At the start of 1948, LSU moved tentatively into a new era. After thirteen successful years as the head coach, Bernie Moore moved on to become the SEC commissioner. On top of that, LSU’s glorious recruiting class of 1945 moved on as well, including the already legendary YA Tittle.
Replacing a legendary coach is never an easy task, but LSU entered its search in the worst possible conditions. LSU clearly would take a giant step back in the talent department, and worse yet, the Moore resignation came as a near total surprise. LSU was not only caught flat-footed, it was already February when Moore resigned.
Coming off a 21-6-2 record in the past three seasons, LSU fans expected the school could attract a big name coach. In the world before internet message boards, the public speculated over first-year coaches like Bear Bryant and Bud Wilkinson.
Reality set it pretty quickly, and LSU instead focused on Baylor’s Bob Woodruff. Woodruff was a fine coach, he would win 8 games at Baylor in 1950 before heading to Florida where he would win more than he lost for a decade. But he wasn’t the Bear.
After a clandestine meeting which may or may not have occurred on the banks of the Mississippi River, LSU offered Woodruff the job. Unfortunately, Baylor would not release him from his contract. The bad blood between Woodruff and Baylor only progressed, so much so that he and the AD would eventually resign days apart from one another. The reasons for their rift was never disclosed, though it has been speculated it was over serving the team cold sandwiches. The two publicly made up, and then Woodruff bolted for Florida anyway.
LSU was now in the unenviable position of having offered their safe choice the job, only to not actually hire him. LSU decided to not risk any further embarrassment, and keep the job in the LSU family. LSU offered the head coach position to Bernie Moore assistant and former LSU All-American Gaynell “Gus” Tinsley the job. The Board insisted Tinsley was the first choice all along.
As if losing his entire backfield wasn’t enough, Tinsley also had to deal with an insane schedule put together by AD TP Heard. 1948 opened with two road trips to Texas and Rice, two of the SWC preseason favorites. LSU would also travel to face defending Southern champs UNC in Chapel Hill.
Tinsley was set up to fail in his first season, and fail he did. The 1948 season was an epic trainwreck. It opened with a 33-0 blowout loss to Texas and ended with a 46-0 blowout loss to Tulane. In between, LSU would suffer some of the worst defeats in school history: 34-7 to UNC, 48-7 to Vandy, and 49-19 to Ole Miss. LSU avoided a winless SEC season by beating Alabama, because Tinsley’s tenure would make no f’n sense.
LSU scored only 99 points while allowing 271 points, beating a school record for defensive futility (244) set by Irving Pray in 1922. But Pray had the excuse of being an emergency substitute part-time coach, full-time chemist. He also had the common decency to beat Tulane. Teams have allowed more points, but no team has approached the 1948 record for negative point differential, -172.
The Cinderella Season
The 1949 season started much like the previous year did. LSU faced a daunting schedule, one that even AD TP Heard complained was a Suicide Schedule, and the Tigers opened the year getting drubbed by Bear Bryant’s Kentucky Wildcats 19-0.
Tinsley planned to open up the passing attack against Georgia, but was thwarted by commissioner Moore, showing no favoritism to his former team, suspending receiver Ray Bullock under the new puritanical Sanity Code designed to root out players receiving payments. Without their top receiver, the offense stalled, and LSU lost, 7-0.
But the seeds of the turnaround were there, under the surface. Weeks before, LSU beat Rice 14-7. It would turn out to be Rice’s only loss on the season, as they would go on to win the SWC with a 10-1 record.
After the Georgia loss, LSU hosted #6 UNC, riding high on a 20-game win streak. The Heels had demolished LSU the prior season and everyone pretty much expected the same. But a groundskeeper “accidentally” watered the field after practices on Friday night and then again on Saturday morning. Come game time, the field was drenched, negating UNC’s speed advantage. It hadn’t rained for days, but LSU won a game in the mud, 13-7. The UNC yearbook noted, “On a muddy field in a city where it hadn’t rained in a week, the Tar Heels dropped their first game in 21 appearances.”
You make your own breaks, and LSU rode the momentum the rest of the season, dealing out revenge to the teams that had humiliated them the year prior. LSU dealt beatdowns of at least 20 point margins to Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State. It would all come to a head in New Orleans, in perhaps the most significant LSU-Tulane game ever played.
21-0, Not Just a Prank
Under Henry Frnka, Tulane had its best squad in a decade. The Greenies went 9-1 in 1948, yet somehow missed out on a bowl bid. This team was supposed to be even better, earning a preseason #1 rank from The Sporting News.
But disaster struck when Tulane didn’t just lose to Notre Dame, they got absolutely demolished. The Irish humiliated the Greenies 46-7, leaving no doubt who the actual #1 team in the nation was. Tulane would recover, and other than a tie with Navy, would win out, securing the SEC title with its perfect 5-0 conference record. Tulane even climbed back in the top ten with a win over #9 Virginia. All they needed to do was beat LSU at home to secure a Sugar Bowl birth.
