-7 lead before holding on for a 31-21 win, LSU’s first win over Alabama since 1909. (Bad, but not quite as it seems. LSU went 0-9-3 in this stretch, as the teams did not play from 1931-1943).

LSU’s season was rewarded with a bid to the Cotton Bowl to face SWC co-champion Arkansas. As it always seemed to happen to Bernie Moore teams, the weather did not cooperate. The temperature hovered in the mid-20s while snow, sleet, and freezing rain pelted the crowd and the players. LSU players resorted to hiding in a hay bale to keep warm.

Cotton Bowl, LSU Gumbo 1947

LSU dominated the game, outgaining Arkansas 271-54 and earning 15 first downs to the Hogs’ one. LSU moved the ball inside the ten on five different occasions, but could never score, most notably when Clyde Scott tackled Jeff Adams at the one-inch line to prevent a touchdown.

The Tigers would reach inside the 20 twice in the fourth quarter. It was Floyd Thomas stopping Cotton Bowl MVP Ray Coates at the goal line this time. The Tigers would get the ball back and reached the six-yard line with time running out. LSU attempted a field goal on the game’s final play, but a fumbled snap prevented a kick attempt. The game ended tied at zero.

It was a miserable game in which the weather more than the opposing team cost LSU its tenth win, as LSU settled for a 9-1-1 season and a #8 final ranking. Harry Rabenhorst claimed it was so cold that it brought tears to everyone’s eyes and when he went to see Moore after the game, tears had frozen to his cheeks.

LSU Loses Its Coach, Tittle Loses His Pants

A restored and colorized photo of Y A Tittle that LSU released in 2016

Bernie Moore then decided YA Tittle’s final season in Baton Rouge would be his last as well. “When Tittle leaves, so will I” Moore once joked, but he did plan on returning as the coach when the season started. However, he left LSU in the spring to take a promotion to SEC commissioner.

Jim Cason and Ray Coates missed long stretches of the 1947 season due to knee injuries, but Moore and Tittle still had one more classic game up their sleeves. Tittle intercepted a pass against Ole Miss with a clear path at the end zone. He evaded the first tackler, but the tackler did rip off his belt buckle. The rest of the story is a bit murky.

To let Tittle tell it, “If my pants hadn’t fallen, I’d have scored easily,” Tittle said, “It was really an embarrassing moment. There I was down to my jock strap in front of 50,000 people. I kept asking my teammates to surround me, but they didn’t help me a damn bit. They were all laughing so hard they couldn’t do anything. Everybody was getting such a chuckle out of it except me.”

But everyone admits this is probably a bit of a tall tale, designed for the banquet circuit and when people were expected to tell good stories, even if they stretched the truth a tad. But it really is just a tad, even the Ole Miss account agrees he broke his belt buckle and then attempted to avoid tacklers while holding up his pants. Tittle avoided the final tackler, but tripped on his falling pants (which were near his knees) at the 20, and LSU failed to score. Ole Miss would survive with a 20-18 victory.

Tittle, ever the unreliable narrator, claimed “We lost and Ole Miss went to the Sugar Bowl instead of us,” Tittle said. “Losing my pants kept us out of the Sugar Bowl.” That’s not true. Alabama went to the Sugar Bowl. But 8-2 Ole Miss did go to the Delta Bowl in Memphis. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the bowl selects a 6-2-1 LSU team over a 7-3 Ole Miss team, particularly to showcase Bernie Moore’s last game.

Instead, Moore’s last game would be a 6-6 tie in New Orleans against Tulane. The largest crowd in Southern football history, 66,000, was in attendance. Some enterprising LSU students planted a different color grass seed so when the grass matured, the middle of the Tulane field spelled out L-S-U. Tulane officials spent the week before the game ripping up grass.

Moore won his final home game (against Mississippi State), but wanted to go out a winner against the hated Greenies. However, a missed kick again would bedevil the Tigers, and the game ended in a 6-6 draw. LSU would get inside the one yard line in the fourth, only to fumble the ball, and the Tulane recovery preserved the tie.

It was a crushing end to a disappointing season for LSU. Injuries played a part in going 5-3-1, but fans didn’t want to hear the excuses. The very next year, four players from LSU’s backfield started for an NFL team next season: YA Tittle for the Baltimore Colts, Dan Sandifer for the Washington Redskins, Ray Coates for the New York Giants, and Jim Cason for the San Francisco 49ers. It might still be the greatest recruiting class in LSU history.

Tittle, of course, outshone them all. Due to a quirk in NFL rules, he would get drafted in the top 10 twice in his career, a feat that will never be bested. The AFL also selected Tittle in the first, making him a three-time first round pick. He left LSU with four career school records: passing yards (2,517), total offense (2,619), completed passes (166), and touchdown passes (21).

His pro career was even better. He would hold the season passing touchdown record (36) until Dan Marino came along. He went to three championship games and won the MVP three times (twice from the UPI, once from the AP). His influence is more than his statistics, as he came to represent the hard-nosed toughness of the era. He was one of the first NFL players to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the photo of a battered and bloodied Tittle kneeling in the end zone after a loss is perhaps the most iconic image of the era.

You know, this picture

Tittle would never win a championship.

Moore closed his LSU career with a 9-3-1 record against LSU’s biggest rival, never losing more than two in a row. After Moore, the rivalry would cease to be competitive and he stands as the truly the coach who most embodied the LSU-Tulane rivalry. It would literally never be the same.

The one thing that never changed is the demands of the job. Moore, looking back on his career, stated that he worried too much, especially the beating he would take in the media and from fans after a loss. Peter Finney quotes Moore in his definitive history of LSU football:

“There are wolves the nation over, and there all species of ‘em. Elsewhere, the wolves howl the night long. In Baton Rouge and Louisiana, they howl all night and day.”

Bernie Moore, LSU Gumbo 1948

Program Overview 1942-47

Athletic Director: T.P. Heard

National Titles: Golf (1942 & 1947)

Conference Titles: Track (1942-43, 1946-47), Baseball (1943, 1946), Golf (1942, 1946-47)

Programs Added: Tennis returns (1946)

Facilities Added: None

LSU Campus from the South, showing Mississippi River, LSU Diamond, Tiger Stadium, and Parker Colosseum, LSU Gumbo 1947

Bernie Moore ended his football career with a career 83-39-6 record. He won two SEC titles, one disputed national title, and took LSU to five bowl games in an era in which there were only three or four bowl games. He won at least 9 games four times and had a team lose two games or less five times. He was legitimately LSU’s first great football coach.

However, that’s nothing compared to his track dynasty. From 1933-47, LSU won every single SEC title in track except two, and that was due to roster shortages in World War II. He won a national title, coached in the Olympics, and saw his team break five world records. There’s a reason we named the track stadium after him. He’s the most successful coach in LSU history.

Golf Keeps Winning, Tennis Stops Playing

AD T.P. Heard, Dale Morey, and Jimmy Wittenberg holding the 1942 Golf National Championship Trophy, LSU Gumbo 1943

The war would wreak havoc on the rest of LSU athletics. Major J Perry Cole would return to his duties with the army, leaving the golf team in the capable hands of former football coach Mike Donahue. Cole would win the national title in 1942, off the strength of the 1940 team. Donahue would hold the line for two years before yielding the reins to TP Heard. Heard would promptly win the SEC title in his first year, and the national title in his second. Not many Athletic Directors could make the claim they coached a national title team.

There were no SEC tournaments due to the travel restrictions from 1943-45, but the gap didn’t stop the LSU golf dynasty, just delayed it. LSU won every SEC title in golf from 1937-48 save 1941, when Earl Stewart won the individual title.

It was a team effort, not riding one player. LSU’s next individual title wouldn’t come until 1947, when Joe Moore won the SEC.

After the national title in 1942, LSU finished 3rd in 1943 and 5th in 1946. In 1947, Stanford jumped out to a huge early lead with a 304 score on the first 18. The Cardinal would collapse on the final 18, finishing with a 616. Led by freshman Jack Coyle, LSU roared back to win by eight strokes. LSU now had three national titles in eight years, and five top three finishes.

Tennis shuttered its doors in 1942 and the school parted ways with longtime coach Charles Diel. After the war, the program got back up and running, and Donahue shifted from golf to tennis coach. He would coach for two seasons before finally retiring. LSU would be about to find stability at that position.

Hoops Gets Close

Finally, Harry Rabenhorst, the baseball and basketball coach since 1926, resigned his position so he could serve in World War II. He was 44 years old when he enlisted. AL Swanson would win an SEC title in baseball in 1943 during his absence, but he would return for a conference championship in in 1946. Dale Morey and Jesse Fatheree would hold the rope for the basketball team.

With Raby away at war, Dale Morey took over the team in 1942-43. He would guide the team to its best season since the 1935 championship. LSU would go on a 10-game SEC road winning streak from 1942-43, a school record at the time which still stands third all-time.

LSU lost out on the regular season title despite going 11-2 in conference play, due to Kentucky’s superior win percentage at 8-1. For reasons passing understanding, Tennessee won the regular season title at 6-3. The Vols would win the SEC tournament, after LSU won its first two games.

Alvin Dark

Alvin Dark, LSU Gumbo 1943

The baseball team won the SEC title in 1943, but you could really see the effects of the war on competition. LSU lost just one conference game, but its out of conference schedule was almost entirely made up of military teams. Those camps teams went 5-1 against LSU, dominating play.

But LSU dominated its college peers, primarily due to the school’s quarterback anchoring the baseball team at shortstop.

The future Rookie of the Year and three-time All-Star accounted for nearly 1000 yards of offense on the 1942 football team, but he truly shined on the baseball diamond. After the 1942-43 academic year, Dark transferred to USL to enter the V-12 program and naval service. He never played for LSU after his freshman year. He would be selected in both the NFL and MLB Drafts, but turned down the Philadelphia Eagles to play for the Boston Braves.

Dark would scrap out a leadoff single in the ninth inning of the 1951 playoffs, sparking the rally that would eventually lead to Bobby Thompson’s famous Shot Heard ‘Round the World. The Giants would lose the World Series to the Yankees, but through no fault of Dark, who went 10-24 with a team-leading 4 RBI.

Let’s be honest, Alvin Dark could charitably described as a red ass. He was an incredibly intense player and an even more intense manager. He feuded with the Giant’s Latin players due to his refusal to learn Spanish (he later expressed regret for this decision) and his task master ways. Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda forgave Dark, and also credited him for making him a better player. Dark played every out as if it was the last one, and he demanded his players do the same. He would win two pennants and eventually the World Series as a manager, heading the 1974 Oakland A’s.

Dark was an ornery motherscratcher, but the man could ball like almost no other. He would top out with 18% of the Hall of Fame vote, and he was easily the greatest LSU baseball player until Skip Bertman showed up to campus.