Channeling their inner Irving Pray (let’s see who remembers that story), several enterprising LSU students decided to deface Tulane stadium by predicting a score of 21-0 all over the building.
LSU student Walter Abadie and friends broke into the stadium armed with paint and ice cream salt. They poured the salt on the field to spell L-S-U, but then decided to sign their work with their predicted score, 21-0. Tulane students responded by painting “46-0” in the LSU quad, to remind LSU of last year’s result.
But the pranksters proved prophetic. Inspired by an Ed McKeever pregame speech, LSU came out of the gates fired up. Kenny Konz fielded the first punt of the game right at the 21-0 marking on the field and returned it 92 yards for a touchdown. Konz was a little heralded recruit who went to a school so small that he played Six-Man football in high school. He would become only the second Six-Man player to make the NFL, where he would be a Pro Bowl defensive back for the Cleveland Browns.
Tulane seemed dazed, but neither team could score for the rest of the first half. On LSU’s first play from scrimmage in the second half, Lee Hedges went 65 yards for a touchdown, and the rout was on. Billy Brewer added the final score to secure the 21-0 margin, just like the pranksters said. Konz ended the game with 173 total yards of offense and 3 interceptions.
The Sugar Bowl was skittish about taking a Tulane team that had lost so badly to Notre Dame. According to Hap Glaudi, then the sports editor of the New Orleans Item, and the successor and confidant of Sugar Bowl founder Fred Digby, in George Sweeney’s history of the Tulane football program: “But the Sugar Bowl was backed into a corner. Had Tulane won over LSU, the Greenies would have played Oklahoma instead of LSU.”
Suddenly, LSU’s suicide schedule was a virtue, not an impediment. Heard spent the week before the game lobbying the SEC to waive its rule that a team must finish .750 in conference play to be bowl eligible. Due to LSU’s wins over the champions of the SWC (Rice), Southern (UNC), and SEC (Tulane), LSU was dubbed the Unofficial Dixie Champions. The SEC waived its eligibility rule and LSU snapped the Sugar Bowl bid away from Tulane.
The failure to make a bowl game for a second straight year despite great teams gave Tulane President Rufus Harris the excuse he needed to take an axe to Tulane’s athletic department. Had Tulane beaten LSU, they go to the Sugar Bowl and it is far more difficult to justify de-emphasizing football. But instead, Frnka saw his hands tied as Harris cut his total scholarship count to 75, and required every recruit be in the top half of their high school class.
Simply put, this game was the death knell for Tulane as a competitive program. Tulane’s 46-0 drubbing of LSU in 1948 would be their last win over the Tigers until 1973. Tulane didn’t know it, but they were about to embark on a 0-22-2 stretch against LSU. Frnka still had a few good years left, but Tulane was about to become a cellar dweller before finally leaving the SEC in 1966.
1950 would be the rivalry’s last great hurrah. The teams would fight to a 14-14 draw, but it is now most remembered as the time Tulane stole Mike the Tiger when his cage was left unattended in a New Orleans restaurant parking lot. Yeah, you read that right. We here at ATVS salute you, Norbert James, even if you were banned from LSU’s campus for 50 years.
Spygate Before Spygate
The unfortunate postscript to the Cinderella Season is that the Tigers actually had to play that Sugar Bowl against #2 Oklahoma. LSU was a pretty good team that got the most out of every break. Oklahoma was a legit great team.
”We weren’t really Sugar Bowl material,” Jim Lyle said. “But having won those games, the newspaper picked up on it and kind of railroaded us in. We really had a Cinderella team.”
LSU had never faced any team that played Oklahoma’s split T offense, and they obviously hadn’t scouted the Sooners during the season as no one expected to be going to a bowl game. Tinsley publicly complained to the press that “the Sooners themselves haven’t been any help—their practices have been closely guarded.”
Oklahoma coaches noticed a suspicious figure at one of their practices, who turned out to be former Tiger Piggy Barnes. Barnes evaded capture from his pursuers, seeking refuge at Albert Manuel’s house, another former Tiger.
Barnes would insist for the rest of his life that he was scouting for the Philadelphia Eagles, his NFL team. Which would explain why he was hiding under a blanket and his co-conspirator was another former Tiger. Also, LSU had already played fast and loose with ethical behavior for the UNC game.
Or as Kenny Konz put it, “Yes, it was true about the spying. But we didn’t know about it until after the game. We really didn’t.”
Bud Wilkinson was not amused. He tore into an LSU assistant coach at the Sugar Bowl luncheon at Antoine’s, then refused to shake Gus Tinsley’s hand on the grounds he didn’t shake hands with cheaters. The dust up then devolved into TP Heard and Bud screaming accusations at one another.
The first quarter of the Sugar Bowl was tense, and the teams played to a scoreless draw. Then, Oklahoma opened up the can of whoop ass, taking a 14-0 halftime lead and eventually crushing LSU, 35-0. Wilkinson left in his starters until three minutes left in the game, to rub it in.
We’ll let Konz have the last word on the 1950 Sugar Bowl and the spying controversy, “Whatever he was doing, evidently it didn’t help.”
If you want to watch the lowlights of LSU getting its ass kicked, here you go:
The Sugar Bowl was a bad sign going forward and next season, Cinderella turned back into a pumpkin. The team opened with another shutout loss to Kentucky and stumble to a 1-3-1 start from which they would never really recover. Billy Baggett would set a school single-game rushing record in a blowout win over Ole Miss. His 192-yard game would stand as the LSU record until Terry Robiskie rushed for 214 against Rice in 1976.
LSU had a chance to salvage a .500 record, but tied Tulane and then lost to Texas, 21-6. Both games were on the road. LSU finished the year 4-5-2. The inconsistency that would plague the Tinsley era was in full effect.
You know, when I started writing this entry, I didn’t know how I was going to get a full article out of the Gus Tinsley era. And here we are, 2000 words in and we still have a ways to go. Let’s just call this part one and we’ll get to part two next week.
Program Overview 1948-50
Athletic Director: T.P. Heard
National Titles: Boxing (1949)
Conference Titles: Track (1948), Boxing (1949), Golf (1948)
Programs Added: Boxing (1948)
Facilities Added: None
The coaches start to turn over in 1948. Gus Tinsley, as we’ve already seen, took over the football program in 1948, but he was joined by four other new coaches: Jules Roux (track), Mike Barbato (golf), Jim Owens (boxing), and Dub Robinson (tennis).
Roux would spend one year on the job, win the SEC title, and then hand the position over to Al Moreau in 1949, who would coach LSU track until 1963. Barbato was also about to embark on a successful stewardship of the track program until 1960. Owens, who we’ll get into in more detail in a second, coached boxing for eight seasons, winning a national title. Dub Robinson, however, would beat them all in tenure, coaching until 1975 despite never winning an SEC title.
That’s right, Dub Robinson would coach tennis at LSU for 27 years and not once win the SEC. He would coach one All-American, Steve Faulk in 1970, of the 48 who have gone through the program. The NCAA has held a postseason tournament in tennis since 1946 and LSU has qualified 31 times. Never under Dub Robinson.
He did finish 2nd in the SEC in both 1953 and ‘54 with only one loss in each of those seasons, and again in 1957 and ‘58 with less impressive records. After that, LSU was a consistent middle of the pack finisher, going 189-180-9 on his career. He may be more remembered for his son Johnny, who would play football for LSU and make the NFL Hall of Fame.
Dub Robinson wasn’t a bad coach, but he definitely benefited from living in an era in which a coach at an SEC school could go 500 year in and year out, not compete for titles, and keep his job for nearly three decades. I’m not sure our win-now-or-else modern sensibilities have created a better world. The tennis stadium used to be named in his honor, but the Dub closed in 2015 and has now been converted into the home of LSU’s new varsity Beach Volleyball team. Again, in the name of money and progress. Winning means everything.
Boxing Wins a Title
LSU had put the boxing program in mothballs during World War II, but the sport returned in 1948 with a vengeance. Immediately, LSU became the preeminent boxing program in the south. The 1949 squad would go undefeated in the regular season, earning the right to face South Carolina for the national title. Paced by national champions Pee Wee Moss and Tad Thrash, LSU won its first boxing national title on its home turf, the Parker Coliseum.
Moss competed as a bantamweight in his junior year, but changed to the featherweight division in 1949, where he would absolutely dominate. Moss went 14-1 in his NCAA career, defeating Mac Martinez of San Jose St. for the individual featherweight title. He would become a schoolteacher and eventually the principal of Kenilworth Junior High.
Tad Thrash never lost a collegiate bout in his career. He beat Norm Walker of Idaho for the junior lightweight title in 1949, then beat Andy Quattrocchi in 1950 for his second crown in the same division.
He would serve as the team’s assistant coach after graduation, eventually becoming the head coach in 1956, the final year of the boxing program. The team would go 7-1-1 in its final season, so it wasn’t for lack of skill. LSU was the national runner-up in 1955, Owens’ last season as coach.
Interest in the sport nationally simply collapsed. The eastern schools stopped competing until Syracuse was the only Eastern school still competing. The southern schools shuttered their doors and primarily the smaller western schools took up the sport. In 1960, Wisconsin’s Charlie Mohr died eight hours after participating in the NCAA tournament, dooming boxing as a collegiate sport.
”This will just about do it.” Coach Milton (Dubby) Holt of Idaho State said. “I think college boxing is now finished.”
Henry Elespuru, Sacramento State coach, put it succinctly. “This will kill college boxing,” he said.
They were right. There was never another NCAA boxing champion. LSU had gotten out of the game four years prior to the tragedy.